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.”