Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Anna Massey RIP

Anna Massey, who has died of cancer aged 73, made her name on the stage as a teenager in French-window froth. She then graduated, with effortless and extraordinary ease, to the classics and to the work of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and David Hare. In later years, she became best known for her award-winning work in television and film. What constantly impressed was her fastidious intelligence and capacity for stillness: always the mark of a first-rate actor.

Born in Thakeham, West Sussex, she was bred into show business although, in personal terms, that proved something of a mixed blessing. Her father was Raymond Massey, a Canadian actor who achieved success in Hollywood; her mother was Adrianne Allen who had appeared in the original production of Noël Coward's Private Lives. Anna's godfather was the film director John Ford.

She married the actor Jeremy Brett in 1958. The marriage was dissolved in 1963. In 1988 she married Uri Andres, a Russian metallurgist at London's Imperial College. She is survived by Uri; her son, David, from her first marriage; and two grandchildren.

Michael Powell's lurid Peeping Tom (1960) provided Anna Massey with her second, and most significant, film role in a 50-year career on screen. Massey gave a wonderfully sympathetic performance as the naive downstairs neighbour of a psychotic landlord (Karlheinz Böhm) whom she finds both repellent and attractive. More often, Massey, with her cut-glass English accent, conveyed a cold and repressed character on screen.

She had made her feature film debut aged 21 in Ford's uncharacteristic Gideon's Day (1958) as the daughter of a Scotland Yard inspector played by Jack Hawkins. In Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965), she was a nervous teacher. In 1969, she seemed content to play Anthony Hopkins's frustrated wife in The Looking Glass War and, in De Sade, a plain-looking woman married to the naughty marquis (Keir Dullea), while he romps around with her sexy sister.

In Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972), she was strangled by the "Neck-Tie Murderer", bundled into a sack full of potatoes and thrown on to a moving truck. Somehow it was as if Hitch wanted to make amends for her being spared from death in Peeping Tom.

The following year, in an episode entitled Midnight Mess from the portmanteau film Vault of Horror (1973), she was murdered by her brother (played by her real-life sibling Daniel) for her inheritance, although she turns out to be a vampire who serves her murderer tomato juice in a restaurant which happens to be his blood. By way of contrast, she also appeared that year, with Hopkins and Claire Bloom, in A Doll's House, adapted from Henrik Ibsen's play.

Variously cast in roles such as nannies, nuns and nurses, Massey starred in dozens of British and American films, including The Importance of Being Earnest (as Miss Prism, 2002) and Possession (2002) and, in particular, television productions, which were far more rewarding. The most prominent of these were literary adaptations which offered roles such as Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1964), Lucetta in The Mayor of Casterbridge (1978), a creepy Mrs Danvers in Rebecca (1979), Aunt Norris in Mansfield Park (1983) and Miss Pross in A Tale of Two Cities (1989). Massey also had parts in the TV series The Pallisers (1974), Couples (1976), The Diamond Brothers (1991) and Midsomer Murders (1998, 2009) and as Lady Thatcher, opposite Derek Jacobi, in Pinochet in Suburbia (2006).

Perhaps her greatest triumph on television was her Bafta-winning performance as the lonely crime writer on holiday in Switzerland in Hotel du Lac (1986), Christopher Hampton's adaptation of Anita Brookner's novel. It was the sort of role in which Massey was supreme: placid on the surface, with passion deep within her.

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