Lower level in here, we're taking our usual summer break, so until we're back on air, we're showcasing a few programs from our back catalogue. As usual, the music's been shortened for right reasons. This week's guest is the actress Liz Smith. She was cast away in 2008 by Kirsty Young.
BBC sounds, music, radio, podcasts. My castaway this week is the actress Liz Smith as Nana in the royal family, she portrayed the vagaries of old age with a cute comic timing and poignancy. Indeed, the part was a fitting, career defining performance for someone who specialised in playing a long line of idiosyncratic old bats. Her success has been a triumph of talent and perseverance over circumstance. She didn't make it as an actress until she was 50, and her early family life was plagued with loss, abandonment and sorrow.
Now 86, her characters have a habit of dying on screen. It is, she says, an occupational hazard. Even so, acting and making people laugh has always been a way of escaping the often harsh realities of her life. And she isn't planning to retire anytime soon. So, Liz Smith, let's start, if you don't mind, with your screen deaths. We had Letty Cropley in the Vicar of Dibley and Nana in the royal family.
Yes, you are in this stage. You're at that stage in your career, but you're also a method actor. I mean, I am.
Yes, that's right. I I worked for years with Charles Marovich.
So how difficult is it to play yourself dying on screen? If you're a method actor, it must be quite traumatic process.
Well, it is, but then it's been a long life and you kind of see it coming.
You won Best Actress recently, the British Comedy Awards, for your final performance of Nana.
It was, yes, utterly captivating, if I may say so, that perhaps it was an intriguing mixture of the highs and the lows and the the mundanity.
That certainly wonderful script by Caroline Ahern, who is just brilliant. I was very, very fortunate to have a script that she mixes sadness with humour in a way that no one else can. Now, you won the British Comedy Award for that, but you like. Yes. You didn't win the BAFTA for it. I didn't know I thought I was going to do. You did you thought you would go ahead.
Was Ricky Gervais is that when when you were sitting there in all your finery and they read out his name? What did you think? I thought they'd mispronounced my name. You were fully expecting to get. Yes. Yes. That's very honest of you to say that. I mean, most actors wouldn't for a minute say, you know, I thought I'd won it.
No, but I did see I had a little laugh with him about it there.
I hope you don't mind me saying in the introduction there that you specialize in a long line of idiosyncratic old bad.
I do. That's right. Because I think I've had to be a little bit batty in order to stay sane and and manage because life's knocked me around. And if I wasn't a little bit batty, I couldn't cope. If I was really, really straight, life would be too difficult, I think. Plenty to talk about. Tell me about your first piece of music. What have you chosen? Well, only the lonely. Isn't that what it's about?
Only the lonely. And how nice of them.
Roy Orbison, but only the lonely. I cry only to be. Roy Orbison and only the lonely, and you say, Liz Smith, that that is indeed your theme tune? I think it is my theme to only the lonely.
Your life has been one of great determination and perseverance and an unusual degree of loss, especially in the early years. Tell me about your early life.
Well, my early life was that my mother died when I was two. I lived with my grandparents and your mother died in childbirth. She did die in childbirth. The baby died, too. And do you have any memories of your mother? No, but I'm very conscious of I've wanted to let her go, you say, because I felt very often she was all I had to lean on and I have done. Do you talk to her? Yes, I have done a great deal during my life, during the, you know, very difficult times that I've had has been her spirit.
I think that I've turned to I've inherited everything from her that I find good. So, you know, I've got that.
What did your family what did her parents tell you about your mother? Oh, she she was lovely. She was a wonderful heart woman. She was a wonderful pianist. And she very artistic. And and it would have been great fun to have had her.
So there you were, a little girl and your grandparents, your maternal grandparents brought you are you did what sort of people were they? Tell me about that. Very homely, wonderful food and nice trips to the seaside. Gave me a very, very nice time when I was a little girl. Very nice. You've written about your grandmother. I love this. You said your grandmother used to say I'll cook anything with feathers on except a shuttlecock.
