Is Angela Lansbury Britain's most successful actress ever?

Star of 'Murder She Wrote' tells Andrew Johnson it's great to be in the limelight once again at 84
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The Independent Culture

To millions in Britain, she is the American queen of daytime television: Jessica Fletcher, amateur sleuth of a certain age in Murder, She Wrote. In America, though, Angela Lansbury, at 84, is the British queen of Hollywood and Broadway.

Elizabeth Taylor – with whom Lansbury co-starred in 1944's National Velvet – has a claim to the title of greatest British female acting export. But Lansbury, who is nominated tonight for what would be a record-breaking seventh Tony Award, is the greater success. She has more film and TV credits than Taylor, is still working – currently treading the boards eight times a week along with fellow Brit Catherine Zeta-Jones in the musical revival of Sondheim's A Little Night Music on Broadway – and has played everything from the evil Mrs Iselin opposite Frank Sinatra in the 1962 thriller The Manchurian Candidate to a prim English witch in 1971's Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

Despite her skill as an actress – she has had three Oscar nominations – the plum starring roles have eluded her. But she believes this has actually helped her career.

"I guess I didn't play the game the way some people learn to play the game to get attention; to hire press agents; to put themselves about, and publicise themselves in a way that they became household names," she said from her New York home.

"I don't think that would have been possible for me. I was always a bit of an unknown quantity. You never knew where I was going to turn up next. The closest I came to enjoying universal fame was in Murder, She Wrote, and also on Broadway. Broadway fame is built on the principle of the person having the talent to act in such a way as to attract audiences. I knew that I didn't have the excruciating good looks of a big movie star, but I did know that I had the chops of an actress. And it was proven, thank God, over and over by great directors hiring me to interpret their plays. I was always confident in what I could do and the success I could achieve. There's no end to the career you can have in the theatre and that has been the mainstay of my theatrical life."

Lansbury was born in London and grew up in Hampstead where she was educated at South Hampstead School for Girls. Her grandfather was the Labour leader George Lansbury, her father a former mayor of Poplar and her mother an actress. Politics never attracted her, however. "I'm not clever enough to be a politician, to be frank," she said.

Her mother emigrated to America when Lansbury was in her early teens but she retains traditional British politeness. "I've never stopped feeling British," she said. "It's extraordinary. I'm as American as most Americans are. We've all come from somewhere else. I'm an immigrant and therefore I have retained a great deal of my Englishness in the way I conduct my life and in my work ethic."

Despite her numerous film credits, it is a role she took when she was 59 that made her internationally famous. She was nominated for an Emmy award for each of the 12 years Murder, She Wrote ran between 1984 and 1996, without ever winning.

Tonight she will go head to head with Zeta-Jones – who matched Lansbury's 1994 CBE in yesterday's Queen's Birthday Honours – for the best actress in a musical accolade at the Tonys, America's biggest theatrical award, for her role as Madame Armfeldt.

"You never take these events in your stride," she said of the awards. "After all, it's a test and you don't know whether you have a chance. You think maybe you do. You're not looking for it, but it's wonderful to be nominated. It would be incredible to have the record.

"But when you're appearing in a show that's written by Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim and directed by Sir Trevor Nunn, the chances are you're going to get noticed. It was an offer I couldn't refuse in the first place. I hadn't expected to come back to Broadway in a musical. But this is a very rare piece of theatrical material.

"Catherine and I will be holding hands on the night, keeping our fingers crossed."

The Tonys': Brits vs Americans

John Logan vs Alan Ayckbourn

Everything about this production of Red, a play about the artist Mark Rothko which is nominated for seven Tonys including best play, is British. Except for its author, John Logan, who is American. Ayckbourn, up for a lifetime achievement award, is Britain's sole playwriting representative.

Adam Cork and Lucy Prebble vs Branford Marsalis

Prebble wrote the London hit Enron, which received a more mixed reception in New York. She's nominated for the best music and lyrics for the show's songs, however. But can she see off jazz legend Branford Marsalis, nominated for his music for Fences?

Jude Law vs Denzel Washington and Christopher Walken

Actors on their uppers have found Broadway to be as good a comeback road as any. Jude Law's rave reviews for Hamlet have earned him a best actor nomination. Hollywood's other fallen stars, Denzel Washington and Christopher Walken for Fences and A Behanding in Spokane, respectively, offer formidable competition.

Alfred Molina vs Liev Schreiber

Molina is a Brit journeyman actor with roles in Spider-Man 2, The Da Vinci Code and An Education. He's also up for best actor too for his role as Rothko in Red. Liev Schreiber is a Yank journeyman with roles in X-Men movies, and is up for his part as Eddie Carbone in Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge.

Kelsey Grammer vs Douglas Hodge

Grammer can star in anything, but he'll never shake off the TV character of the neurotic shrink Frasier. His post-sitcom career has faltered, predictably, but he's back with this nomination for best actor in a musical for La Cage aux Folles. As is relatively unknown Brit stage actor, Douglas Hodge.

Angela Lansbury vs Catherine Zeta-Jones

Strictly speaking this is Brit vs Brit, but Lansbury, 84, has lived in the US since she was a teenager. The veteran stage and screen actress is nominated for a possible record-breaking seventh Tony for A Little Night Music. Welsh beauty Zeta-Jones is up against her for her part as Desiree in the same show.

Rosemary Harris vs Scarlett Johansson

Harris, 82, is another veteran British actress, up for her part in this revival of the 1928 comedy The Royal Family. Johansson is the Hollywood starlet from New York noted for her quirky film choices. She is nominated for best actress in a play for A View from the Bridge.

Michael Grandage vs Gregory Mosher

Grandage is the grand young(ish) man of British theatre following a hit-packed decade at the Donmar Warehouse. He's up for best director for Red while Gregory Mosher is against him for A View from the Bridge.