Yof the criterion is grandness and grandness alone, then the grandest dame of them all was someone like Dame Edith Sitwell, the poet, who back in the 1950s, at the height of her grandness, would intimidate her enemies by regarding them through a pair of lorgnettes. These days, it’s a term generally reserved for elderly female actors – hearty, salty, imperious. Americans can do it, of course – Elaine Stritch, so very great, so very grand – but may struggle to ascend to the highest reaches of haughtiness achieved by a Dame Maggie Smith or a Dame Edith Evans. You can be a national treasure, meanwhile, without being a grande dame (fight me on this, but I’d say Dame Judi falls into this category). Which brings us to Dame Angela Lansbury.
On Tuesday, news broke of her death aged 96, triggering an outpouring of affection and sadness for a cherished figure and one of the last of her generation of performers. Mind-bogglingly, Lansbury started her career in 1944 after moving to the US from Britain during the blitz and landing a role, as a teenager, alongside Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet (1944). That same year, she appeared in the movie Gaslight, with Joseph Cotton and Ingrid Bergman. She was around for the heyday of MGM musicals – I remember as a child seeing her on TV in the 1946 movie The Harvey Girls, alongside Judy Garland, and finding it impossible to connect her with the character from Murder, She Wrote. By the time she played the teapot in Beauty and the Beast in 1991 – at a mere 66 – her longevity of her alone had already made her beloved.
In the US, where Lansbury remained after emigrating, she was both national treasure and grande dame. It feels churlish to say this, but as a musical performer, she was never quite my cup of tea. I saw her on Broadway in 2009 in a production of A Little Night Music, co-starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, who did a quite frightening rendition of Send in the Clowns. Lansbury as Madame Armfeldt was a terrible old ham, yukking it up for an audience besides itself at the miracle of her being alive. I was immune to her from her Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd. Her cameo from her at the end of the movie Mary Poppins Returns, meanwhile, was the absolute bloody kitchen sink in that mess of a movie. On the other hand, I loved her in Murder, She Wrote.
I’m not sure what this is. Perhaps something to do with TV being able to absorb greater levels of camp than musical theatre. This seems counterintuitive, I know; Broadway is supposed to be the ground zero of camp, except it isn’t, not really. The material in a musical is so florid to begin with, the performances have to be very tightly controlled to remain credible. There is a fine line in a musical between thrilling theatricality and everything going Jack Sparrow.
For me, in her theater roles, Lansbury had too much self-awareness. There was an archness to her performances by her that seemed to wink at the audience and suggest, well, this business of singing and acting is faintly ridiculous, after all – and of course, when you play it like that, so it is. As Jessica Fletcher, however, she totally convinced me. I liked her as the teapot. Given her de ella god love ‘er status de ella, it’s a miracle she dodged being cast as a batty old dame in the endless current remakes of Poirot, but it’s possible I may have liked her in those de ella.
Who is left? Give me Julie Andrews (87). Give me Eileen Atkins (88). Give me Joan Plowright (92). Bassey! I’m putting Dame Shirley (85) on the list, as you must. Anyone who sings I Who Have Nothing draped head to toe in mink and covered in diamonds deserves, possibly, the crown of grandest of them all. Perhaps that was my problem with Lansbury. Never fully a leading lady in Hollywood, or quite a doyenne of the theater, she seemed modest, likable, approachable. Ella not a grande dame of the first rank, perhaps, but something warmer and friendlier, whose loss may be more keenly felt.