Wednesday, June 29, 2011

From Teen To Dowager

I am hopelessly behind on the obits usually found in these pages, the line of decaying corpses wraps around the block, I'm afraid. Having just begun a new gig, I did not expect to find much free time in which to catch up, and that's just as well. I have heard from a number of readers that they quite enjoy my obits, which are often more of a tribute than an actual obituary. Other visitors to these pages, though, wonder why I spend any time at all writing about a polar bear who died at the Berlin Zoo.
But a death notice came to my attention today which I simply cannot ignore. She was one of the finest actresses I have ever come across, and I enjoyed her performances in various BBC adaptations so much, that I must put down my current script (sorry, Nerdies) and pay homage to this unforgettable dame.

Margaret Tyzack


Don't recognize her name? Don't recognize her face? I'm not surprised. Her career lasted more than 60 years, but she was never a household name, even when she was involved in international hits.

After the usual British training at RADA and the requisite years in repertory theaters, Tyzack made a big splash in the ground-breaking BBC adaptation of The Forsyte Saga, way back in 1967.

That 26-hour series, which was based on John Galsworthy's behemoth account of an upper-middle class (though decidedly non-aristocratic) English family at the turn of the 20th century, became an international sensation. During its initial run in Britain, churches were encouraged to adjust the time of their Sunday evening services in order to accommodate the viewing public. The series was broadcast in the states by the network which was to become PBS, though back then, it was known as "Educational Television," or NET. It was reported that, when the series was shown in Manhattan, there was a noticeable lowering of water levels immediately following each episode, as thousands of viewers flushed in unison. The Forsyte Saga was such a sensation in the US that NET was encouraged to create an entire weekly series devoted to British imports. Thus, The Forsyte Saga simultaneously led to the creation of Masterpiece Theatre and the invention of the miniseries.

Margaret Tyzack costarred in the series, playing Winifred, sister to the central character in the series, Soames Forsyte. She aged from an innocent teenaged girl to an elderly grande dame, and I was entranced with her work (even at my pre-teen age, I was attracted to strong acting talent). Tyzack appeared over and over on the various series which comprised Masterpiece Theatre, and I loved her in every one. The very first series which introduced Masterpiece Theatre was a costume drama called The First Churchills. The series starred Susan Hampshire, who had costarred with Tyzack on The Forsyte Saga, and had unexpectedly won the Best Actress Emmy for her performance. Hampshire and Tyzack were once again teamed in The First Churchills, and once again, our Margaret aged her character from naive teenager to imperious dowager (she played the historically accurate, and sexually ambivalent, Queen Anne). Hampshire once again snagged the Best Actress Emmy, and became known as queen of the miniseries, but I think Tyzack better deserves the moniker. Margaret probably gained her greatest notice for her performance in I, Claudius, another British miniseries broadcast on PBS. She played Antonia, daughter to Marc Antony and mother to the future Emperor Claudius (and guess what? She aged her character from naive teenager to imperious grande dame).

Take a look at this clip, in which she interacts with the great Derek Jacobi as the stuttering star, and a kid playing the young Caligula.

My favorite performance of Margaret Tyzack's was her barely remembered title role as Cousin Bette. It was yet another British miniseries shown on Masterpiece Theatre, and should not be confused with the abysmal film version starring Jessica Lange.
In this instance, Tyzack took a rare starring role, that of a poor spinster who has taken just about enough from her wealthy relatives. This adaptation of Balzac's dark comedy (very dark. VERY dark) provided our heroine with a the perfect role with which to display her sharp wit and ability to cut straight to the heart. This series was also an early showcase for a young Helen Mirren; the scenes between Mirren and Tyzack are absolutely delicious. Cousin Bette is available on DVD, and is worth your attention, believe me.

In addition to her various television appearances, Margaret conducted a very full stage career, I regret never having seen her perform live. She won the first of several Olivier awards in England in 1982, when she replaced an ailing Joan Plowright in a revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; a year later, she earned a Tony nomination for her appearance as the Countess in the RSC's visiting production of All's Well That Ends Well. A while later, she was at the center of a casting brouhaha which almost prevented her winning a Tony.

In 1990, Maggie Smith and our Margaret starred together in a London production of Peter Schaeffer's new comedy, Lettice and Lovage. The show was a hit, and plans were made for a Broadway transfer. Actors Equity Association, which can withhold permission for foreign actors to perform on Broadway, granted immediate approval for Miss Smith, as she was an international star. But they balked at the suggestion that Margaret Tyzack should be allowed to make the transfer as well. Though she had already scored a Tony nomination, the union did not believe her presence (over that of an American actress) was necessary for the financial success of the show, so they refused permission for her to appear.
Maggie Smith became adamant: if her costar, with whom she felt she shared a rare chemistry, was not allowed to transfer to Broadway, she would withdraw her own services. I have a lot of respect for Dame Maggie for taking such a stand in honor of one of her, let's face it, supporting players. Equity relented, and both Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack recreated their roles on Broadway,. And BOTH won Tony awards. God, I love that story.

Margaret Tyzack continued to work right up until her death. She won another Olivier award only a few years ago, and recently, toured with her old Cousin Bette costar Helen Mirren, in Phaedra.
Earlier this year, Tyzack joined the long-running British primetime soap, Eastenders, a casting coup for the series which resulted in a long-term plotline being created for her character. In failing health, Miss Tyzack was forced to withdraw from the series a few weeks ago; on June 25th, she died.

I wish I could find more clips from her TV work, but below, please enjoy a scene from her Tony winning performance in Lettice and Lovage. It was presented at the Tony Awards, and I said earlier, both she and her costar, Dame Maggie Smith, won Tonys that evening.