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Dame Maggie Smith talks about her latest role, as the Dowager Countess in ITV’s Downton Abbey, and her love of acting.

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5 Maggie Smith screen roles

1 JEAN BRODIE - The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Won the Best Actress Oscar in 1969 for her role as the unorthodox teacher at a Scottish girls’ school, based on the novel by Muriel Spark.

2 PROFESSOR MINERVA MCGONAGALL - the Harry Potter films

Became an instant children’s favourite as the transfiguration teacher and head of Gryffindor House in the movie versions of JK Rowling’s boy wizard stories.

3 DIANA BARRY - California Suite

Won her second Oscar, for best supporting actress, opposite Michael Caine, in the 1978 screen version of Neil Simon’s comedy about the guests at a luxury hotel.

4 JUDITH HEARNE - The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne

Won the best actress BAFTA in 1987 for her title role in this romantic drama as a woman who falls in love with a fomrmer hotel doorman, played by Bob Hoskins.

5 CHARLOTTE BARTLETT - A Room With A View

Played the overbearing chaperone travelling with Helena Bonham-Carter’s Lucy Honeychurch in the lavish period drama based on EM Forster’s classic novel.

DAME Maggie Smith is now 75 and continues to deliver exceptional performances with the most exquisite comic timing,the latest as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham in ITV 1’s hit Sunday night costume drama, Downton Abbey.

Clayhall-born Maggie says: “I am just surprised to be doing anything at my age actually. When you think of where I am now and where I’ve come from, I am very pleased and very grateful to be standing up and delivering Julian’s great lines.”

Julian is Julian Fellowes, actor and writer who has created Downton Abbey and also brought us the feature film Gosford Park, which also starred Dame Maggie.

She says acting is more than a job. “I love it; it never crossed my mind to be anything else. I’m privileged to do it and I don’t know where I’d be without it.”

"I love acting. I’m privileged to do it and I don’t know where I’d be without it"

Dame Maggie Smith

Her early years were spent in Northwood Gardens, until, at the outbreak of war, her father moved the family to Oxford. Maggie was four.

Her father was a pathologist, her mother a secretary and her twin brothers were both successful architects. So it was a surprise to her family when she enrolled at drama school at the age of 16.

Following performances at the Edinburgh Fringe, student revues and in Cabaret. Maggie then began a career in mainstream theatre at the Old Vic with Laurence Olivier - leading eventually to The National.

What followed was a distinguished career in theatre and film leading to her impeccable Oscar-winning performance in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie followed by a second Academy Award for California Suite.

Her son, Toby Stephens, is also a successful actor, probably best known as Mr Rochester in TV’s Jane Eyre, and in the recent BBC Two police comedy, Vexed.

As well as playing the formidable Dowager Countess, she can also be seen this autumn playing the grandmother of a boy uncovering a ghost story in Fellowes’ feature film, From Time To Time based on Lucy M. Boston’s series of books The Chimneys of Green Knowe, set just after the end of World War Two.

“It is very satisfying to play a character such as Violet, and I have a lot of fun with her – Julian is good at those sorts of ladies. This is the third old lady I’ve played for him, so I am getting the hang of it now,” she laughs.

From the outset of Downton Abbey, Violet is clearly trying to hang on to her position as matriarch of the Crawley family – opinionated, immensely proud, passionately loyal to her son Robert and insufferable to her daughter-in-law, whom she has always regarded as a living compromise the family has had to make.

“When we meet Violet she is very bristly and quite horrid but eventually comes round to being much nicer than she was at the beginning. She mellows a bit by the end of episode seven,” explains Maggie.

When the Dowager Countess and Isobel Crawley meet at the beginning of episode two, an unexpected battle of wills ensues between the two women. During the course of the series, both characters find themselves humiliated by the other with personal battles lost and won along the way.

Off set, the relationship between Maggie and Penelope Wilton (who plays Isobel Crawley) couldn’t be in greater contrast.

“Mercifully, it’s not the same in real life. We get on very well and often take strolls together around the grounds of Highclere.”

In fact Penelope Wilton says that apart from having a great script to work with, one of the key reasons for taking the part was to work with Maggie Smith.

There is another Redbridge connection to the programme – Michelle Dockery, of Chadwell Heath, plays Lady Mary Crawley.

For Fellowes the choice of Maggie to play the Dowager Countess was an easy one: “Maggie Smith has a unique sense of comedy, based on a somewhat ironic view of real life, making it both funnier and more sad. But perhaps her greatest ability, or at least the one that most intrigues me, is how she can convey deep and powerful emotion without a trace of sentimentality.”

Episode three of Downton Abbey can be seen on ITV 1 on Sunday, 9pm.

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