The Observer Magazine caught up with Maggie Smith, then just 30, in Venice filming The Honey Pot opposite Rex Harrison (‘Hitting the Top’, 9 January 1966). Except it wasn’t Venice but a stage set at the Cinecittà studios in Rome.
At that time Smith was a big star of the National Theatre, but she disagreed that she was at the top of her profession. ‘I don’t see how it could possibly be,’ she told Stanley Reynolds. ‘There is so far to go.’
Smith had apparently said that this was to be her last film. ‘Doing films and staying in the theatre is having your cake and eating it,’ she argued. Reynolds agreed that ‘Maggie Smith is too canny to attempt that’.
Except, of course, that she was either having everyone on or changed her mind rather quickly. In 1969 alone she was not only in Oh! What a Lovely War, but also what was arguably her finest film and for which she won an Oscar, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Smith relays a meeting with Laurence Olivier after he’d seen her in The Private Ear and the Public Eye. ‘Sir Laurence took me out to dinner. To the Ivy. What we had, God knows! I didn’t eat, I’m sure,’ she confided. ‘He asked me to play Silvia in Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer and Desdemona in Othello and I thought he was raving mad. I was absolutely terrified and I told him, “No!” Then I went home and about 2am I sent him a hysterical telegram saying I’ll do it.’
‘I don’t think I’ve done as much as I should have done for the National,’ she said. ‘I really should stay with the theatre. I haven’t worked hard enough. Time is so limited.’
‘Inside the Deborah Kerr/Doris Day girl next door,’ wrote Reynolds perceptively, ‘is some sort of inner compass that points in her own direction.’ That was 55 years ago and Smith is still going strong – in 2019 she won awards for her stage performance as Joseph Goebbels’s secretary in A German Life.