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McEwan, Geraldine (1932-)


Main image of McEwan, Geraldine (1932-)

For such a theatrical and idiosyncratic actress, the deliciously high camp comedienne Geraldine McEwan has enjoyed a very successful television career. Born on 9 May 1932, she was acting in the local theatre in Windsor at 14 and starring in London's West End by 18. After a short stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon in the early 1960s, she joined the Royal National Theatre, acting alongside Laurence Olivier, Robert Stephens, Jeremy Brett and Albert Finney throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Having learned her craft in repertory theatre, she never went to drama school, so it is somewhat ironic that her husband, Hugh Cruttwell, who she married in 1953, became principal of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

Her first television appearances came in the 1950s, notably in the six-part Crime on Our Hands (ITV, 1954), in which she acted alongside Jack Watling, Dennis Price and Sonia Dresdel. But her burgeoning theatre career meant that, apart from the occasional classical Play of the Month (BBC, 1965-83), she did not make much of an impression on television audiences until The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (ITV, 1978). Some distinguished actresses had played the role on stage and screen - Vanessa Redgrave and Maggie Smith in particular - but Muriel Spark maintained that McEwan came the closest to the character she had created in the original novel, even though the adaptation veered considerably from the plot, choosing instead to imagine new episodes in the lives of the characters. Nevertheless, McEwan's impeccable Morningside accent and intensity in the role resulted in a moving and successful portrayal.

Her next notable television appearance was as Mrs Proudie, the new Bishop's wife, in The Barchester Chronicles (BBC, 1982). Petite, slender and pretty in real life, McEwan looked nothing like Trollope's large and ungainly character, but proved just as formidable - steely, ambitious, and single-minded, she wraps her meek husband round her little finger and always gets her way. She employed her extraordinary voice to perfection, purring in her lower register one moment, then soaring up into the upper reaches of her range the next. She can point a phrase with thrilling accuracy, be silkily seductive or wither an opponent with sarcasm at ten paces. It is a masterclass in subtle acting, beautifully judged for the small screen - and very funny.

Three years later, television audiences were treated again to a wonderful display of her skills in a very different role, in the much-loved Mapp and Lucia (Channel 4, 1985-86), starring alongside the equally brilliant Prunella Scales and Nigel Hawthorne, in a high comedy of manners set in Tilling-on-Sea, Sussex. Costumed in a dazzling array of 1920s outfits, topped with a chic bob, her Lucia is rich, sophisticated, elegant, light-hearted, amused and amusing, and not a little pretentious, peppering her conversation with bad French or Italian phrases, while her habit of bidding friends 'au reservoir' is quickly copied by her peers - as it was by the show's legions of fans. 1990 saw McEwan essay another astonishing role as Mother in Jeanette Winterson's adaptation of her novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (BBC). Here she is frighteningly extreme, a zealous, bible-thumping follower of the local Pentecostal church, grilling her small, adopted daughter Jess with biblical questions, smacking her when she gets them wrong, grooming her to become a missionary and aiding her 'exorcism' when the teenage Jess reveals disturbing signs of aberrant sexuality. She is at once funny and terrifying, and the performance earned her a Best Actress BAFTA, one of many awards during her long career.

In 2004 she took on the mantle of Miss Marple, previously embodied in what many fans saw as the definitive characterisation by Joan Hickson. It was a hard act to follow and McEwan was not helped by the producers' determination to 'sex up' and change the famous stories almost beyond recognition in pursuit of a newer and younger audience. For once, her mannerisms and comic style did not work so well for the character, although she made twelve films in the series Agatha Christie Marple (ITV, 2004-) before announcing her retirement from the role in 2009.

Although mainly known for her stage and later television work, she has made some notable film appearances, including the camp and grotesque witch Mortianna in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves (US, 1991), which reunited her with her Barchester Chronicles co-star Alan Rickman; and another religious tyrant, the chilling Sister Bridget in The Magdalene Sisters (UK/Eire, d. Peter Mullan, 2002). Like two other petite actresses of her generation, Prunella Scales and Judi Dench, she is able to transform herself physically from role to role and move effortlessly from formidable to skittish or from comic to terrifying.

Janet Moat

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Springing Lenin (1992)Springing Lenin (1992)

A Scottish spinster acquires an unusual statue in this quirky short film

Thumbnail image of Barchester Chronicles, The (1982)Barchester Chronicles, The (1982)

Beautifully-observed adaptation of Trollope's church intrigue

Thumbnail image of Mapp and Lucia (1985-86)Mapp and Lucia (1985-86)

Sprightly adaptations of E.F. Benson's tales of feuding in a 1930s village

Thumbnail image of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1990)Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1990)

BBC dramatisation of Jeanette Winterson's autobiographical novel

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