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Margaretta Scott, the actress who died on Friday aged 93, brought a disquietening and beautiful presence to scores of Shakespearean and West End plays in the 1930s and 1940s.
In later years she cast an altogether different spell, both on stage and television, as women of intimidating social authority; her aristocratic ease and command of drawing rooms were a refreshing reminder that it was still possible to portray the British upper classes without parody if the player was well enough equipped - and Margaretta Scott was. On television she was Lady Blenkiron in The Duchess of Duke Street and Catherine de Medici in Elizabeth R.
To the putting down of social upstarts, few actresses of her time could bring a more withering hauteur. But even when disdain was not the principal requirement - as, for example, when she portrayed Mrs Pumphrey, owner of the pampered peke Tricky Woo in television's All Creatures Great and Small - her acting never lacked distinction and style. In one television role, she graciously commanded a doddery butler, who was wrapping Christmas presents on her behalf, to keep a box of chocolates for himself, adding haughtily: "The hard centres have the teeth marks on."
Margaretta Scott was born in London on February 13 1912 of French, Scottish and Spanish ancestry. After schooling at a convent in Cavendish Square, she trained for the stage with Rosina Filippi and then at Rada.
Her first notable West End part came as Lady Jasper in Emlyn Williams's haunted house thriller A Murder Has Been Arranged (St James's 1930). Then she did so well as the Player Queen in John Gielgud's Haymarket revival of Hamlet that she took over from Fay Compton as Ophelia.
Her Viola in Twelfth Night (New 1932), the first of many Violas she was to give in her career, was adjudged both manly and fiery, and that year she also acted Juliet and Ophelia for the wireless. On the stage, her Juliet was much admired for not exaggerating the surface seductiveness of the part.
Not all of Margaretta Scott's work in the 1930s was classical. There were parts in two John Galsworthy plays, Loyalties and Justice (Garrick). The leading critic James Agate found her "delightful" as the heinous Alida in Boucicault's Streets of London (Ambassadors); and in Seymour Hicks's Miracle Man (Victoria Palace), her performance was judged the most effective of all.
Sidney Howard's Alien Corn (Wyndham's 1939) provoked WA Darlington, The Daily Telegraph's critic, to say that Margaretta Scott played Elsa "better than she has ever played anything, with a really impressive force and complete understanding. Her rendering of the professional's contempt for the amateur makes excellent and subtle comedy, and she makes the girl's genius entirely credible."
Meanwhile, her work remained mostly in Shakespeare, either at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, or at the Old Vic, where, in 1936, her "dark and taunting" Rosaline to Michael Redgrave's King of Navarre won particular praise for its "intelligence and verbal resource". In 1941 she spent a season at Stratford-on-Avon, adding Lady Macbeth to her repertoire. She later toured North Africa and Italy for Ensa in the hit West End drawing room comedy Quiet Weekend.
Returning to the West End in 1946, Margaretta Scott provided an early indication of the imperious manner that was later to become familiar with her performance as a nursing sister in The Hasty Heart. This play, about service life, provoked the critic Alan Dent to describe her as "six foot of handsome and unruffled incompetence, an inveterate tucker-in, an astoundingly quick temperature-taker and an angel of sweetness and non-clinical light". That year in The Daily Telegraph matinee 1066 And All That (Palace), she played Catherine Parr, whom she was to re-enact at greater length in The Young Elizabeth (New 1952).
Among other West End productions in which Margaretta Scott appeared were the comedy Book of the Month (Cambridge 1954); Congreve's Way of the World (Saville), in which she played Mrs Marwood as, in Darlington's words, "a luscious villainess"; William Douglas Home's Aunt Edwina (Fortune); The Right Honourable Gentleman (Her Majesty's); Mistress of Novices (Piccadilly 1973); and The Understanding (Strand 1982).
Between West End appearances she continued to act in the provinces and abroad: she was the Queen in Hamlet at Bristol Old Vic; she toured South Africa as the Reverend Mother in Heloise and Abelard; and played Jocasta in Oedipus Rex at Birmingham. She was much in demand for Oscar Wilde, appearing as Lady Hunstanton in A Woman of No Importance at Leatherhead; Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest at Sheffield; Lady Markby in An Ideal Husband, on a tour of both England and Canada; Lady Pontefract in A Woman of No Importance (Chichester 1978); and, on a tour of Canada, the Duchess of Berwick in Lady Windermere's Fan.
In 1995, when she was in her eighties, she won praise for her appearance at the Chichester Festival Theatre as Mrs Hepworth in Harold Brighouse's Hobson's Choice.
She made her first film, Dirty Work, in 1934, and built a reputation on the screen as "other women" or bossy mothers. Her films included Peg of Old Drury (1935); Things to Come (1936), in which she played a flashing-eyed cavewoman for all she was worth; The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1937); The Girl in the News (1940); Fanny By Gaslight (1944); An Honourable Murder (1959); and Crescendo (1970).
Margaretta Scott was a founder of the actors' trades union, Equity, in 1934.
She was married to the composer John de Lacey Wooldridge, who died as a result of a motor accident in 1958. She is survived by her son, the director Hugh Wooldridge, and her daughter, the actress Susan Wooldridge.
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