She did. She did. She she cooked everything with feathers. What sort of things did she brilliant cook. If Dad came round he would go out shooting and and then we'd come out, we'd have had some birds and pigeon pies and wonderful pies. It was it was it was just lovely with food and comfort and care. You said there if dad came round, that's an interesting phrase.
I mean, your dad was a character.
Why I never saw Dad, but then he would suddenly appear and it might have come back with a brace of rabbits he shot or hair or something.
On the other hand, he might throw up in the air and then take me to the cinema. He was fun. He was a fun father that I hardly ever saw. But he was fun when he was there and I adored him. And then eventually he left to and then he he just came to me outside of school and he said to me, I'm going away, kid, I'll write. And I said, All right, Daddy. And that was the last thing I ever saw of him.
I wait for the postman to bring me a letter from him, and I waited in this window with his gramophone waiting for him for years. Anyway, the letter never came and he never came back. No, I never saw him. I never heard of him again, ever.
And eventually your grandparents decided to adopt you. Why did they do?
My grandfather was amazing. I adored my grandfather. I thought he was a brilliant man. But he died, my grandfather. And so things were difficult. And she decided to adopt me so that I could not be just taken away, perhaps by my father. Something if he suddenly decided to. Yeah.
If he suddenly decided he would give her the authority to keep me. Your grandmother had suffered then two very significant. Yes. I mean, she'd lost her young daughter and then she'd lost the man she loved was it was enormous. She adored her husband. She adored a daughter who was a lovely girl. And was that her only child to her only child. So they're both gone. So she she would she said to me, then I will I will try and stay alive until you are twenty, because I consider that you will be old enough then to look after yourself.
And she did die when I was twenty.
We'll talk a little more about that later. But for now, let's take a break and tell me about your next piece of music.
Oh, tiptoe through the tulips. This is what I used to play on the gramophone when I was waiting for the postman to come up the front. PA with your father's letter. With my father's letter, which never came. Yes.
Oh, did tell. With me, the flowers will. We'll look for showers our way, and if I kiss you in the garden, in the moonlight weather pardon me, tiptoe through the tulips with me and my. Jack Hilton and his orchestra and tiptoe through the tulips, so you were nine then this when you took on your first acting role.
What do you remember, lenity granny in order that I should mix with other children? It's an obvious. This lonely little girl sent me to little classes and I played the part of a woman of about 55, actually, and a little play. And the laughter was so wonderful. I thought, this is what I want to do all my life. And that fixed it really to go out and play to people. And it was all light and laughter that was wonderful.
And you didn't feel nervous about going on stage. You know, it was just wonderful after all that silence of that house.
Now, as you say, after your grandfather died, money was in pretty short supply. You were deft with a needle and thread, but you were pretty good at running up.
That's right. I used to I used to be settled sort of rag bits from the factories, you know, in shops then. And I would buy a penny worth of this and that and the other stick them together and make a funny frock and make people laugh. Do you think you're a bit of a magpie? I mean, you have to describe to people you've brought in to do this incredible handbag that's made from. Yes.
Bottle tops, and these are the people whom I do that kind of thing.
And you're wearing beautiful, quite fancy blue shoes and a pink sweater. And it still appeals to you all that love clothes and accessories and jewellery and pretty things. Pretty things. I love them. Yes.
Is it true that you choose to go into the Navy because you like the uniform?
I'm afraid so, yes. I thought it was a beautiful uniform. I like the cut of it better, like the cut of the jib.
It's interesting, you you seem very much on the surface of it to be somebody who likes the ritzy things that I do and I do. And I think of your grandmother as being this person. I mean, she she said to you from a young age, one day you'll be all alone. She did. Did she seem like the voice on your shoulder, the voice of gloom on your shoulder? No, no. The voice of sense of good sense.
She was she had no defence against anyone in my future because she would die. So all she could tell me was really good sense by a house. And if and if you have a husband who goes, he must go, not you and save my bacon. My husband did go. It's interesting, though, that she would say to a young girl, assume the worst. Assume that, you know, let's make plans in case you can go.
She did just that and that exactly happened.
