Margaret Leighton

Margaret Leighton obituary in “The Times” .

“The Times” obituary:

Margaret Leighton died yesterday at the age of 53. She was an actress as intelligent as she was beautiful. From her youth she had rare poise and period sense qualities evident in her final part,   a Compton Burnett dowager in last year’s stage version of “A Family and a Fortune.”

Born in Worcestershire on February 26, 1922, and educated at Birmingham, she was one of Sir Barry Jackson’s Repertory Theatre discoveries. In 1938, as a tall, glowingly fair girl of 16, she began by scrubbing the stage and doing the work of a junior ASM. Early in the war she toured with Basil Langton’s company; but it was at the Repertory, especially between 1942 and 1944, that in such parts as
Katharina, Rosalind, Barrie’s Lady Babbie, and the step-daughter in Six Characters”, she made the great regional reputation, justified during three years in London with the Old Vic. During the first three years, 1944-47, of the company’s famous stay at the New Theatre, she acted, among much else, Raina in “Arms and the Man”, Yelena in “Uncle Vanya”, Roxane in “Cyrano de Bergerac”, and a Regan, to Olivier’s Lear.

Always she was far more than decorative. She had a cutting truth, and her repetory training (though she never entirely lost her nervousness) prepared her for anything. From the Vic company she went to to a trio of parts in the Criterion revival of Bridie’s “A Sleeping Clergyman” (1947), welcoming the chance to act with Robert Donat: later she was
with him in the film version of “The Winslow Boy”, her introduction to the work of Terence Rattigan.

She was Celia in the London production of “The Cocktail Party” (1950) and 12 months later appeared as Masha in a revival of “Three Sisters” for Festival of Britain year. In 1952, as Stratford upon Avon’s leading lady again, it was said, as the toast of the Midlands, she was Lady Macbeth, a Rosalind of jetting raillery and an Ariel described by a critic as a silver arrow.

Afterwards, though she remained among the first half dozen of English actresses, she never found the sustained full-scale triumph (long runs aside) for which one had hoped. Certainly there were long runs. After a few months as Orinthia to Noel Coward’s Magnus in the Haymarket revival of “The Apple Cart” (1953) and another Eliot heroine, Lucasta in “The Confidential Clerk”, she had nearly four years, in London and on Broadway, as two amply contrasted characters in the double bill of Terence Rattigan’s “Separate Tables”. Her Rose, a former Midland girl, in his “Variations on a Theme” (Globe, London, 1958) had to be less satisfying. She acted a gleaming Beatrice to Sir John Gielgud’s Benedick in New York (September, 1959). Then, after two more London parts – the second of them Ellida in “The Lady From the Sea” (1961) – she spent five years in New York where she won the Antoinette Perry Award for the best actress of 1961-62, as Hannah in Tennessee Williams’s “The Night of the Iguana”. She was also in Enid Bagnold’s “The Chinese Prime Minister” when the dramatist spoke of her as “an extraordinary and shining woman, made of moonshine and talent and deep self-distrust, astonished at success.”

Her return to London (1967) was in an undemanding play “Cactus Flower”. Within two years at the Chichester Festival, she reached the part many thought she should play, Shakespeare’s Cleopatra (to the Antony of Sir John Clements), royal in her aspect but never theatrically voluptuous. But the Festival period was brief. And of her three later parts, two were at Chichester, Mrs Malaprop in “The
Rivals” and Elena in “Reunion in Vienna” (also for a short time in London). Finally there was the dowager she acted with such sharp assurance in “A Family and a Fortune” (Apollo, 1975). These were all performances, varying in scope, and of much style and vigour in execution, but without the transcendent quality we knew Margaret Leighton could achieve. We hoped she might again. It is too late now;but she is remembered, as “Maggie”, in and out of the theatre, with deep affection.

Margaret Leighton
Margaret Leighton

Margaret Leighton acted in several films besides “The Winslow Boy”. She received a Best Supporting Actress Award for her performance in “The Go-Between” in 1971, and her other credits included “The Loved One” (1965), “Lady Caroline Lamb” (1972), and “Bequest to the Nation” (1973). She was married three times – to Max Reinhardt, to Laurence Harvey, and lastly to Michael Wilding. The above “Times” obituary can also be accessed online here.

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