Angela Lansbury: retire, she won’t

After nearly 300 episodes of ‘Murder, She Wrote’ and seven decades on stage and screen, Angela Lansbury talks about her latest role, the joys of Barry’s Tea and why she escapes to East Cork

Sat, Feb 1, 2014, 01:00

Today, the theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue in London, near Cambridge Circus, is named after legendary actor John Gielgud. However, it was known as the Globe back in 1918, when Belfast girl Charlotte Lillian McIldowie made her first West End appearance. She triumphed. Nearly 100 years on, her daughter, Angela Lansbury sits on stage early one morning, discussing her own seven-decades-long career, the secrets of survival . . . and the joys of Barry’s Tea. “I already feel welcome in this house. It is an extraordinary experience to be in a theatre that my mother made her debut in. I don’t know what year it was – 1918, I think,” she says. “It is rather interesting that I find myself here so many years later.”

To many people, Lansbury is known simply as Jessica Fletcher, the leading character in Murder, She Wrote, a slightly-twee television series about a New England detective-writer, but one that is one of the most successful ever made – with nearly 300 episodes.

Now 88, the London-born Lansbury, dressed in dark blue and wearing a long gold necklace that accentuates her pale, near-translucent skin, is returning to the London stage in March, for the first time in 40 years. Since the 1970s, Lansbury has had a home near Ballycotton in east Cork, a place that was a refuge at first and, later, one where she was acknowledged, but left unbothered by locals. Over the years, Lansbury has been grateful for it.

Angela Lansbury performing at the Oscars in 1959

She first went there in the early 1970s after two of her children ran into trouble. Her son Anthony was struggling to quit a cocaine habit. Her daughter Deirdre, meanwhile, had become part of Charles Manson’s quasi-commune in California, before it descended into murderous rage.

“I am very, very comfortable there, I find it an extraordinarily warm, informal place to live. I am left alone there. On the street, people say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ I say, ‘I’m grand, how are you?’ It is a very secure place to be. I love Ireland for that reason,” she declares.

Once described by her biographer, Martin Gottfried, as a woman “with a profound sense of privacy”, Lansbury – curiously enough – is the one who raises her children’s difficulties, during a response to a question about how she has stayed successful for so long. “It is a juggling act, really. Juggling marriage, children and all of the accompanying events that arise during a marriage of 53 years: children who had problems with drugs in their youth. All of these things contribute to building the person that you become and they become.

“I think it is a question of facing up to certain aspects of family life that have to be dealt with. Yes, I mean I certainly had them. It is one of the reasons that I moved to Ireland in the 1970s,” she says. “It was no good me giving up working. That wasn’t going to solve anything.

“I was unable to help my kids at one point, so I pulled them out of where they were and put them in a safe place and that was the most that I could do at that time. Because I had no other recourse.” Ever since, Ballycotton, in her mind, means “safe”.

“We didn’t have the help, didn’t have the places that troubled youngsters could go to as we have today, thank God, to help with addiction and get off drugs . In those days it was a big problem. It was a very difficult time in my life, no different from any mother.”

This year marks the 70th anniversary of Lansbury’s first success in Gaslight, the 1944 mystery-thriller starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer: “It [was] a very beautifully-made and elegant movie,” she recalls. “As a young actress this was an enormous break. It was followed by two lovely films, National Velvet, with Elizabeth Taylor and then after that, The Picture of Dorian Gray. They were three classics, still on to this day.

“They were followed, unfortunately, by an absolute string of the most awful films that one could ever imagine. I was an unknown quantity for MGM, so they cast me in anything and everything. I really wasted about eight years,” she says with a chuckle.

Leaving Hollywood behind, Lansbury moved to the stage: “Once I got my feet back into the door of a legitimate theatre I realised that the theatre was where I was most comfortable. And, from there on, I drifted back to it constantly.”

However, Hollywood was never fully removed from the picture. In 1962, she co-starred in The Manchurian Candidate, playing Mrs Iselin, a Communist agent who controls Raymond, the brainwashed, unwitting assassin.

“[That] was an enormous success. I was nominated for an Academy Award which was wonderful, but, thereafter, I just sort of said goodbye to the movies and went to Broadway and became a musical comedy actress, because I had a voice,” she remembers. “People always say, was I a very ambitious actress? And I wasn’t. I did what was handed to me. And things were handed to me right, left and centre, which was extraordinary. I developed my voice, which I really never had done before.

“I made a great hit, as they say, in a musical comedy called Mame, which ran for two years on Broadway. I stayed with Broadway for about eight years. After that, well, I could go on, but I don’t want to go on with an endless story.”

Much interest centres on Lansbury’s “coming home”, even though she and her siblings were taken by her mother to the US during the Blitz – partly to flee a domineering husband, not just Hitler’s bombs.

“Of course, it feels like coming home. I was born and brought up here in England,” she says, “So, I have been back, but not for 40 years. I can’t believe it is 40 years. It doesn’t seem that way to me.

“Life has been marvellous, it has been an extraordinarily interesting and varied career that has taken me all over the world and I have got to play with some of the great actors of my generation. And it is still going strong,” she tells me. “I run a real English household, I tell you. I love everything English. I still have the cans of sardines, I really do. I am a bit Irish, too because of my Mum.”

Lansbury will play Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit from March 1st. These days, a successful film actor is often needed to guarantee the finances of West End shows: Jude Law and David Tennant are currently there in starring roles, while The Queen, starring Helen Mirren, sold out within minutes.

In London, many of the younger audience that go to see Blithe Spirit will do so because she was Jessica Fletcher, rather than because she starred with Bergman, Sinatra, or a host of other actors capable of being recognised by their surnames only.

“Unquestionably, there is no doubt about that,” she says. “A great proportion of the youngsters who came to see the play in New York, who came from Europe, who came from all over the world, came to see me because they had seen me in Murder, She Wrote. They knew me as Jessica Fletcher.”

Lansbury was canny enough to own the rights to the series which, at the height of its popularity, had 23 million viewers in the US alone. “It was a bit of a shocker, I’m sure, but they seemed to enjoy it.”

Seventy years on, Lansbury remains hungry for the stage. Her part in Blithe Spirit is “one of the best parts that I have ever had” in the theatre: “Honestly. That is really the prime reason that I am here. I think it an extraordinary character.

“I love getting out on stage every night to do it. If you are that happy in a role you want to repeat it, and what better place to repeat it than London: the place of its origins and my origins?” she declares.

“So I am a mixture of Irish, English, Scottish: all of that is very close to my heart. I drink very strong tea. You can’t get it in London. I’ll have to get some Barry’s, but I don’t know where.” In a spirit of helpfulness, a suggestion is made, along with a quick telephone call to the Cork-based Barry’s Tea. “That’s good of you,” she replies.

Supplies were quickly despatched. Strong tea is back on the menu.

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