But don't you think that's a strange thing to say to you? I do. But I think it's all part of this curious kind of caring, spiritual caring that has gone on is quite strange, really, but it's very comforting, really. Do you think she saw in you somebody that because you were attracted to the stage in the light?
Yeah, I was. Frippery. You know, Rapide happy. What do you think she would make of you? I mean, you say that you you do speak to your mother. Do you ever wonder what your grandmother would have made of. Yes, yes.
Yes. All of them said they'd be awfully pleased. At last, I had a good I had a chance to say, oh, tell me about your next piece of music then. Oh, now, just as I left school, the war broke out. So I was in the Navy and I was in the fleet air arm. And what did we do there but dance and in the aeroplane hangars? I used to have lovely big bands and any one of those lovely big tunes I would love because I love big tunes.
Glenn Miller and in the mood and memories there, Liz Smith of, yes, living in these big jibing and big aircraft hangars and that was our main source of enjoyment, really having the dances.
It must have been quite a contrast with what you'd been used to at home, suddenly being surrounded by these gaggles of girls who come straight away from this silent, dark house. It's just this one sorrowing lady just propelled into this life was extraordinary. I could hardly take it.
You know, you met your husband to Jack Thomas. What sort of a man was he?
Poetic. But I didn't meet him in this country. Where did you had to travel? To India. And it was there. I met him, I, I met him at the music club just down the road from the airfield and this tall, dark and handsome, poetic type. Did he write poetry for you? Yes, he did. Yes. And so you fell in love? Yes. And you married? I did marry at the end of the war.
And by this time, your grandmother had died and she had kept her promise to you. She had kept her promise. She had left you how much money to buy a house. Then it was two and a half thousand out of a lot of money out then, really.
And so when it came to buying a house, tell me what you did, because this is a curious, well, curious, to say the least.
Well, how to behave. You see, really, I think and I bought a magazine called I think it's called Homes, you know, and it foreclosed. And I just put a pencil on one because I didn't know London, you see, coming from the north. And it was actually just by the part of Ballarat. And I got to this very, very large car and a house. I rang the bell. The man came and I said to this house here in this magazine, it's this this house.
And he said, yes. So I said, thank you very much.
I'll have it. And I got out my checkbook and I paid for it. It was seventeen hundred pounds, by the way.
You hadn't actually crossed the threshold. No, I was on step. And so he said thank you very much. He took the cheque. I bet he did. And he said, would you like to see it?
I said, yes, yes I did. The paper was peeling off the walls. There were mushrooms all over the kitchen, fantastic house, that fantastic house. So you moved into this rather ramshackle shack just off the Portobello. Yes. And you had Sarah and Robert, your two children eventually. And there was to nine years. Your husband, the poet was was writing. Yes, he was writing plays. He was.
And so life must have seemed for an amount of time. It did look magic, most magic life. And just around the Portobello Road, all around that area, immediately after the wall was the most wonderful place to be. Everybody was writing something, writing poetry, writing plays, painting pictures, dancing everything. It was joyful and it was like a huge village. It was wonderful. Tell me about your next piece of music that this goes back to India.
And I think one of the most beautiful pieces of music that blended in with the night, the blended in with the big moon and the smell of the jasmine. And the romance was Sheherazade.
The opening of the young prince and the young princess from Rimsky Korsakov, Sheherazade, so you've been describing this wonderful life, a life of acceptance, of creativity, of all the things that you loved.
Yes, you have.
You had two young children and you decided that you needed you needed life with, well, those very sort of mundane life with a garden.
Yes. And so you moved out of Notting Hill? I did, yes. And you went over to the suburbs backing onto IPIC Epping Forest and you moved to the suburbs.
Did not bring you joy? No, my husband left almost straightaway. No money and and no acceptance as well, because in a very prim suburb, to be on your own with two children, you were ignored. People would cross the road round and speak quite literally. Oh, yes. It was a very, very unhappy state to be in. And I used to go to jump out and buy about a two pennyworth of broken China, and I used to come back and throw it at the wall, things like that.
Pretty good therapy, really. I didn't realise it. I just did it instinctively with. Yes, as you say, you went to jumble sales.
I mean, money was very tight and I went to jumble sales.
