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Massey, Anna (1937-2011)


Main image of Massey, Anna (1937-2011)

Slight of figure, with a small face dominated by enormous eyes that were employed to great effect on screen, Anna Massey "cornered the market in the prim, the spinsterly and the repressed", according to one interviewer, Elizabeth Grice. Her BAFTA-winning role as cardigan-clad romantic novelist Edith Hope, fleeing from a muddled love life to the Hotel du Lac (BBC, tx. 2/3/1986) is, for many, her defining image.

But this is to forget the many times she deviated from the nervous, uncertain and downtrodden to surprise and electrify her audiences, notably as Mrs Danvers in Rebecca (BBC, 1979), who, she said, she played "like a lesbian in a French film, in a slinky black silk dress"; as bossy aunt Norris in Mansfield Park (BBC, 1983); as austere Miss Murdstone in David Copperfield (NBC (US), tx. 15/3/1970); or as monstrous Aunt Jemima Stanbury in He Knew He Was Right (BBC, 2006).

Massey seemed to have it all, with her privileged showbusiness background, but all was not as it seemed. She was born on 11 August 1937 to extrovert, party-giving actress Adrianne Allen and Canadian actor Raymond Massey, who left the family home the following year to marry someone else. Allen then married that woman's former husband. Anna's brother was the troubled actor Daniel Massey, from whom she was estranged for many years. In her autobiography Telling Some Tales, published in 2006, she described the loneliness of her life in this dysfunctional family and how she relied for 30 years on the emotional and practical support of her childhood nanny. Upon the nanny's death in 1968, Massey had a nervous breakdown and her chestnut red hair turned white overnight. A short early marriage to actor Jeremy Brett brought a child but no lasting happiness.

She began her career in a starring role in the West End theatre, aged 17, with no formal training. Her first film role was in Gideon's Day (1958), directed by her godfather, John Ford. When she was not being spinsterly in cardigans, she was falling foul of serial killers, notably in Peeping Tom (d. Michael Powell, 1960) and Frenzy (d. Alfred Hitchcock, 1972). Throughout her career she played in many British and Hollywood films, in most genres including horror, often cast as an eccentric, and continued to make many memorable appearances on stage.

Perhaps her television work was the most rewarding, giving her a chance to show what critic Michael Billington has called "a hint of inner steel" behind her delicate looks. Her best roles included Lucetta in The Mayor of Casterbridge (BBC, 1978), Laura Kennedy in The Pallisers (BBC, 1974) and the artist in Journey into the Shadows - Portrait of Gwen John (BBC, 1984), in which, aged 47, she appeared nude. In more recent years she focused on radio work, lending her cut-class diction to dramas and documentaries. A subtle and intelligent performer, she was always able to find the strength as well as the vulnerability of her characters, and she was awarded the CBE in 2005.

Janet Moat

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Selected credits

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Rupert Everett stars in a tale of public school sexual and political rebellion

Thumbnail image of Gigolos, The (2006)Gigolos, The (2006)

Offbeat comedy about a gigolo and his valet

Thumbnail image of Peeping Tom (1960)Peeping Tom (1960)

Notorious horror film which all but ended Michael Powell's career

Thumbnail image of Afternoon Off (1979)Afternoon Off (1979)

Tragicomedy about an Asian waiter on a blind date in Hartlepool.

Thumbnail image of Mayor of Casterbridge, The (1978)Mayor of Casterbridge, The (1978)

Dennis Potter adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel

Thumbnail image of Midsummer Night's Dream, A (1964)Midsummer Night's Dream, A (1964)

ITV adaptation of the Shakespeare play, with Benny Hill as Bottom

Thumbnail image of Pallisers, The (1974)Pallisers, The (1974)

Mammoth production of Trollope's 'political' series

Thumbnail image of Season's Greetings (1986)Season's Greetings (1986)

Biting Alan Ayckbourn drama about a disastrous family Christmas

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Thumbnail image of Massey, Raymond (1896-1983)Massey, Raymond (1896-1983)