Obituary: Edith MacArthur, Theatre and television leading lady

Edith Macarthur in Daphne Laureola at Pitlochry theatre
Edith Macarthur in Daphne Laureola at Pitlochry theatre
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Edith MacArthur, actress. Born: Ardrossan, Ayrshire, 8 March, 1926. Died: Edinburgh, 25 April, 2018.

With the death of Edith MacArthur, at the age of 92, Scottish theatre and television has lost one of its great leading ladies, an actress whose breathtaking elegance and beauty – and uncompromising dedication to the craft she loved – was matched by a brilliant intelligence, and wicked, earthy sense of humour, that won her the love and friendship of generations of colleagues across Scottish theatre and beyond.

In a career that made her one of the defining faces of Scotland in the second half of the 20th century, Edith MacArthur perhaps became best known for her television role as the sympathetic lady laird Elizabeth Cunningham, in the long-running 1980s STV drama series Take The High Road; but her true passion was for theatre, where her work took her from the postwar Wilson Barrett Company based at the Lyceum in Edinburgh, through seasons in the 1950s, 60s and 70s with the Citizens’ Theatre, Bristol Old Vic, the Royal Shakespeare Company, York Theatre Royal, and many other companies across the UK, to a later career in which her work became more focused on Scotland, and particularly on the great Tayside theatres at Dundee, Perth and Pitlochry. Many who saw them will never forget the grace, intelligence and emotional courage of her Dundee and Pitlochry performances in plays like Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, James Bridie’s Daphne Laureola, and Richard Baron’s acclaimed 1994 Dundee Rep production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, in which she played a magnificent and heartbreaking Mary Tyrone, opposite David Tennant as her son, Edmund.

Edith MacArthur was born in Ardrossan, Ayrshire in 1926, the eldest child of Donald MacArthur, who was a civil engineer, and his wife Minnie. She had two younger brothers, went to school at Ardrossan Academy, and dreamed of becoming a music teacher; but when she left school – at the height of the Second World War – she became increasingly involved with the Ardrossan & Saltcoats Players, at that time British and world champions in the field of amateur drama, and was soon determined to make a career in theatre.

During the war, she worked at an Admiralty Map Correction station in Ayrshire; then later, in the office of a local carpet factory. In 1948, though, she wrote an impassioned letter to Wilson Barrett, then the leader of a UK-wide theatre operation based in Edinburgh, asking if she could audition for his professional company; and when a telegram arrived inviting her for an interview, she donned her most glamorous dress – made from blackout material, according to her friend the playwright Sylvia Dow – and headed to Edinburgh for the meeting that would seal her fate, and mark the beginning of an astonishingly long and varied career.

Apart from her brilliant career in “legitimate theatre”, she also made early appearances in Scotland’s famous Five Past Eight variety shows, winning more friends among stars of variety and theatre including Jimmy Logan and Una McLean, and playing Fairy Godmother in many pantomimes. She struck up a lifelong working relationship with the late, great Scottish actor and director Tom Fleming, with whom she worked not only on several productions of Sir David Lindsay’s Satyre Of The Thrie Estaits – memorably playing Lady Chastitie in his great Scottish Theatre Company production of 1983-85 – but also on a hugely successful, long-running show based on readings from the voluminous letters of Thomas Carlyle and his wife Jane Welsh Carlyle.

She also had an active television career beyond Take The High Road, appearing in series including Sutherland’s Law and The Borderers, and delivering one of the great performances of her life as terminally ill elderly woman travelling the UK to visit her long-gone children in John McGrath’s 1993 television film The Long Roads. And in her later career, she was strikingly unafraid of taking on fiercely challenging and taboo-breaking roles. She appeared in Edward Albee’s brutally outspoken Three Tall Women at Perth Theatre in 2000, and in Iain Heggie’s Wiping My Mother’s A**e at the Traverse in 2001; although the final full theatre appearance logged in her own archive, donated to the National Library of Scotland, was in Uncle Varick, John Byrne’s version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, at Pitlochry in 2004.

Edith MacArthur remained single throughout her long and glamorous life, although she enjoyed the company of an army of friends and colleagues of both sexes, loved to flirt, and had her share of romantic relationships with leading men of the theatre world. She remained active in Scottish theatre well into her late seventies; and her death has brought a rare outpouring of tributes from friends, colleagues and admirers of all generations. The actress, writer and singer Gerda Stevenson, who toured with her in the Scottish Theatre Company’s 1980’s production of Jamie The Saxt, among other shows, remembers how – despite the 30-year age-gap between them – she never seemed like an older person. “She had such a sense of fun, and this wonderful, earthy sense of humour. She really was brilliant, an amazing mixture of gravitas and playfulness – and wonderfully youthful and open-minded, which is what made her such a fine actress.” The director Richard Baron and the whole company at Pitlochry – a theatre she loved with a passion – recalled her elegance and grace, founded in a formidable work ethic and rigorous stagecraft, as well as her happy working relationship with Jimmy Logan, in his final Pitlochry seasons before his death in 2001.

And this week David Tennant – whose talent she spotted when he was a 10-year-old schoolboy in Paisley – spoke of his huge pride and pleasure at having known her, and having played her son twice, in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever at the Lyceum, in 1987.

“To a 10-year-old,” he said, “she was this tall, magnificent, almost supernatural figure who seemed to twinkle with glamour. She predicted we would share a stage together one day, and although I am sure she was just being indulgent, her prediction came true. In Hay Fever at the Lyceum she was hilarious and giddy and charming. And then later, in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, she was utterly extraordinary. Fragile, bitter, girlish and broken, she was incredible. Edith had a magic about her. Offstage she sparkled and charmed, but onstage she glistened and glowed; and I will forever remember her as someone I looked up to, and still aspire to be like.”

Edith MacArthur is survived by her brothers John and Donald, her sister-in-law Jean, and her niece Janet; and also by thousands of friends, colleagues and admirers who will never forget her radiant beauty and intelligence, her absolute commitment and professionalism as an actress, her passion for all the arts, and the sense of fun that carried her with such grace and enjoyment through her long life, and brilliant career.

A funeral service for Edith MacArthur will take place at Warriston Crematorium, Edinburgh, at noon on Wednesday 9 May.

JOYCE MCMILLAN