‘Don’t kid yourself, my dear,” Angela Lansbury scolds down the phone at me from her suite at the Rosewood hotel. (This is a beautiful Edwardian building in central London, only 11 years older than the dame herself, gutted to a bland internationalism by its Texan owners. She has aged better.) “Let me tell you something. Everybody has plastic surgery. I haven’t done it for a number of years, but in the early days — good heavens, yes.”
I mention another famous British actress of Lansbury’s generation, who has always rejected the allegation that she has any familiarity with scalpel or needle.
“Ha! Her? Please! I know her and she’s no fool.” She denies it, I say.
“Well, if she denies it and looks as good as she does, then God bless her.”
I loved Dame Angela instantly, not least from Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the video of which was worn to tissue when we were children; then I remembered she was astonishing in The Manchurian Candidate too. And, of course, she seems to be perpetually on television as Jessica Fletcher in repeats of Murder, She Wrote. Lansbury made millions from that programme which ran for 12 long and exhausting series. By the end she owned the company that produced it.
Best of Angela Lansbury
Last week she became one of the oldest recipients of an Olivier, the most prestigious award in British theatre, when she won best supporting actress for her performance as Madame Arcati, the loopy, heavily laced “clairvoyant” in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.
That had been her first appearance on a London stage in about 40 years and she almost broke down when she accepted what she tells me is a “jewel”: the statuette of “Sir Laurence, whom I had known and worked with”.
Of course she did. She is 89 and says that she has never considered retiring: “As a character actor you need energy. To take on another person’s physical attributes and play them fully needs huge amounts of energy. And I thank God I have that: if I’m not acting, I’m washing the dishes or polishing the floor.”
Where does this longevity come from, I ask.
“I take excruciatingly good care of my body,” she says. “And I don’t burn the candle at both ends” — briefest pause — “except for fun.”
She really is a character actor, too. With most of her older female acting contemporaries, people pay to see the woman: a popular celebrity who plays more or less the same part every time. A scan through Lansbury clips on YouTube shows how different dramatically — which is to say in the application of talent — she is in every role. (The clever, diligent, mischievous Jessica Fletcher, she tells me, was “the only part I ever played myself in”.)
One paradox of this talent is that Lansbury is probably less recognisable than, say, Judi Dench or Maggie Smith. Plus, as someone who knows her says: “She is modest. She said to me once: ‘I don’t think I really mean anything in London any more.’ Well, she came over to do a benefit concert for Aids, walked onstage at the Palladium and 2,200 people leapt to their feet. It showed her that she really did matter.”
In a long and conscientious career, Lansbury doesn’t seem to have taken anything for granted. Her first husband, a thespy Lord Alfred Douglas lookalike named Richard Cromwell, married her when she was 19 and he was 35. He had hoped to distract or convert himself from his homosexuality, but one morning less than a year into their marriage, she came downstairs to find a note: “I’m sorry darling, I can’t go on.” She filed for divorce, but they remained good friends until he died in 1960.
The great union of her life, of course, was with Peter Shaw. Their marriage lasted 53 years. He had been a vastly successful Hollywood agent and producer who abandoned everything to support her. When he died in 2003, Lansbury said it was like a “rift in time” — depression seemed to implode her. Then Emma Thompson rang and offered her a part as the villain Aunt Adelaide in Nanny McPhee and that, she later said, “pulled me out of the abyss”.
“Unquestionably, the hardest time in my life was the early 1970s,” she tells me. “So many disastrous things occurred. Two of our children were heavily involved with drugs.”
Anthony and Deirdre, who were in their teens, were using heroin with a prototypical Rich Kids of Instagram set gadding about the Malibu hills. Deirdre even became involved with the Manson family, the hypnotised harem led by the serial killer, racist and psychopath Charles Manson (now 80 years old and still in jail).
“We just had nothing to keep us in America,” Lansbury says. “So we upped sticks, as they say.”
They moved the family to a house near Cork in southern Ireland, where she and Peter rescued the children from their chaotic lives.
“They learnt things that they never would have had the opportunity to get into back in California,” she says.
“[They learnt] how to cook and garden. They got jobs as waiters and learnt what it’s like to earn a bit of a living — not that they had to.”
It worked: the children, now in their sixties, work respectively in the cinema and as a restaurateur. Lansbury, who says that her “homestead” is Los Angeles, seems genuinely thrilled to tell me the precise date of her granddaughter’s wedding in New York later this year.
Our time is up. “Sorry we had to do this under such hurried circumstances but you’ve dealt with it all terribly well,” she says.
“I’ll try and do my part now too for the rest of the day. That’s all I can hope to do, really — just keep up my end.”