“There is nothing like a Dame, “ chorused the sailors in the musical “South Pacific”, perhaps not meant in the same context as a real British Dame, but nevertheless a compliment in every sense of the word. In Queen Elizabeth’s New Year’s Honour’s List, British/American actress Angela Lansbury was recently made a DAME , this is equivalent to being knighted and given the title SIR. Helen Mirren, Penelope Keith, Diana Rigg and Elizabeth Taylor have also been awarded the title for their outstanding services to the theatre and it’s various charities.
Dame Angela Lansbury genuinely believes in the much loved phrase, “Charity Begins At Home ,” It was not so much charity, it was in the form of generous overtime payments for the cast and crew working for her production company of MURDER SHE WROTE, the TV series which ran for 12 years. Angela starred as the writer and female detective, Jessica Fletcher solving crimes in her little village and at the same time employing out-of-work actors to play either the victim or the villain.
Overtime in film studios, usually referred to as Golden Time, is very expensive and a definite No No at many film companies. At five o’clock the cameras generally stop rolling and everyone quits work and Clocks Out …but Dame Angela Lansbury ’s company rarely stopped work at five o’clock and the cameras kept rolling until the scene was finished. The cast and crew were paid their well-deserved golden overtime, and consequently Angela is one of the most respected ladies in Hollywood. Her numerous awards, Oscars and Golden Globes have all been well documented, but I’d like to write about an interview I had with her when she was making BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS for the Walt Disney studios.
As usual the studio provides a P.R. person to accompany any journalist on interviews to make sure they asked the right questions . The guy sent to accompany me, a rat-faced little squirt who, in my opinion wasn’t qualified to empty the office waste-paper baskets, ordered me to follow him in my car to Angela’s house in Malibu. “No more than thirty minutes,” he said, when we parked in her driveway, “and stick to questions about the film…and don’t forget we would like to see a copy of what you write before you send it off to your magazine.”
Angela was expecting us and we were warmly invited into her house on the beach. Right off the bat the P.R. guy started off the interview himself expecting me to write down his questions and Miss Lansbury’s replies. She looked at me and winked and replied to his questions like a good schoolgirl in class.
“In the film you play a spinster lady who is training to be a Witch,” he asked. “Was that fun?”
“Fun, being a Witch?” replied Angela. “Actually I was also helping to rehabilitate evacuees from the war in Europe, and being one myself I …”
“Your co-star was David Tomlinson, a British actor, how did you get along with him?” questioned the P.R. man, making sure I wrote down the question. “Well, being British myself, David and I spoke the same language and…” And so it went on. Finally the P.R. guy looked at his watch and announced my time was up. He thanked Miss Lansbury and led the way out of the house to where we had parked our cars. “Don’t forget to send us what you have written before you send it in,” he ordered. Ironic, inasmuch as he had asked all the questions.
Angela then came to the door and told me I had forgotten my brief case. I was amazed inasmuch as I didn’t have one. She waved goodbye to the P.R guy and I followed her back into the house. “My God, what a pain the rear end he was,” confided Angela. “Sit down, Duckie and we’ll have some Earl Grey tea and a slice of my home made birthday cake.” …and so Miss Lansbury brought me tea and a slice of cake and talked and laughed about various films and her first visit to America as an evacuee with the Pied Piper scheme when she and many others, including Elizabeth Taylor and Roddy McDowall were sent to America in 1939 to escape the German invading armies. (In 1940, a second ship, the City of Baneres carrying 90 evacuee children to Canada, was torpedoed in mid-Atlantic by a German submarine and seventy-seven of them were drowned.)
Because of their distinct British accents, Angela, Elizabeth and Roddy were soon signed up by MGM. Roddy McDowall starred in the Lassie films, Angela and Elizabeth were together as sisters in NATIONAL VELVET with co-star Mickey Rooney. Unfortunately during the making of this film, Elizabeth fell off the horse she was riding, twisted her spine and suffered excruciating back pain the rest of her life. Elizabeth and Angela both richly deserve the honour bestowed up them by Queen Elizabeth, not only for the acting achievements but their unstinting generosity to their friends and various charities they endowed.
The sailors from South Pacific belting out the song “There’s Nothing Like a Dame,” are right on the button…. but then, THAT’S HOLLYWOOD!