Popular in Poplar: Angela Lansbury at the Angela Lansbury Film Festival, Poplar, April 2014
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Angela Lansbury: “Peach queens are stars. I’m an actress”

The veteran actress best known for Murder, She Wrote had an emotional return to her East End roots this month with a series of screenings and a personal appearance.

As I looked down at the pavement, Angela Lansbury’s face looked back up at me from the slab. It’s a young face – this is the MGM starlet of the 1940s, not the veteran actress who went on to captivate the world with Murder, She Wrote – but still instantly recognisable. There wasn’t just one of her, either. The spray-painted faces were dotted around Poplar, making a bizarre sort of gingerbread trail through the East End of London.

At the end of the trail is the woman herself, being helped up on to a stage at a community arts centre as the main attraction of the Angela Lansbury Film Festival. “I’m not a public speaker,” she says, half laughing, half pleading, but goes on to speak eloquently and movingly about her father and grandfather, both of whom served as mayor of Poplar. Her childhood memories of the East End in the 1930s are vivid and detailed.

She cites her grandfather George Lansbury (an MP and leader of the Labour Party in the 1930s) as a great influence on her desire to perform. As a child, she was taken to hear him address a rally at the Royal Albert Hall and left wanting to imitate his style. Now 88 years old, she is still following his example, explaining that his enormous stamina is the reason she “never slows down”. Even though George Lansbury’s granddaughter hasn’t lived in the UK since she was a teenager (her family was evacuated to the US at the start of the Second World War), she has strong links with the area. The trail of faces leads past a Lansbury Estate and nearby are a Bruce Road and an Edgar Road, named after her twin brothers by her father when he was mayor.

Lansbury is back on the London stage for the first time in nearly 40 years to perform in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit at the Gielgud Theatre in the West End. She plays an eccentric medium, Madame Arcati, who presides over a seance in a country house drawing room that goes comically awry. Coward’s play is ostensibly an ensemble drama but on the evening I was there, Lansbury had only to step on to the stage for the audience to break into rapturous applause. Everything from her energetic dance as she enters her psychic trance to the smallest roll of her eyes provoked laughter.

Coward was there at the beginning of her career, too. Lansbury’s first professional performance was at the Samovar Club in Montreal at the age of 16 (she lied and said she was 19 to secure the booking). Exploiting her talent for vocal mimicry, her act revolved around Coward’s song “I Went to a Marvellous Party”.

Lansbury has the kind of pulling power many younger and more ubiquitous actors can only dream of. Part of her fascination lies in the multifaceted nature of her career – few others have achieved such success on stage, on television and in films. From the outset, she played character parts, such as Sibyl Vane in the 1945 film The Picture of Dorian Gray, rather than being a conventional leading lady. “Peach queens are stars. I’m an actress,” she says, going on to poke fun at her Dorian Gray co-star Hurd Hatfield, who enjoyed being called a celebrity “only because he was no longer an actor”.

After three Oscar nominations, Lansbury finally received an honorary Academy Award last year. Revealing a rather competitive streak, she points out that she didn’t “win” it, because there were no other nominees. Then she laughs and says: “It’s nice to be recognised for hanging around as long as I have.”

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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