❉ The centenary of Margaret Lockwood, one of Britain’s most successful film stars, is marked with this in-depth biography.
Margaret Lockwood (1916-1990) was Britain’s number one box office star during the war years. A three-time winner of the Daily Mail Film Award, her iconic films ‘The Lady Vanishes’, ‘The Man in Grey’ and ‘The Wicked Lady’ gained her legions of fans and the nickname Queen of the Screen.
A rather controversial biographer once complained how rapidly biography becomes archaeology. This is certainly true for someone born in 1916 and who stopped film-making in the 1950s. It helps, therefore, that the subject of Lyndsy Spence’s biography, the actress Margaret Lockwood, wrote her own life in 1955. She was just half way through living it, and naturally suitably censored aspects of her private life, which Spence seeks to correct. The plus side is that the autobiography gives colour and depth to those essential early years which biographers have often battled to fill. These are the formative years of existence, so many of your later mistakes can find their origins here. Whether this is true in Lockwood’s case, you can decide for yourself. There are also some fascinating investigations into Lockwood’s parents, with some startling revelations. Oh, those Colonial Victorians.
Born in British India, Lockwood was brought up in England, far away from her father, who worked on the railways in India. Ostensibly this was to receive a proper education, which neither parent enjoyed, but he showed little interest in either his third wife or children and only visited home every seven years. Lockwood’s mother seemed disinclined to demonstrate much affection for her daughter but did not prevent her daughter from taking an interest in the cinema (the Crystal Palace, no less) and took her for dancing and elocution lessons. This was probably because Lockwood’s earliest ambition was to become a missionary. She had an early break as an actress when she got a part in Noel Coward’s extravaganza ‘Cavalcade’ in 1931, but the rather strong language of theatrical life appalled her mother who took her out of the production. Coward would later ‘sabotage’, as Spence puts it, Lockwood’s later ambition to become a stage actress when he prevented a London run of one of his plays. He didn’t think she could handle his comedy, nor liked the liberties taken with his text.
If a theme can be plucked from this worthy book, it is achieving independence. One of the few ways a woman in the early twentieth century could be independent was financially. To make it big in showbiz, you need talent and Lockwood had this in abundance. She went through the conventional route of RADA although her mother once again nearly ruined things. She prevented her daughter from signing up with an agent until she was convinced, in person, that the he was not a white slave trader. If anything, Herbert de Leon became a father figure and a life-long friend. It is not surprising that Lockwood retired from acting a couple of years after his death in 1979. Men in her life were few and far between and he lasted longer than any of her relationships combined.
In short and swift chapters, Spence takes us from the early days of Q Theatre at Kew Bridge and an early screen test, which cost her eye brows, before her first film contract. Lockwood heeded her mother’s advice not to allow this profession to cheapen her and did not have an affair with a married studio executive. Lockwood was ‘incorruptible.’ Besides, she was currently seeing a man, but not with her mother’s approval, and never received her blessing. The couple married in secret, as much from the studio as her mother.
We go from her first film, a disaster but one where she meets Carol Reed before he became the director who cast her several times and shaped her career. This leads to Hitchcock and ‘The Lady Vanishes’, arguably her most famous film, at least the only one that springs to mind when I hear the name. Towards the end of her life, Michael Winner remade the film to absolutely no acclaim and tried to bulldoze Lockwood into coming to his premier and endorse the film. The lengths to which he went are amusingly presented in the book.
Lockwood tried to work in Hollywood, following in the footsteps of the British colony that was making its mark, but she did not enjoy the experience and had a rough introduction to the press. It didn’t help that war was looming in Europe and she was separated from both mother and husband. On her return to England, his wartime activities separated them yet again, although by now, this was a relief to the pair of them. Her success and fame was something he found difficult to reconcile with what was expected from a conventional husband/wife relationship. She found herself in love with a enigmatic studio figure, who appears later to have been paid off by her husband when the war was over and they briefly tried to save their marriage for the sake of their young daughter. Divorce followed a few years later, but no scandal wrecked her career.
As the most successful screen actress of her generation, Lockwood had a huge and loyal following, which was brought home to the actress when she was mobbed during a tour organised by the studios. Crowds appeared wherever she went, and one lady thumped the back of her head, and cried out ‘I touched her nob.’ Other occasions, she would hear people tell her they preferred Anna Neagle, an actress the press was using to create a rivalry. It must have been disappointing that Lockwood’s final studio contract was actually given to her by Neagle’s husband, and they all worked very well together. Indeed, Spense portrays Lockwood as a consummate professional, with only Kathleen Byron, another leading lady of her day, detecting any jealousy. But everyone agrees she was professional to work with, and could well stand up to difficult leading men like James Mason and Stewart Granger.
Independence is also expressed by that rather familiar idea of a contracted artist and a growing dissatisfaction with the scripts on offer. This lead to an estrangement with one studio and the loss of a £13,000 fee. Yet, with the film industry slowly dying a death in Britain, Lockwood moved into television, beginning with a three hour live production of ‘Pygmalion’, something she wanted to do on stage and be seen as a legitimate actor. She did experience success on the stage, the most notable was her collaboration with Agatha Christie. We learn about 1965’s BBC riverside serial ‘The Flying Swan’ and her later lead role in ITV early seventies series ‘Justice is a Woman’, but these are covered all too briefly.
Independence cost her her marriage, and the divorce brought about an irreconcilable rift with her mother, that only her daughter bridged in later life. Another relationship with a much younger man ended up with him leaving seventeen years later for a much younger woman, although Spense relates how this relationship had a tragic sting in its tail.
Lockwood’s career may have been her driving force, but this did not lead to an estrangement with her only daughter, who eagerly followed in her mother’s footsteps and achieved great success herself. Even in retirement, Lockwood exercised independence and shunned publicity and the public. She spent her final decade as a recluse, this country’s Greta Garbo, as her daughter puts it.
You come away from this excellent and well-written book admiring Lockwood the person, who is far more interesting than the parts she played, but that is so often the way. She was single-minded enough to defy her mother, but was strong enough to prevent inflicting emotional damage on her own daughter and fill up the gossip columns. Now that’s an achievement.
❉ ‘Margaret Lockwood: Queen of the Silver Screen’ by Lyndsy Spence is available in hardback from Fantom Publishing, RRP £19.99 and can be ordered directly from the publishers.
❉ Lyndsy Spence is the founder of the Margaret Lockwood Society, an online community dedicated to the classic star. She co-wrote ‘The Flower Girl’, a short film directed by Emmy Award winner Nick Nanton and shot on location in Los Angeles. As a freelance writer she has written for BBC News Magazine, The Lady, Vintage Life, and Social & Personal. She is the author of ‘The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life’, ‘Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford’, and ‘The Mistress of Mayfair’.