Anna Massey: She knows she is right

Anna Massey is bewitching TV viewers as the redoubtable Aunt Stanbury in Trollope's He Knew He Was Right. And as John Walsh discovers, she is no less outspoken in the flesh
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This Sunday, BBC television bids farewell to a monstre sacré - or rather, to one of those huge performances that surface every few years like a kraken, and gets talked about by everyone in the telly-watching nation. The monster in question is Aunt Jemima Stanbury, a minor character in the BBC's adaptation of Anthony Trollope's 1869 novel He Knew He Was Right, about a young husband who becomes insanely jealous of his wife's supposed affair with a caddish colonel. That is, she starts out as a minor character, but, being played by Anna Massey, turns into something else altogether.

Anna Massey is a woman who has acted more than her fair share of mad aunts, maiden aunts, plain friends and spinsters of the parish. Wherever a script has called for scrawny and pale, etiolated and prim, disappointed and doomed to a life in beige cardigans, casting directors have asked, "Is Anna Massey free?". It's a tough break for a lady who always wanted to look like Audrey Hepburn, but it has been her fortune. The combination of cool intelligence and passed-over melancholy that she radiates is irresistible. So is her voice - a hyper-precise, labial cooing that has made her the reader of choice on audiobooks.

"How did I avoid making Aunt Jemima simply grotesque?" she says. "I just followed Trollope. He gives you the character as the book progresses. First, you have the crotchety old aunt who says, 'You're not going to have my money', and we've seen her before. Dickens is full of women like that. But gradually, you realise that she's far more multi-layered. She's a woman who can admit her faults, and can bestow great kindness. You only learn later that she was once in love with a rich man, how their engagement broke off because of her fiery temper. You can tell there's a young girl inside her. I think however old and blind and prune-like one may look, the spirit that goes on inside you stays young and flirtatious..."

Ms Massey, at 66, could be talking about herself, except that she's far from old and blind (as for the prune, I think she's closer to a kumquat, being small, thick-skinned and slightly exotic). In the flesh, at her house in Shepherd's Bush, west London, she's built like a pixie, her platinum hair is cut in a becoming pageboy bob, and her every movement is meticulously choreographed. Her house is psychotically tidy, the living-room a symphony of white and wood, the only colour being two photographs, of her brother Daniel, the actor (who died in 1998), and her grandson Dan (born 2002).

Had it been a giant leap to become Miss Stanbury - so severe, so fussy, so hard on artifice? "Well, no, actually. She's not a million miles away from what I am," says Massey with a tinkling laugh. "I don't like artifice either. The poor girls to whom she objects, who wear hairpieces, they're the 1860s equivalent of girls with Botox injections, aren't they? I can't see why people want to do that. To me, the most interesting thing about a person's face is the journey it expresses. It's sad to conceal that."

To get into the character, she was helped by the memory of a legendary friend, Celia Johnson, doyenne of sad-eyed British actresses, who directed her in a West End play. "She once told me that whenever she was in trouble with a play, she'd work out how the character would walk. And Jemima walks everywhere, to deliver her letters in the only post box she trusts. I imagined an extremely purposeful stride. I could see her walking with speed and precision, always talking at the same time."

How did she psych herself up for a dramatic row? How do you go ballistic in a bombazine gown and a mob-cap? "You just allow yourself to be made terribly angry," says Massey, equably. "I've had feelings like that myself, when you suddenly feel that someone's gone too far [her eyes blaze with affrontedness], I mean, come on [her eyes are like saucers - this is getting scary].

Ms Massey does not so much as blink to acknowledge that she has suddenly turned into Aunt Stanbury. Unlike most actresses you meet, who will talk in windy abstractions about their art, Anna talks in stories - who the character is, what her life was like before, where she's headed. She has been acting since she was a child. Born in 1937, her father was Raymond Massey, the Canadian actor best known here as Dr Gillespie in the TV series Dr Kildare, and her mother Adrienne Allen, an actress and socialite, but her parents divorced when she was one, and she rarely saw her father: "It was a strain, made more difficult by the fact that my stepfather had been married to my stepmother. So it was Private Lives..."

Everyone assumed that she would follow her parents on to the stage, so her education didn't extend beyond five O-levels. It evidently still bothers this clever woman that she wasn't intellectually stretched as a child. "I left school at 15 and was brought up by friends telling me what to read. I'm always saying that I should have gone to university but I probably wouldn't have got in at the time. I was so badly educated, there was no bloody hope."

I wondered if her voice came from her mother, and was an authentic echo of stage-school English delivery circa 1940. Ms Massey quickly disabuses me. She never went to stage school. And: "My mother was Mancunian. My grandmother spoke with a strong North Country accent. My nanny was from Bedfordshire, though if somebody a bit grand came into the room, she'd go a bit posh. My dad was Canadian. I went to a diplomatic school, where there was every known nationality. So where the voice comes from, I have not a clue."

I ask if she could do an impression of her mother's acting voice. "Now you ask, I can't remember how she sounded at all, even trying to imagine her saying, 'Hello, darling'..." As for her father, "He stammered rather badly, unless he was acting. He stammered at emotional moments. Once he tried to tell me he loved me, and just couldn't because the stammer was so bad. It went on for so long, I offered him a scone in the middle. I couldn't prompt him. I couldn't say, 'You... love... me' - it's not a line you can prompt somebody with..."

Anna Massey was a success from her teens. She made her stage debut at 17, in The Reluctant Debutante, in 1955, playing the lead, said the critics, with "nice down-to-earth determination". She made her film debut in 1958, with Gideon's Day, directed by her godfather, John Ford, and starred as the murderous cameraman's girlfriend in Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, the most notorious movie of its day (1960). Forty years of unbroken work on big and small screen followed.

But dysfunctionalism seemed to be in the Massey genes. At 20, she married Jeremy Brett (later to be Sherlock Holmes on TV), but they split up four years later. "Actors marrying each other is not a good idea," Anna later said, drily. She brought back her old nanny to help her bring up her son David, but she died in 1965 and the actress's russet locks turned white overnight. Her self-confidence fled, she developed stage-fright and went into analysis to find a cure, or reason, for it. She stayed there 12 years. Meanwhile, she resigned herself to a solitary life in a rented flat, and threw herself into her career, which flourished.

She was directed by Alfred Hitchcock in Frenzy in 1972 ("He was the most ironical man I ever met.) She was in The Pallisers, and The School for Scandal, and played Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest, and a truly frightening Mrs Danvers in a notable TV Rebecca. All the time, she was unknowingly playing the part of an Anita Brookner heroine (though a divorcée, not a spinster), and when she played the lead in Hôtel du Lac, in 1986, it seemed perfect casting, and won her a Bafta. But a 27-year romance drought came to an end two years later, when she met a Russian inventor and scientist called Uri Andres at a dinner party, and married him in just three months.

While offers continue to roll in for Massey to play more bittersweet saddies and acidulous baggages on TV, it would take a lot to get her back on the stage. "I don't like it. It means you don't have any time for home life. It's fine it you live alone - as Coral Browne used to say, it gives you something to do in the evenings. But I've got plenty to do in the evenings."

At which, Massey ushers you off the premises with a louche little smile. She's not a bit like a dragon aunt. More like your big sister, lately woken up to wickedness.