Well, most of the things we had were from jumble sales, not food. I always had lovely fresh food, but everything else was.
And so how did you manage for money? I mean, you very, very badly had very, very small amount of money. I did all kinds of awful shows. I was a a postman and I worked in a plastic bag factory looking for holes in plastic bags. So looking for holes and yes, rejecting them if he had a hole in it, you know, mean, that sounds like total misery.
Was that. Oh, yes. I was all terrible. And I worked in shops. I learned how to work in a shop and so on. Anything to earn just a few pounds just to make sure we had enough to eat. That was my main ambition, was to have enough fresh food to eat and the clothes they could come from a jumble sale. That didn't matter. And then you see, the man who had bought my house couldn't get a mortgage on it because it was so moldy and he was sending me ten pounds a month and that saved my bacon.
Always something comes and saved my bacon.
Did you always have the sense that there was something good? Yes. Jam tomorrow? Yes.
But I didn't know how far ahead it was. It was a very long way ahead and I couldn't see it will come to that next fortnight.
Tell me about your next piece of music.
This is a wind up gramophone and the old records I bought from the jumble sales because I think on a desert island you see very nice not only to hear singing voices, but to hear a speech and hear is a voice of speech that I like very much and is so English. Be lovely to have on a desert island. To see me dance the polka, said Mr. Wagg like a bear with my dog. We like to look for the way you seem chiming peacocks.
I don't suppose they are standing as children, leggy, Fox, Maroondah, Marine and staff to see me for my pistol through the distance blue as my coat like Willingdon Bob in the back with Bristol-Myers Squibb while wheezing hurdy gurdy of the mighty wind blows me to the tune of Andy Rooney, sturdy and bright as as he was back with zinnias candidate still is Mrs. Madigan's jacket as she gapes at the end.
Steel Steel Edith Sitwell reciting her own work Poca from Facade Soulas Smith. You had these years of sustaining your family with your young children, with these jobs that you hated and that were hard work.
Yes, but you wanted to reconnect was the thing that had lit the little fire inside which was acting.
It was. And so what did you decide to do?
It just tried everything I used to by the stage and I was always sending up my photographs and and and getting them back. Oh, not getting them back. Always. Always, no. Always, no.
For many years you plugged away. You studied method acting in stage. Charles Marvis came over from America and he brought a method that was about the end of the fifties and he chose, oh, just a handful of people to work together. And we worked together actually five years. And I was doing these menial jobs to pay the fare and to go and a baby minder and all that kind of thing just to come and do it. So you had you had kept the show on the road.
And then I'm going to jump forward a bit just because there's so much to tell. You were working in Hamleys, you were selling Christmas toys and there's a call in Hamleys one day.
Tell me what happened just before Christmas selling toys, little Cuscuna. And somebody says there's a young director called Mike Lee who is making his first improvised film and he wants some. By that time, I was about forty nine years old. He wants someone who is middle aged. So I went to see him and I got that part. I said his first film, Bleak Moments. How long was the audition? About six hours. And you just had to do nothing except wait for an ambulance to come and take you to the outpatients.
That's all I was doing.
And so you got the part you made two films with Mike Lee. You made comments about labor management and hard labor. And that was it. That was it. I never went back to grotty jobs again. And I, I was aware that after all that time, this was the magic thing that I was waiting for. I didn't I didn't know that it was just wonderful.
What do you think the difference is when success hits somebody, when they're. Well, I mean, you were almost fifty. You said I was. Do you think were you able to appreciate it more or were you afraid that it might slip away? Oh, no, it wasn't going to slip away. I wasn't going to slip away. I'd wasted all that time. My children were grown up.
What did they make of the fact that their mother was now a proper professional?
I'm not really sure, really, because they'd seen me dragging around in jumble sales and no money.
And I don't really know what they think about it. I don't mean you you won a BAFTA for a private function. Yes, I did. Yes. Yes. How much did the Taliban it how much did the public recognition mean to you of something like that?
Everything. Well, after all those years of being rejected and the poverty and, you know, scratching around for threatened, it was just simply wonderful.
