Obituary: Geraldine McEwan, actress

Geraldine McEwan: Versatile actress whose sparkling character roles included Jean Brodie and Miss Marple. Picture: ITV
Geraldine McEwan: Versatile actress whose sparkling character roles included Jean Brodie and Miss Marple. Picture: ITV
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Born: 9 May, 1932 in Windsor, Berkshire. Died: 30 January, 2015 in London, aged 82

Geraldine McEwan had a distinguished career in the theatre and on screen, showing a fine versatility that embraced the classics, comedy and some sparkling character roles on television, including Miss Marple, Jean Brodie and Lucia in Mapp and Lucia – all three unforgettable and definitive. McEwan brought to them a restrained charm – never over-egging the character yet making them finely cut characters and sharp as crystal.

Perhaps, latterly she was best known for her prim and very proper Miss Marple – the lady in the squashed hat who solved crimes in stately English houses while she knitted – and McEwan could knit for real.

In the Seventies she came to Scotland to lead the cast as the fiercely independent Jean Brodie in STV’s famous mini-series, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. McEwan invested the character with an authority, wit and charm that made Brodie human and alive.

The lavish production was filmed throughout Edinburgh with extensive location shooting – the first episode included scenes of Princes Street with the castle in the background and in Dean Village. It opened with her arriving at Waverley station saying: “I have come home. I have come home to Scotland and to Edinburgh, its capital city.”

Her interpretation won her wide praise – one critic called it “an indelible performance” and the Edinburgh-born author of the original novel, Muriel Spark, considered McEwan “the quintessential portrayal of the iconic character.” Years later Spark was asked if, after seeing many actresses in the role, who was number one: “Geraldine McEwan” she replied. “Without hesitation”.

Geraldine McEwan’s father (her family name was McKeown) worked as a printers’ compositor. She won a scholarship to Windsor county girls’ school and became involved with the Windsor Rep at the Theatre Royal. There she met her future husband Hugh Cruttwell, who later became the principal of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

McEwan never attended drama school but in the early Fifties was seen in the west end in some successful light comedies including Summertime with Dirk Bogarde directed by Peter Hall.

McEwan was much in demand and appeared opposite Laurence Olivier in the premiere of John Osborne’s The Entertainer and in the famous production of Dance of Death. She starred with Dorothy Tutin in Twelfth Night, as Ophelia opposite Ian Bannen’s Hamlet and with Christopher Plummer in Much Ado About Nothing, all at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and in School for Scandal with Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud.

McEwan was also in the challenging original production of Joe Orton’s Loot with Kenneth Williams in 1965. It folded before it came to London and McEwan found the original script unworkable – as, indeed, did Williams.

McEwan won many awards in her career, including two Evening Standard Best Actress Awards: in 1983 for The Rivals and in 1995 for The Way Of The World, where her performance of Lady Wishfort was described as “sublimely funny”.

She won a Bafta TV award for best actress in 1991 in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.

In 1985 Channel 4 screened EF Benson’s wonderfully camp Mapp and Lucia with McEwan’s magnificently catty Lucia balancing Prunella Scales’s Mapp. McEwan hugely enjoyed herself as Lucia – her cod-Italian phrases and eyes swiveling mischievously brought life to the entire series.

Many consider her Jean Brodie as revelatory. It was all together lighter and less politically harsh – there was a subtle knowing twinkle in the eye when McEwan addressed her “girls” at the Marcia Blanes School. But there was a stirring ring in her delivery when she addressed the class: “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” McEwan was in resolute voice and with a very refined Morningside accent.

From 2004 McEwan played Miss Marple in 12 TV films. Her husband had recently died and after a year she needed a fresh professional challenge. Despite the famous names that had played the role, McEwan imbued the lady sleuth with a freshness and sly charm. She certainly enjoyed the role and said when she hung up her knitting bag in 2003: “It’s been an absolute pleasure to work on Miss Marple and I leave with fond memories.”

She restricted her appearances in movies but was memorably seen in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves with Kevin Costner and as the cold-hearted sister in The Magdalene Sisters.

In 1988 McEwan was asked by Kenneth Branagh to direct As You Like It for his Renaissance Theatre Company. The production toured the major theatres in Scotland and played to packed houses. The two also appeared together in Branagh’s film of Henry V and Love’s Labour’s Lost.

It is thought she turned down all official honours.

Her husband died in 2002 and McEwan is survived by their son and daughter.