Wednesday 22 September 2010

The Margaret Leighton Project

Loooong, looooooong ago, I started a wee mission to educate myself about British classic stars because I thought it was a little bit shameful that all of my favourites are Americans and I can scarcely name any from my own land.  You can read about my absolutely fascinating adventures on this road here, at the Jessie Matthews project,and  here, at the Ellen Terry project.

Tonight’s special celebrity guest is an actress called Margaret Leighton.  She was born in 1922 in Woucestershire, trained for the stage and made her professional debut at 16, and soon after, joined the Old Vic Company under the direction of Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson.  Her London debut was as the daughter of a troll king.  Cool.  Theatrical renown in London and on Broadway followed, and fortunately for me and my YouTube addiction, so did roles in the moving pictures.

I have seen Miss Margaret Leighton in three films, thanks to the generosity/piracy of YouTube.  In ‘An Ideal Husband’ she plays the glamorous blackmailer Mrs Cheveley, and makes the lady by turns alluring, vulnerable and a tough old battleaxe.  It’s her voice that does it – she’s got this compelling, rich contralto (get in!), loaded with sarcasm and arsenic and with those grand-dame-of-Shaftesbury Avenue vowels.  I can’t stop listening to her.  Try this:

[Skip to 06:38 or so]

I was very disappointed that in the next film on my reading list that voice just… wasn’t there.  In ‘Under Capricorn’, Margaret is Miss Milly, a junior Mrs Danvers who skulks around her employer’s mansion with a big bunch of keys and a sour face, barking at her kitchen underlings, snubbing guests and patronising her drink-sodden mistress.  I liked Milly (I always like the nasty ones!  Plus Ingrid Bergman has a face like a tree trunk and deserved everything she got.) and I thought it was a very interesting performance, but all the same she wasn’t enthralling.  Her face was a bit unmemorable too.  This was 1949 and Margaret Leighton was only 27, compared to 47-year-old Mrs Cheveley in 1969.  I reck she’s one of those women who are more interesting when they’re old.  Some actresses are like that.  Sort of sharper.
"Oh no, Mr Flusky, I'm not good enough for you, I know that! 
I'm only good enough to work for you, and slave for you,
and look after your drunkard wife!"
"What sort of woman is she?" 
"She is a genius in the daytime and a beauty at night." 
"I dislike her already."

So being a bit of a Margaret Leighton fangirl by this point, the next thing I watched was ‘Seven Women’, which is about missionaries in China in 1935, and Margaret plays boss lady missionary, Agatha Andrews, who has to put up with chain-smoking, trouser-wearing, New Woman female doctors, outbreaks of cholera and marauding Mongolian barbarians without losing her grip and going batshit.  She does go batshit, and she does it brilliantly.  (And the voice!  The voice is back!)

"Whore! Of! Babylooon!"

IMDb says The tall, reedy, opulent lady with strikingly odd, yet fascinating facial features also gave rich performances on film, stealing more than a few features away from the stars with her neurotic, brittle matrons and their unique brand of sophisticated eccentricity.”

On-screen neuroticness is all well and good, but I wanted to know about the squalidly scandalous stuff.  Margaret had three husbands.  One of them had been married to Elizabeth Taylor, but then, who hadn’t?  Her second one was an actor called Laurence Harvey, and a blog called Notonetogossip doesn’t have a very high opinion of him:

It was during this week, that we were aware of regular visits to Miss Leighton's dressing room by the totally obnoxious Laurence Harvey, there were rumours but we thought as it was well known that Harvey was a screaming queen, there couldn't be any truth in a possible marriage. How wrong we were, amazing the lengths some actors (and I use that term loosely) will go to further their career, marriage followed.”

I also found, lurking deep on something silly like page 27 of my Google search, a lovely piece of scandal all about her affair with Old Vic co-star Ralph Richardson and his all-consuming obsession with her.  I’ve forgotten the details and I can’t find the page again, but it was a very entertaining read!

Anyhoo, Margaret Leighton carried being grand and wonderful until she died of multiple sclerosis in 1976.  Apparently she continued acting until the year before her death, by which time she was no longer able to walk.  What a woman, eh?

While I’ve been ‘researching’ this project, I’ve seen reviews and references to absolutely loads of Margaret Leighton’s films (and for the most part British films) and I’m dying to see them all.  I want to see her as a “dizzy socialite” in ‘X, Y and Zee’, and as a “batty old exorcist” in ‘Moira’, and “hanging around and rotting” in ‘The Sound and the Fury’, and as a madwoman in ‘The Madwomen of Chaillot’, and an Oscar-nominated matriarch in ‘The Go-Between’, and a hundred other things.  Anyway, this post has been well over a week in the making and it’s somehow got far too long, so I’m going to leave it here.  I urge you all to go out and become Margaret Leighton fans, because she’s COOL. 

"British Actress Margaret Leighton Showing New Fashion Trend By Wearing Slouch Style Hat"


  1. Hi,
    I am a Margaret Leighton's fan too and am trying to write a biography of her. Her English movies are to be seen: I think of "The Holly and the Ivy" especially when she was 30 and gorgeous, and her big UK hit"Yhe Winslow Boy" with Robert Donat. Those movies are on DVD.
    Read you soon

  2. Thanks for your recommendations, Muriel! I'll have to try to get hold of those dvds. Glad you enjoyed my Margaret Leighton post. I think it's a shame she isn't better known these days.

  3. Wonderful profile. Fabulous actress. One of her old movies is out on DVD again. It's The Astonished Heart with Noel Coward and Celia Johnson (also in The Holly and the Ivy). Margaret plays a friend of Celia's who is in fact a scheming heartless vamp who steals Celia's husband just for kicks and then discards him when she gets bored. My favourite performance is in The Go-Between also available on DVD. Margaret plays the mother of an upper class girl having an illicit affair with a local farmer. Stinky Lulu has a brilliant dissection of her hawk like performance on her web site about great supporting actress performances. In short she steals the movie.

  4. You have to see The Astonished Heart. She is unbelievably beautiful and glamorous and elegant in this film. And clothes to die for. She plays opposite Noel Coward!

    By the way, Laurence Harvey was a huge heart-throb and girls swooned over him in the 60s... I still do!

    Wonderful to know someone still pays attention to those talented theater and film stars!!

  5. My grans cousin. My grans dad and Margaret's dad are brothers

    1. Hi Louise - I'd love to be able to speak to you about this regarding a project we are doing.. I work for the BFI. Are you able to get in touch with me directly? Many thanks. Emma Cook

    2. Hi Emma,
      Sorry , I am not Louise but Muriel. I would like to contribute on anything regarding Margaret Leighton. I have been in touch with her family (her niece , her brother-in-law) and own her unpublished autobiography. Best .Muriel Lhermé

    3. Hi Muriel, That's great news! Is there an email address/number I can reach you on?

    4. Hi Emma,
      Here is my email address:
      Read you soon.

  6. hi I just watched have bonny prince Charlie, a great oldie to watch miss Leighton is fab alongside David Niven , to greats of our film industry , sadly died to young,

  7. Hi Emma
    I've not looked at this for so long. You can contact me on

    Many thanks


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