- July 4th, 2011
Anna Massey, who died on July 3 aged 73, was one of Britain’s most accomplished actresses; in a career spanning more than half a century, she worked with some of the world’s greatest directors, moving effortlessly between stage and screen.
With her urchin bob (she always wanted to look like Audrey Hepburn), she became one of the most familiar faces in British theatre. Unfailingly subtle, sensitive and intelligent, Anna Massey was, as one admiring critic put it, “one of those splendid British actresses whom one is tempted to call Dame before their time”.
Often cast in roles in which she portrayed the prim, the spinsterly or the repressed, in reality she was none of those things. Latterly she kept artifice to a minimum (“no Botox for me, and no facelifts”), wore little make-up and disarmingly claimed to be a “fully paid-up member of the plainer folk”. In her small, bright face her eyes were the most distinctive feature: they were not particularly large, but, as one critic pointed out early in her career, “she goes towards life with such zest that her eyes are always brilliant with excitement, and you think they are enormous”.
Although she made her first film aged 21, she was better known as a television actress, appearing in such classic BBC dramas as The Pallisers (1974) and the 1978 adaptation of Rebecca, in which she starred alongside her former husband, Jeremy Brett. She was also the narrator of This Sceptred Isle which ran for 216 short episodes on BBC Radio between 1995 and 1996, with further spin-offs in 1999 and 2001.
But Anna Massey’s luminous career concealed much inner turmoil. She suffered constantly from depression, and on stage or in front of the camera she was tormented by stage-fright and a fear of forgetting her lines, or “drying”.
“For a lively and talented actress,” declared WA Darlington of The Daily Telegraph, “she has a talent bordering on genius for denuding herself of charm and confidence.” “To be secure within myself,” she admitted in her memoirs, “proved to be an unattainable goal.”
Her life was overshadowed by the dysfunctional relationships with some of the men closest to her: her overbearing and egocentric father; her first husband (an actor who turned out to be gay); and her brother, Daniel Massey, yet another actor, from whom she was estranged for more than a decade.
Nor did the business of acting come easily or naturally. Lacking a photographic memory, she always struggled to learn her lines, and in the search for the soul of her multifarious stage roles she clung to nostrums dispensed by troupers from an earlier age; one was Celia Johnson, who taught her always to find the character’s walk — “a route,” Massey agreed, “that takes you to the centre of a person”.
Anna Massey always hovered on the brink of international stardom, even though at 18 she had made a sparkling Broadway debut. “Hollywood never beckoned,” she insisted, dismissing critical admiration of her frail beauty. “I don’t have the face for it.”
Anna Raymond Massey — her father insisted on the middle name — was born in Sussex on August 11 1937, the daughter of the Canadian actor Raymond Massey and his English wife Adrianne (née Gladys) Allen, herself an actress. Raymond Massey was the son of Chester D Massey, the wealthy owner of the Massey-Ferguson tractor company, and became well known on television in the Fifties and Sixties as Dr Gillespie in Dr Kildare.
Anna was still an infant when her father left and moved to America to set up home with a lawyer called Dorothy Luddington. In a scenario redolent of Noël Coward’s Private Lives, Anna’s mother eventually married Dorothy Luddington’s first husband, another American lawyer, Bill Whitney.
All her life Anna Massey had a difficult relationship with her stepmother, holding her partly to blame for her own father’s detachment from her . On the other hand, she was fond of her stepfather, who exercised a stabilising influence on her family life. When, as a virgin bride in 1958 (“one of the last”), Anna was forced to choose who would walk her up the aisle, she chose her stepfather over her real one, who left in a rage and did not attend the wedding.
The dominant figure in her upbringing was her nanny, Gertrude Burbridge . On Burbridge’s death in 1968, Anna Massey would fall into a dark depression, emerging from it only after a gruelling course of psychoanalysis.
Anna's education was patchy; she was evacuated to Wales early in the war and spent some time at her father’s house in New York. But she attended private schools in London and Surrey and spent an unhappy term in Lausanne, where she was so homesick that her mother was persuaded to bring her home. She went to Paris and to Rome to be “finished off”.
Her mother, a revered hostess and party-giver, presided over one of the most exotic and star-studded salons of post-war London: guests at her house in Mayfair included the composer Ivor Novello (the young Anna called him “Uncle Ivor”), the royal dress designer Norman Hartnell, the Australian dancer Robert Helpmann, the impresario Hugh “Binkie” Beaumont, and Noël Coward, who was godfather to Anna’s brother Daniel. Her own godfather was the American film director John Ford.
Although she took voice lessons, Anna Massey skipped drama school and joined a repertory company. In 1955, the year she was presented at Court, she made her stage debut in The Reluctant Debutante, which opened in the West End after a successful provincial tour.
