The Broadway legend, opening in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, her eleventh show, spoke to Katie Charles about her London childhood, including nude models and Greek tunics.
Your mother was an actress and your father a politician. How did you end up in one field and not the other?
Culturally, I was split. I remember being taken to the theater to see my mother as a young child. It bothered me terribly. I didn’t like her being put down—of gentlemen shouting at her. I had to be taken screaming out of the theater. I didn’t understand that it was make-believe. I soon got over that. My mother had an eclectic group of friends—artists, writers, poets—and one of them would draw friends of hers, nude, in our living room. Which was interesting because my mother came from a rigidly Victorian family. One model, Molly Wilson, who had wonderful Titian-red hair, would tastefully drape fabric between her legs.
My grandfather was George Lansbury, the leader of the Labour Party, and a great pacifist. While I was growing up, my father wrote a book about him, and some fellows from Scotland Yard came to the front door. Apparently my father had revealed some state secret that had to do with the Russian crown jewels. We all thought Daddy was going to jail. It was like a Noël Coward comedy.
Given that you’re playing a medium in Blithe Spirit, did you have any exposure to magic or séances as a child?
My mother was terribly upset by the death of her father when I was 5. She reacted badly to the whole thing—she tried to reach him through séances. Talk to me about spiritualism, and I tend to go ugh! I know how people get sucked in.
Do you remember the first film you ever saw?
King Kong, in the little town of Mill Hill where I lived. I was dazzled.
Was there a genre you were particularly into as a child?
Oh, yes! Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. And I was mad about Errol Flynn. I wasn’t really interested in actresses. But strong women I always found interesting—Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. And I saw quite a lot of British movies: Celia Johnson and that wonderful Noël Coward movie Brief Encounter.
Was that your first exposure to Coward?
I knew his voice on the radio and on records as a child—he was part of the fabric of British life.
Were you much of a reader growing up?
I certainly was. Nancy Drew, girl detective—I read them voraciously. And those took me into Agatha Christie, the queen of mystery. Did you read her autobiography? Fascinating! I’ll never forget she wrote that when she was young, she’d drink a pint of cream every morning. A pint! Of cream!
When did you start singing?
I sang around the house like a blooming lark. I had a very high voice—I could have been coloratura. I just opened my mouth and sang, and that’s the way I’ve always performed. A song has to be incorporated into a character. It would be much too simple to stand up and sing. And I took some lessons from a woman down in the Village—where I lived in the early days—learning to project, which we don’t need to do anymore in the theater, unfortunately. Actually, I think we’re going to work without microphones in Blithe Spirit. At least I hope so.
What kind of songs were you singing?
There was a famous musical lady, Gracie Fields. If you Google her, she has an enormous following. She was the working girl’s heroine. She sang a song called “Sally”—we all used to scream around the house, my girlfriends and I, “Sally, Sally, / Pride of our alley / You’re more than the whole world to me.”
I just learned that you were in an Elvis movie! Did you pick up any musical tips from him?
Not really. He was a very nice guy then—he always was a terrific guy.
You were also trained as a dancer.
Slightly. When I was about 6, my mother would take my sister and me to a thing called the League of Health and Beauty. You’d gather in Regent’s Park and do movement and Greek dancing. We wore little tunics. We would walk around with this kind of doughnut on our heads to improve our posture. You know, it was actually useful for Blithe Spirit—I was able to implement some of the movements with things I remember from that class.