The notes of that unmistakable piano play; enter actress Dame Angela Lansbury’s intrepid sleuth Jessica Fletcher, protagonist of the Sunday night staple: Murder She Wrote. Upon reflecting on Lansbury’s passing last month at the age of 96, I realised that the show, which cemented her as a British and American transnational treasure, formed a core part of my childhood. Lansbury characterised spending time watching US TV shows with my late granny, or ‘grunny’ as I would call her. The death of this icon seemingly closed a chapter and has since nudged me into reflecting on the formative childhood memories that have since faded from our lives.
One of the last torch-bearers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Lansbury gained notoriety for her character acting following escaping London’s Blitz to sign a deal with MGM in 1942. The deal sparked Lansbury’s first roles in the iconic films Gaslight (1944) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). The former propelled Angela to fame and gained her her first Oscar nomination. Admittedly, these early roles will not be the Angela Lansbury that I, and many others, remember her as. Though, her own becoming as a character actress, not the star, provides somewhat of an explanation as to why she was and still is a comfort to watch. She may not have been the dazzling actress that Hollywood fixates upon, no, Lansbury herself once stated: “I don’t think my appearance was ever in any way responsible for my success as an actress”.
Aside from Jessica Fletcher, my early recollections of Angela Lansbury lie within the Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) as the apprentice witch Eglantine Price alongside David Tomlinson as Emelius Brown. As far as I recall, we had the film on ‘tape’ or VHS and watching a bed float on the bottom of the technicolour or ‘beautiful briny’ sea was inherently magical to the imaginative child. I don’t know if children of today will ever feel a similar satisfaction in gently pushing the cassette into the VHS player and hearing the tapes spinning around. While I grew up with mostly DVDs, one can’t help but remember the small joy felt from those plastic rectangular boxes.
A distinctive memory of going round to my grandparents was also of the Disney singalong videos on tape, which included ‘Be Our Guest’ from Beauty and The Beast, featuring Lansbury as the voice of the giddy Mrs Potts. Mrs Potts epitomises the lost childhood nostalgia of Disney within me. It goes without saying that the film would not be what it was without Lansbury’s contribution to the character nor to the title song, perennial in Disney’s catalogue. I still have an affinity for Disney but I believe it to be a folly to not consider that this once childlike love has diluted, to small or great extents, as we have grown older.
My ‘grunny’ loved US TV dramas and in retrospect, I loved them too. While one is brought up by those we consider family, we are brought up by pieces of culture as well. Childhood memories seemed to be anchored by these constants. Murder She Wrote was one of these.
The murder mystery show which spanned over a decade gained Lansbury 12 Emmy nominations, though she did not pick up any for her role, and 4 Golden Globe wins. The show was one which broke the mould for detective shows at the time, telling the story of a less than glamorous mystery author Jessica Fletcher who ran amongst crimes in her own life. Jessica Fletcher remains a timeless icon of both US and UK Television, I think likely because of the comedy aspect that came along with the character. Thinking back to these memories spent watching the show, it's hard to look back without them being set to its iconic theme tune, particularly its opening on the piano alongside the video of Fletcher on a typewriter. Furthermore, it's difficult to think of times with my grunny without thinking of watching shows like these while I sat behind her in her chair.
It is remarkable how for me, one actress can characterise the childhood nostalgia that we all collectively struggle to grasp a hold of. While she remains a favourite of mine, I don’t think Lansbury as an artist had such a profound effect on me as much as the childhood memories she floods back. While we grow older and mature from the shows, books or songs that we loved as a child, we must keep a hold of them. For neither one of us is prepared for life ahead.
Illustration: Lauren McAndrew