Tell me about your next piece of music then.
Oh, this is just one very nice thing I did at the Royal Court. It was called a chair by Carole Churchill. And I remember I was projected into the audience by a piece of music and I found it so thrilling that it inspired me even as I was speaking. It's just one long stream of beautiful music. Stephenson is playing the opening of John Tabernas, The Protecting Veil, so Liz Smith, you had great acclaim and Alan Bennett's a private function.
You had many varied roles. The acting offers were swarming in. And then these two roles that I suppose cemented you in the nation's consciousness. You were in the Vicar of Dibley of the royal family. Yeah, great roles to be were great roles, great roles. I was so lucky. See the things that did come my way and they were good.
And did you feel that all the groundwork that you'd done this five years of studying the method, beating down the agents doors.
My whole life was in all the emotion and tragedy and and laughter and everything else was in there? Oh, yes.
And unusually, I understand that you watch your own performances. Yes. Because I can pick up things that I shouldn't have done. I mustn't do that again. Yes. I like to criticise it and think, you know, I should have been another sang longer or something like that. Do you find that you find that a difficult process? No, I quite enjoy it. It's a pleasure. I've had it after not having it. A pleasure to see yourself.
What a pleasure to be there.
You've got two children of your own and grandchildren.
All grandchildren. Yes. All grown up.
And do you feel I mean, I don't mean to sound glib about this, but do you feel the satisfaction of having reached some sort of resolution? Yes, I do. I do feel that. And I feel very grateful that I've been able to, because for all I know, I might have gone on and on just working in shops or being a personal thing.
Did you have a profound belief in your own talent?
Yes, I did. That's what drove me young. It really drove me on. All I wanted was the chance and the chance I'd got the thumbs down. I think I'd have accepted it, but I didn't get the thumbs down. So it was wonderful, really. It was wonderful when it did happen. Tell me about your next piece of music then.
Now, this is Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream. This takes me back to my student days in the little theatre in Westbourne Grove. And when I went to a student and I was doing a stage management and I was dragging a curtain made of red, felt up and down with a thick piece of wood at the bottom, clanging you up, down. And I had to drop the needle onto onto the music at precise moment. And I never got quite on the right moment.
And every night Titania used to repay me by being so clumsy. Oh, but it was wonderful that.
The overture from Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream, so you're 86 numbers. What about your life now? You live in a sort of a retirement flat? No, I've moved, yes, because I found houses a bit heavy to keep going. I moved to a retirement flat. It's a good idea because I've got a warden and I've got friends that, you know, they're so nice and friendly. I feel I've got friends and neighbors laughs. How do you think that you would do on an island on your own being cast away?
Well, I wouldn't sleep at night. I would be frightened of something creepy out of the forest. So I'd sleep all day. And I think I could scrounge enough fruit and little fishes, things like that. Yes. And of course, I love I love being by the sea anyway. Oh, I love the beach. I might not ever want to come back. I think you see, I think you're such a resource yourself that you make quite a happy life for yourself.
I think, I think I, I'd, I really enjoy it. I'd love to be on a desert island right now, quite frankly.
Tell me about your final piece of music then. Well, Granddad's choice of Peter Dawson singing one of his lovely songs. I thought I could go over the course of a big old shuttle, but could you hold the ball away from I heard the sound of the. And I think it's one thing, and then I saw the whole village go dancing in and out of the houses, they came on board young, old all the time, and that quaint old columnist, Peter Dawson and the floral dance.
So I will give you the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible. Liz, you're allowed to take one other book. What's it going to be?
Oh, I would take a very large catalog and I'd go through it and choose something different every day to order as soon as I got back showing great optimism.
And what about a luxury?
Yeah, I've neglected my painting dreadfully for years and years. I'd like everything, paints, pencils, paper, everything. You may have a complete. Yes. A complete artist outfit. Yes.
And if you had to choose just one disc, which one would it be?
I think I'd take Roy. I love his voice and I love him. Say only that only and I'll be lonely. Island Roy Orbison. You may have Liz Smith. Thank you very much for letting us see your desk. Thank you very much for having me.
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