There’s a Liz Smith who calls herself “the 2000-year-old gossip columnist.” She’s often a skilled and entertaining writer. We won’t be talking about her. We will, however, be talking about Hollywood.
I’ve never considered a facelift because I earn my living by looking old. —Liz Smith
I’d like to pay homage to the other Liz Smith. (Like Buster Merryfield, my introduced me to this UK treasure. I owe him so much. What was my life before Dr. Who? Black Adder? Red Dwarf? 10/14/10 addendum: As of last weekend—Mr. Bean!)
Our Liz Smith is a British character actress born Betty Gleadle in 1921. She’s one of those faces you’ve probably seen but never noticed.
Liz Smith’s mother died in childbirth when she was two.
Her baby sister died a few months later. When she was seven, her father walked out on her, promising he’d write. The letter never came.
In her own words, “My father was a bit of a sod really… he just went off with loads of women and then married one who said he had to cut off completely from his prior life and that meant me.” Her beloved maternal grandmother, who raised her, died when Smith was 20.
During World War II, Smith served in the Women’s Royal Navy. Right after discharge, she married sailor Jack Thomas, whom she met while serving in India. Thomas walked out on her when their children were two and six—with a good friend.
After my divorce was a terribly bitter time. For about 18 months I walked the streets openly crying, I didn’t care. I used to go to jumble sales and spend three old pennies on a whole pile of old china; cups, saucers, plates, anything, and then go home and throw them at the wall. When I look back I think that was healthy.
Smith worked odd jobs, mostly in shops and offices, to support her children. She felt the stigma of single motherhood in the ’50s, when the neighbors would cross the street to avoid greeting her.
When did she know she wanted to be an actor?
As a girl, her grandmother sent her to after-school elocution class so she could make friends. The class often toured village halls, putting on shows. She says, “The warmth and lights and laughter was magic, just magic.”
When her children got older, Smith took acting classes at night and worked summers at Butlins, a family resort chain that also provided entertainment. She could spend all day with her kids, Sarah and Robert, and appear in the evening shows. Her big break came in 1971:
The moment that my life transformed was when I was standing in Hamleys one Christmas, flogging toys, and I got a message from this young director named Mike Leigh. I was nearly 50 at the time, but he wanted a middle-aged woman to do improvisations. I went to an audition and I got the job of the mother in this improvised film – Bleak Moments, his first film – and it changed my life.
Since then, she’s worked non-stop and has become the UK’s favorite fictional granny. Some shows you may have seen her in (and not even realized):
- The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
- The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles
- The Vicar of Dibley (BBC Series)
- A Christmas Carol (with Patrick Stewart)
- Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist
- City of Ember (with Tim Robbins and Bill Murray)
- Charlie and the Chocolate Family (with Johnny Depp. She played Sleepy Grandma Georgina)
In the End—Rock and Roll Royalty
In 2007, Smith published a short story collection entitled Jottings: Flights of Fancy, appeared in a music video by Little Man Tate, and won the “Best Television Comedy Actress” at the British Comedy Awards for her role as the tippling Nana in The Royle Family.
(The Royle Family, a BBC show that ran from 1998 to 2000 with subsequent yearly specials, centered on a telly-obsessed Manchester family. Although it never made it to the States, you can pick up the first few series on Netflix.)
In July 2009, she received an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for services to Drama.
Smith has never forgotten where she came from or what matters. In 2002, she said, “I have four grandchildren, aged from 12 to 27, and next year I’ll have had 30 years without working in a shop. Not everyone has a nice slice of life like that.”
She retired from acting recently, at age 87, after having a stroke. She’s still having trouble walking and reading, but plans to write more short stories.
I can’t even imagine what kept her going—abandoned by her father and her husband, spurned by her neighbors for the awful crime of not having a husband, having to work in toy store during Christmas (that’s really paying your dues). I adore her even more because she’s no Pollyanna. She admits to very natural feelings of envy for her child co-stars because she didn’t have their opportunities.
Yet she kept the spark in her soul alive, the warmth and lights and laughter that was magic, and at 50 carved out a whole new career that lasted almost four decades.
I’m very proud because I had rejection for so many years, and it seemed as though I’d never get anywhere, but I was determined to keep on trying. And I’m thrilled I did get somewhere in the end.
Update, December 26, 2016: I’m very sad to report that Liz Smith passed away on Christmas Eve at age 95. What an amazing life!
Lessons from Liz Smith
- Like her contemporary, P.D. James, Liz Smith shows you can take care of your people and pursue your dream. They needed to persevere over the long haul to do both, but they kept going.
- Excavate that magic memory. Let it lead you on a new adventure or help keep you going.
- Her Royle Highness. The Daily Mail: 28 September 2007
- This much I know. The Guardian: 21 October 2007
- Liz Smith cruises into her retirement. The Telegraph: 09 July 2009