The London critics loved her. “At 17,” enthused one, “the young lady is frankly a wow!” But Anna Massey found it so “incredibly nerve-racking” that the skin on her hands peeled from fright.
The play later transferred to New York, where she danced with Senator Jack Kennedy and encountered the magnetic Old Etonian actor Jeremy Brett , who was playing in Shakespeare on Broadway. Later they met again in London, where he urged her to move out of the family home to escape her mother’s dominance; they married soon afterwards.
The union was doomed from the start; Brett was a manic-depressive homosexual, and after several trial separations (while their son David was still a toddler), the couple split for good when Brett announced that he had met someone else: a man.
Although they divorced in 1962, the couple appeared together years later in the BBC’s dramatisation of Rebecca (1978), with Brett playing the haunted hero Max de Winter and Massey the sinister housekeeper Mrs Danvers. Their son, then 19, played a bit part in the production. Brett went on to achieve fame as Holmes in the television series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes .
In the years that followed her divorce, Anna Massey appeared in a series of West End hits. In 1962 she was directed by John Gielgud in Sheridan’s School for Scandal, in which her Lady Teazle was applauded as a performance of dignity and power. This was followed by The Right Honourable Gentleman (1964), The Glass Menagerie (1965) and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1966).
As Katherine, she was heard with Richard Burton in an American recording of Henry V, and in 1965 starred with Laurence Olivier in Bunny Lake Is Missing, a film directed by Otto Preminger (“one of the cruellest and most unpleasant directors that I have ever worked with”). Another to earn her ire was Edward Bond (“the coldest man I have ever met”), who directed Massey in his play Summer.
Following the death of her nanny in 1968, and with her son David sent away at boarding school (a decision she always regretted), Anna Massey suffered a spell of anorexia. Her chestnut hair turned white; her stage fright turned to terror, and she blamed what she called “inner pain and panic at having to face life on my own”. But her demons were overcome for a time when she met a young actor called George Fenton, who moved in to her house in Fulham. She abandoned the Hepburn look, permed her hair and affected hippy clothing. When they eventually parted, amicably but inevitably, she blamed the age gap. Fenton later gave up acting and became a film composer.
At the start of the 1970s Anna Massey appeared in the play Slag (1971) and struck up a lasting friendship with the playwright David Hare; she also starred in Alfred Hitchock’s penultimate film, Frenzy (1972).
Although she enjoyed playing Lady Laura Standish in the BBC series The Pallisers in the early 1970s, depression got the better of her, and her brother Daniel urged her to seek help. She did so, and spent 12 years in psychotherapy, rising at 5.30am thrice weekly to keep her appointment with the therapist. Although this helped her, it did not cure her chronic insomnia, which was overcome only later in life after she changed to a healthier diet and regular infusions of camomile tea.
Her most recent television period dramas included Tess Of The D’Urbervilles in 2008, Oliver Twist in 2007, and the BBC’s version of Anthony Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right in 2004. In 2006 she played Baroness Thatcher in the television film Pinochet In Suburbia. Most recently, in 2009, she appeared in Poirot and Midsomer Murders.
One of Anna Massey’s abiding regrets was the breakdown of her relationship with her brother Daniel, whom she accused of always siding with their mother when family tensions erupted. She was baffled and distressed to hear herself denounced by Daniel as an evil influence, and although they were reconciled shortly before his death in 1998, she remained deeply affected by their 12-year stand-off.
In the 1980s, with the television producer Sue Birtwhistle, Anna Massey bought the television rights to Anita Brookner’s novel Hotel du Lac; two weeks later it won the Booker Prize, and Massey went on to win the Bafta best actress award for her performance as Edith Hope in the 1986 BBC Television adaptation. Although she came to know Brookner quite well in the course of filming, Anna Massey — an indifferent cook — made the mistake of inviting her round for dinner; the evening was a culinary catastrophe and the guest of honour left before the end of the pudding.
But another dinner party two years later proved altogether more propitious: the host, Joy Whitby, a former producer of the BBC’s Jackanory series (in which Anna Massey had appeared, reading children’s stories ) introduced her to Uri Andres, a Russian metallurgist working at Imperial College, London. The couple married three months later, in November 1988, when Anna Massey was 50. “It was like an Anita Brookner novel with a happy ending,” she said. Personal happiness lit up the rest of her life.
In 2005 Anna Massey was appointed CBE for services to drama. Her autobiography, Telling Some Tales, was published the following year.
Anna Massey’s first husband, Jeremy Brett, died in 1995. She is survived by her second husband and by the son of her first marriage, the novelist and illustrator David Huggins.