The Marvellous Maggie Smith

Channel 5

Maggie Smith Credit: Alamy

As the song has it, “There is Nothin’ like a Dame”. This 90-minute-long Channel 5 celebration of the life and work of Dame Maggie Smith proves that maxim.

Perhaps inevitably, it has a populist tinge, opening proceedings by reminding viewers that the 87-year-old Dame has enjoyed spectacular fame far beyond the normal retirement age first in the Harry Potter film series and then TV’s Downton Abbey.

Thereafter, highlights of her life are related in a linear fashion and identified in photos and clips held together by a narrative delivered by Hugh Bonneville.

Some of her admirers seem to have little connection with the lady herself, but there is clearly great affection from many contributors. These include biographer Michael Coveney, an admirer from schooldays and later collaborator Miriam Margolyes, plus other working colleagues such as Samantha Bond, Simon Callow and Julian Fellowes.

Despite its length and breadth, Maggie’s stage career tends to be skated over, although viewers may be particularly taken by anecdotes from her upstaging days at the inception of the National Theatre, including being knocked out by Laurence Olivier while playing Desdemona, and knocked out in a different manner by rabble-rousing Robert Stephens, who subsequently became her first husband.

When that marriage went sour, she changed career path, heading to Stratford Festival, Ontario for a four-year stint joined by Stephens’s quieter successor in the marital stakes, Beverley Cross.

Fame and fortune were always likely to come from screen work, and the initial breakthrough arrived with the title role in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

If that seemed big, then the move to work for Disney in Hollywood on Sister Act took her into a different league.

Despite Hollywood success, Maggie’s trademark sardonic humour probably always worked best in a British environment, exemplified by her wonderful partnership with Alan Bennett. This lengthy collaboration started with A Private Function, developed in an unforgettable episode of his Talking Heads and culminated portraying the dirty, grungy anti-heroine of The Lady in the Van.

Much of the story will seem familiar to those who have followed this great actress’s career, even at some distance. However, there are odd nuggets that prove revelatory, for example not only a warm friendship with Kenneth Williams but his influence on her acting.

There is a lacuna at the centre of this programme, put into context by various friends who explain that the subject is a very private person.

Although there are brief clips from a handful of ageing TV interviews, this show is built entirely on biographical detail supplemented by commentary delivered by friends and admirers rather than Dame Maggie Smith herself, which is a pity.

Subject to that reservation, The Marvellous Maggie Smith proves to be an enjoyable memoir of one of the acting greats of the last 65 years.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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