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Nicola Pagett obituary

Michael Coveney
·6-min read
<span>Photograph: PA</span>
Photograph: PA

Nicola Pagett, who has died suddenly of a brain tumour aged 75, will not easily be forgotten by anyone who saw her on stage or screen over a career of 30 years. She was a glacial, beautiful presence in plays from Shaw to Pinter and she illuminated Upstairs, Downstairs on television in the early 1970s. She played Elizabeth Bellamy, the spoilt and self-absorbed daughter of the upscale Belgravia household in Eaton Square, who makes the mistake of marrying a poet with no interest in the physical side of love. She has an affair with his publisher and conceives a child. Other amorous adventures follow before she leaves for New York.

Other starring roles soon followed: Elizabeth Fanshawe in Frankenstein: The True Story (1973) on television, widely considered to be one of the best Frankenstein films; the title role in 10 50-minute episodes of Anna Karenina, a 1977 BBC television epic co-starring Eric Porter as Karenin and Stuart Wilson as Vronsky; and Liz Rodenhurst in A Bit of a Do (1989) adapted from the Yorkshire novels of David Nobbs, with David Jason and Gwen Taylor. Liz was the promiscuous, middle-class mother of the bride who starts an affair with Jason’s working-class Ted Simcock, father of the groom.

However, her career was overshadowed by a long period of mental illness, which she wrote about in a book, Diamond Behind My Ears, published in 1997. Her behaviour became increasingly erratic and she developed an obsession with Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s spokesperson, whom she bombarded with love letters.

Her final stage appearance was at the National Theatre in 1995 in a revival of Joe Orton’s madhouse black comedy What the Butler Saw with Richard Wilson and a young newcomer called David Tennant. Her book suggested a recovery of sorts. But it was only partial. Some days were better than others. She was nothing if not resilient.

Nicola was born in Cairo, where her father, Herbert Scott, was a peripatetic Shell Oil executive who had met her mother, Barbara (nee Black), in Egypt, where she had been stationed with the Women’s Royal Naval Service during the war. The family travelled around – Nicola had a younger sister, Angela – and it was in the Yokohama convent school of Saint Maur in Tokyo that a seven-year-old Nicola stood on a desktop and declared she was going to be an actor. After another business posting of her father to Hong Kong, she was sent, aged 12, to the Beehive boarding school in Bexhill-on-Sea, where her godmother, Anne Maxwell, served in loco parentis.

She was just 17 when she went to Rada in 1962. On graduating she changed her surname to Pagett, then spent several years in repertory theatres, including the Glasgow Citizens and the Connaught, Worthing, before making a London debut in A Boston Story (1968) at the Duchess theatre, adapted by Ronald Gow from Henry James, and starring Tony Britton and Dinah Sheridan.

She immediately became a West End regular, employed by the producer Michael Codron in no less than three important roles opposite Alec Guinness: in John Mortimer’s A Voyage Round My Father (1971) at the Haymarket; in Julian Mitchell’s adaptation of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s A Family and a Fortune (1975) at the Apollo – in which she met the actor/writer Graham Swannell, whom she married in 1975 – and as Jonathan Swift’s muse, Stella, in Alan Strachan’s “entertainment” Yahoo, based on the life and work of the mordant Irish satirist. In all three roles her beauty was tempered with a fascinating mixture of steeliness and reserve.

Around this time, in 1974, she joined a remarkable season directed at the Greenwich theatre by Jonathan Miller, in which a nucleus of four lead actors – Pagett, Irene Worth, Peter Eyre and Robert Stephens – examined the Freudian themes and links between three great classics – Hamlet, Ibsen’s Ghosts and Chekhov’s The Seagull. She was perfect as Ophelia, Regina the maid and Irina the actor whose life falls apart.

This quality of mystery and an inner, secret life is a rare one in an actor, and it really counted in the plays of Harold Pinter, most notably in a 1985 revival of Old Times, in which she played the fawn-like wife of Michael Gambon’s film-maker visited by their mutual friend of 20 years ago, played by Liv Ullmann. The play’s territory of power games in a sexually ambiguous, dream-like atmosphere was one she inhabited as of right. She stood out, too, in Pinter’s Party Time on a double bill with Mountain Language at the Almeida in 1991.

Nicola Pagett in Harold Pinter&#x002019;s Party Time at the Almeida theatre in 1991.
Nicola Pagett in Harold Pinter’s Party Time at the Almeida theatre in 1991. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Pinter directed her at the National in 1983 as Helen, a stunning and slyly provocative enchantress in The Trojan War Will Not Take Place, translated from Jean Giraudoux by Christopher Fry (his text is better known as Tiger at the Gates), so it was no surprise that she occupied the Vivien Leigh role of a not-so-kittenish Lady Teazle in John Barton’s production of The School for Scandal at the Duke of York’s later that year.

She was wonderful, too, as a seductive Countess in Jean Anouilh’s The Rehearsal, translated by Jeremy Sams, at the Almeida and then the Garrick in 1990; and offered what Michael Billington described as “a highly intelligent study in devouring sensual rage” in David Hare’s The Rules of the Game, adapted from Pirandello and directed by Jonathan Kent, also at the Almeida, in 1992.

Her television work had not dried up, exactly, but was more sporadic outside of the series with Jason. In Scoop (1987), a two-hour film scripted by William Boyd, based on Evelyn Waugh’s great 1938 novel, she was Julia Stitch alongside Michael Maloney as the hapless war reporter William Boot and Denholm Elliott as the chaotic newspaper editor. And she starred with Peter Davison as Sonia Drysdale in Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1994), a comedy series of marital mishaps and alleged adultery written by Roy Clarke.

A film career that began with the small role of Princess Mary in Anne of a Thousand Days (1969), starring Richard Burton and Geneviḕve Bujold, included Roy Boulting’s There’s a Girl in My Soup (1970) with Peter Sellers and Goldie Hawn, Michael Blakemore’s Privates on Parade (1983) with John Cleese and Denis Quilley, and Mike Newell’s An Awfully Big Adventure (1995), adapted by Charles Wood from Beryl Bainbridge’s novel and starring Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman as unequivocal theatrical types.

After divorcing Graham in 1997, she lived alone in East Sheen, south-west London – with a couple of Persian cats keeping her suitably feline company – stoically dealing with her illness, making a domestic agenda of cooking and gardening, and going for power walks whenever she could. She is survived by her daughter, Eve, from her marriage, and by her sister, Angela.

  • Nicola Mary Pagett (Scott), actor, born 15 June 1945; died 3 March 2021