Friday, September 08, 2006

Angela, She Wrote

I think Angela Lansbury is fantastic. I can’t put my finger on the exact reason, but I think it’s because she’s the human equivalent of a plate of corned beef hash. All of her performances are comfort food for the soul. Whether it’s her vocal abilities as Mrs Potts in Beauty And The Beast, her portrayal of Alice Garrett in The First Olympics: Athens 1896 or any of her Christmas-related characters (of which there are many - Lansbury really is the queen of the festive period). You can’t watch Angela Lansbury without thinking of afternoons at your grandmother’s house - she’s bought a dozen ring doughnuts and a family-sized custard tart from Ferrari’s bakery and is forcing it all down your throat along with a glass of Corona fizzy orange.

Or was that just another of my unique childhood experiences?

Of course, one of Lansbury’s most famous characters is that of Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote. Nothing says cold-winter-afternoon-curled-up-on-the-sofa-watching-telly-while-it-pisses-down-outside better than this quaint (but great) crime drama series.

Jessica Fletcher was a very lucky woman. A retired English teacher turned crime author, her hometown of Cabot Cove was rife with violent crime. There were enough shady characters and events in that one little place to keep her inspired for the rest of her life. In addition to this, whenever she went on a tour to promote her latest book, crime seemed to follow her. She’d turn up in New York, London or Paris and no sooner would she step off the plane before finding herself mixed up in some sort of sinister plot. Of course, the police would always be puzzled, or on the brink of arresting the wrong person when Jessica would step in to save the day, all within forty-five minutes.

Although the storylines were often similar or a little contrived, they were always well written and acted. As with many detective shows, the pleasure came not from the crime itself but the way in which the culprit was uncovered. Jessica Fletcher is up there with Lt. Columbo in this respect. She has the talent of being able to wrap people around her finger. She gives the impression that she’s just a little old lady who couldn’t possibly understand the ways of the criminal mind. But that’s not the case. She has a powerful imagination and is able to solve crimes that have stumped even the greatest police minds. And that’s why she’s so watchable - she’s an ordinary person doing extraordinary things. She manages to stick two fingers up to the authorities (but without ever having to be so uncouth herself).

On the whole, Lansbury’s ability to play the unlikely hero so well has become her trademark throughout her career. Her characters tend to have a Cinderella quality in that they begin the tale as a lowly maid, but end up having a much bigger importance by the end of the story. Perhaps the best example of this is Mrs ‘Arris Goes To Paris - one of my favourite Christmas movies (I insist on watching it every December along with It’s A Wonderful Life and Jingle All The Way - luckily, Channel Five usually oblige on all three counts). She plays the titular Mrs (H)arris who has had a lifelong dream to own a Dior dress. By the end of the film, she has not only made it to Paris, but hooked up with a Count along the way (played by Omar Sharif - who else?).

Typical Lansbury. It's a modern fairytale.

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