toby stephens is maggie smith's son

Maggie Smith with her newborn son, Toby Stephens (1969)

His mother, he says, never critiques his performances, “although if anyone is qualified, she is”. Perhaps Dame Maggie regretted the time, after watching his nude scenes with his then-girlfriend Jennifer Ehle in The Camomile Lawn, she commented: “I hadn’t seen Toby’s willy since he was about two, so you can imagine the terrible shock of it all.”

Maggie Smith photographed in 1960 Photo: FremantleMedia Ltd/REX

More famous than ever thanks to Downton Abbey, the 79-year-old actress tells Elizabeth Grice why she keeps going:

“Do you know Paris?” The question is shamefully inconsequential, a piece of conversational putty while I am trying to process Dame Maggie Smith’s wicked, but entirely truthful, admission that she cannot remember much about her latest film, except that it is set in Paris, and that as usual she plays the part of an old battleaxe.

Paris! It is as though the lid has been lifted on a box of snakes. Her memories of being ambushed produce a frisson of displeasure. She would love to have drifted through the city, visiting museums and art galleries, but it was impossible. “I was besieged by Americans and Downton Abbey,” she recoils. “That’s never happened to me before. It’s television that does it. It was awful. I love wandering around on my own and I just couldn’t.”

Even in England, the consequences of becoming a television celebrity (more shivers) through her formidable impersonation of Violet, Downton’s Dowager Countess of Grantham, can be unnerving. “I don’t go to places and if I do I nearly always have to have a friend. It’s very difficult when you’re on your own because you have no escape.”

Unless she’s quite rude?

“That doesn’t get you very far, although I think I am sometimes, because it can be quite scary, you know, if a lot of them come at you.”

The jostling curiosity of a herd of bullocks comes to mind. How does she deal with it?

“Run away mostly. I just make a beeline and go, go, go. It is hard. I don’t know how people cope with it. What do they do, these huge movie stars? What the hell do they do? Perhaps they never go out. I certainly don’t think they walk around on their own. If they want a word of advice, don’t do it in Paris.”

Her voice carries a withering sort of incredulity with echoes of Violet Crawley (“What is a weekend?”) and Harry Potter’s Prof Minerva McGonagall. This is vintage Smith, refusing to put herself in the stellar cast where she so obviously belongs, deliciously affronted by vulgar curiosity and yet fully acknowledging both the privilege and the absurdity of being in demand at the age of… we might as well say 92.

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