Maggie Smith: A Biography

In many ways this is not so much a biography of Maggie Smith as it is a catalogue raisonné of her work.

There is certainly enough information here about Maggie Smith’s personal background and her private life and developments in it to give one an impression of the private-life compulsions and contexts of her career: Coveney is good at presenting the facts. But there is no real analysis of her emotional life or her motivations, no revelation of deeper aspects of her character. What is taken as a given is her drive as an actress, her commitment to her career, and the brilliant innate comic timing that is the source both of her abilities as a dazzling comedienne and tragedienne. The interest of the text is entirely in the way that Maggie Smith’s astonishing career developed from play to play to film to play to television and back again.

In other words, if you are looking for a biography of the type that makes you feel you have learned to know Maggie Smith personally, this is not the book for you. However, if you are a fan of Smith’s, and especially if you have been following her career for a good number of years, this book is a completely satisfying reminder of what she did, when she did it, and with what colleagues, etc. It is, effectively, a list of her work from the very beginning with intelligent and sometimes provocative commentary by a critic who has clearly followed that career for a long time.

Indeed, the personal life is dealt with so superficially that I am wondering why this book was not simply turned into a coffee table tome with lots of photographic illustrations and long captions. It would work well that way. The book did make me wish that we could access her old TV shows, the black and white broadcast of her Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, her Hedda Gabler. It did remind me that she and Robert Stephens were the stellar couple of almost a decade and why they were perceived as the new Lunt and Fontanne or even Olivier and Leigh. It is particularly good to have Smith’s time in Canada at Ontario’s Stratford-on-Avon dealt with in such detail. It is also very interesting to get more of a sense of her relationship with husband Beverley Cross, the history of that relationship, and his importance in not only her private but also her professional life.

Yet the overall impact of this biography for me was really of a very detailed, Sunday Supplement reminder of Smith’s achievements with hints of some of her life’s difficulties thrown in. It is very straightforward and linear in developing her story and at times rather plodding. Do you came away any the wiser about who Dame Maggie Smith is as a private person? Not really, though you do get a few interesting hints. Do you come away with a fine sense of all her achievements, all the way back to when she was a teenager in Oxford? Absolutely!

So if you are a Maggie Smith fan, especially one who has seen her in many of these plays, you will find this book an extremely helpful memory jogger and/or a fine reference book. If you are a younger fan who mainly knows her from Downton Abbey, you will be enlightened about her varied career and development as an actress over decades. If you are a historian of theatre and film over the past several decades, it will also be helpful to read this biography. The book is full of considered, critical opinions about most of her roles; and also the work of people like Robert Stephens, her first husband, and what happened to him in so far as it obviously is of relevance to Smith. Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Olivier, Peter Hall, and a host of other important theatre and film people are referenced throughout. The writing style is direct and easy to digest; the opinions are solid, sometimes thought-provoking and invariably interesting; and, as I keep saying, this is a very reliable listing, with critical commentary, of most of the work that Maggie Smith has done in her time up until now. You also will come away confirmed in your impressions of the magnificence and wide ranging achievements of Smith as an actor. But Maggie Smith the person remains a veiled, somewhat hidden personality.

I personally am happy to have this book as a memory prod for all the brilliant performances I did see Maggie Smith give in live theatre over the years; and even as a reminder of the context in theatre or film in which she was working at any given time. But as a biography of the person, this is a rather limited approach; unless, of course, you accept that this person is, after all, mainly about her work. As biography, I would only give this two stars; but as a catalogue of the work of one of our most important performers internationally of the past fifty years and more, I would give it four or even five.