No regrets, Dame Maggie: film and TV are the better for you

Missing out on theatre might be painful, but she chose the right path

Share
Related Topics

The most affecting moment at last Sunday’s Evening Standard Theatre Awards was the speech from Dame Maggie Smith when she received a special “icon” award. Dame Maggie is so rarely glimpsed anywhere outside the world of Downton, and virtually never graces awards ceremonies, so all of us there hung on her every word. And they weren’t the words we were expecting.

Close to tears and in a tone full of regret, she said how she felt she had not done enough theatre and now wished she had done more. “I’m very sad because I haven’t done anything in theatre to justify this. I wish I had… I’d love to do more.” Backstage afterwards she had recovered her famously disconcerting humour to add: “I would love to do more theatre work but really, I don’t get any offers. If you could help me put the word out, maybe that would help! Maybe you could put an advert in for me.”

It’s true that it is quite a while since she has been seen on stage. And surrounded by theatre folk as she was on Sunday night it’s not surprising that she was suddenly filled with remorse at the prolonged absence.

But, much as those theatre folk might not like to hear it, in choosing to prioritise film and TV in her middle and later years, Maggie Smith has done the right thing. They are the route to acting immortality (as well of course as a much healthier bank account). 

Like it or not, only by embracing popular culture, of which theatre still remains on the periphery, does a fine stage actor gain a mass audience and the immortality that follows. The downside is that that mass audience can think the actor only ever existed in film and TV. The way actor deaths are reported usually betray this, most notably and depressingly when Sir John Gielgud, one of the greatest stage actors of all time, died and many of the headlines mourned the passing of the butler in the Hollywood movie Arthur.

So, those of us who are passionate about theatre may find it hard to imagine that present day stage titans like Mark Rylance and Simon Russell-Beale will be forgotten, but with little screen work to their names, the possibility is that in 50 years they will be.

I’d still say that Dame Maggie, her immortality guaranteed, could and should return to the stage, not least to the National Theatre where, incredibly, she hasn’t acted in a play for decades. But that’s not to imply that she made any wrong career decisions. Despite her momentary and undoubtedly sincere voicing of regret the other night, she did the right thing and future generations will be able to appreciate her remarkable talent because of the choices she has made.

Silence in the mosh pit

A reader, Kevin Sloane, has written to me to say he is a music fan in its widest sense and goes to rock gigs and opera. He finds that increasingly at rock gigs there is a constant chatter from fans and a relentless stream of people pushing past him to get to the bar. He also recounts that when during a quieter number he asked some people to stop talking, he was roundly sworn at. At the English National Opera on the other hand he can hear a pin drop. It’s a tricky one. The experiences of rock and opera are, of course, different. One often likes to watch a gig with a bottle of beer in hand. Nevertheless, I do have some sympathy with Mr Sloane’s point. I just won’t be as brave as him in asking those around me to stop talking, as I know where that bottle of beer will end up.

That way please, ladies (and gents)

I’ve argued that those in high positions in the arts should spend some time at the interface with the public to see what the real concerns of audiences are. But I didn’t expect anyone to take this as literally as the indomitable West End theatre owner and producer Nica Burns. She tells me that during the interval at one performance at the Palace Theatre she stood outside the ladies loo directing women to other ladies toilets she had newly opened and generally helping them beat the queues – indeed she and they took great pleasure in finding that it was, unusually, only the men who were queuing. Let’s see more venue owners doing this. For Ms Burns it had the bonus, as she recounts, that “I can now say I have been a toilet attendant at the Palace.”

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
RIP Voicemail?  

Voicemail has got me out of some tight corners, so let's not abandon it

Simon Kelner
A sculpture illustrating the WW1 Christmas Truce football match in Liverpool  

It's been 100 years since the Christmas Truce, but football is still changing the world

Jim Murphy and Dan Jarvis
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there