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Maggie Smith, the prickly Downton Abbey countess

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British actress Dame Maggie Smith at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City in 2005. afp

Maggie Smith, the prickly Downton Abbey countess

Legendary actress Dame Maggie Smith is a British treasure in film and theatre but she is best known on the world’s stage for her role in the TV series Downton Abbey, whose film adaptation premiers in London on Monday.

Smith, 84, has won global affection for her portrayal of the acid-tongued yet endearing Dowager Countess Lady Violet in the period drama, which has screened in over 100 countries.

But for more than half a century, Smith has excelled in whatever she turned her hand to, winning a clutch of awards including two Oscars, and coming to personify a particular kind of English eccentricity.

She has played numerous characters from Mother Superior in Sister Act (1992) to a professor of metamorphosis in the Harry Potter films saga.

However, since playing the Countess of Grantham, Lady Violet Crawley, in Downton Abbey she says she cannot go out without being recognised.

“It’s ridiculous – I led a perfectly normal life until Downton Abbey,” she told the British Film Institute in April, 2017.

“I would go to theatres, I would go to galleries and things like that on my own. And now I can’t.”

Smith has played the ruthless aristocrat in all six seasons of the show, created by screenwriter Julian Fellowes in 2010, winning a Golden Globe and three Emmy awards.

After initially declining to act in the big screen adaptation of the series, Smith eventually agreed to appear in the film, which goes on general release in Britain on Friday and in US and European cinemas later this month.

Snooty schoolteacher

Born on December 28, 1934, the daughter of an Oxford professor of pathology, Smith made her stage debut in 1952 with the Oxford University Dramatic Society.

After a string of stage successes in London’s West End and on Broadway, she famously appeared opposite Laurence Olivier in an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello in 1959.

This led to her joining Olivier’s celebrated 1960s National Theatre company where she earned critical acclaim alongside her husband, the actor Robert Stephens.

By the end of the decade Smith’s film career had taken off, winning the best actress Academy Award in 1969 for her unforgettable portrayal of a snooty, unorthodox Edinburgh schoolteacher in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

She also picked up a best supporting actress award in 1978 for California Suite and in all has been Oscar-nominated six times.

Smith’s marriage to heavy-drinking Stephens, with whom she had two sons, collapsed in 1973 and they divorced two years later.

She remarried shortly after to the screenwriter Beverley Cross, who died in 1998.

Smith was made a Dame of the British Empire in recognition of her work in 1990 and, besides receiving the top honours, has won many other stage and screen awards in both Britain and the US.

‘Energy and curiosity’

Smith is widely considered an actress with the rare ability to turn a cameo role into a central feature of a film.

She “can capture in a single moment more than many actors can convey in an entire film”, said the acclaimed director Nicholas Hytner after working with her on The Lady in the Van (2015).

“She can be vulnerable, fierce, bleak and hilarious simultaneously, and she brings to the set each day the energy and curiosity of a young actor who’s just started out.”

However, Smith can leave some feeling overawed.

“It’s true I don’t tolerate fools but then they don’t tolerate me, so I am spiky,” she told the Guardian newspaper in 2014.

“Maybe that’s why I’m quite good at playing spiky elderly ladies.”

Perhaps the best example was 2001’s Gosford Park – also written by Fellowes – in which Smith played the snobbish and frightful Lady Constance, the Countess of Trentham, with aplomb.

Smith is also credited for her tenacity to her craft.

The actress has suffered from Graves’ disease, a manageable thyroid condition causing tiredness, weight loss and heart flutter that affects a tiny proportion of individuals in the western world.

She survived a breast cancer diagnosis in 2007 and filmed Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince two years later whilst enduring chemotherapy treatment.

“I was hairless. I had no problem getting the wig on – I was like a boiled egg,” she told the Times newspaper.


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