Cookies notification

This website uses cookies to provide you with a better experience

You can adjust your cookie settings through your browser. If you do not adjust your settings, you are consenting to us issuing all cookies to you.

8 career-defining roles of Downton Abbey’s Dame Maggie Smith


Pick out your fanciest clothes and start practicing your etiquette – because Downton Abbey arrives in Cineworld on 13th September.

First airing in 2010, the original TV show became an international phenomenon, winning three Golden Globes, numerous Primetime Emmys and a handful of BAFTAs. And now, the series finally hits the big screen.

Even better: the film sees the return of show-runner Julian Fellowes and series director Michael Engler alongside many familiar faces including Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern and Allen Leech. And, of course, Dame Maggie Smith is returning as the imperious Violet Crawley aka the Dowager Countess.

With a career spanning almost 70 years, the two-time Oscar-winner has cemented herself as one of Britain’s most accomplished and beloved actors on the big and small screen, as well as the stage.

While we anticipate her appearance in the Downton Abbey film, here are just seven of the incredible roles that’ve helped define her career.

1. The V.I.Ps (1963) – Miss Mead

One of Smith’s first film appearances, The V.I.Ps saw her cast as the hot-headed Miss Mead, assistant to wealthy businessman Les Magnum (Rod Taylor) with whom she’s infatuated.

Smith appears alongside the formidable likes of Richard Burton, Orson Welles, Elizabeth Taylor and Margaret Rutherford, playing a group of strangers who get stranded at the VIP lounge of a London airport when foggy weather grounds their flights.

The role saw Smith nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Newcomer but she lost to Rutherford, who went on to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. However, Smith didn’t lose out completely: Richard Burton, talking about a scene they shared, declared "she didn’t just steal the scene: she committed grand larceny."

2. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) – Jean Brody

Arguably Smith’s most famous role, The Prime of Miss Jean Brody won the actor her first Oscar – however, she didn't attend the ceremony due to performing at the Old Vic at the time.

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Muriel Sparks, this film is set at an esteemed school for girls in Edinburgh during the 1930s.

Smith portrays the headstrong Brodie, known for imparting her own modern beliefs on her students. Full of powerful drama and exceptional performances, Jean Brodie proved Smith was the “crème de la crème” of actors.

3. California Suite (1978) – Diana Barrie

Adapted for the big screen from Neil Simon’s play of the same name (the screenplay was also written by Simon), California Suite is an anthology-like comedy following groups of visitors who all stay in the same luxury room of a high-end hotel.

Starring alongside Michael Caine as a bisexual antiques dealer, Smith plays Diana Barrie, an acclaimed British actor up for (rather fittingly) her first Best Actress award.

Smith was awarded her second Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the role, making her one of only six women to win in both the lead and supporting categories (the other luminaries being Helen Hayes, Jessica Lange, Ingrid Bergman, Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett).

4. The Secret Garden (1993)

Years before Harry Potter, Smith became famous to generations of young moviegoers via her portrayal of Mrs Medlock in The Secret Garden.

This atmospheric film is based on Francis Hodgson’s Burnett’s beloved children’s novel, the story of repressed emotions and a locked-away garden that boasts sumptuous cinematography from Roger ‘Blade Runner 2049’ Deakins.

Smith stands out amid the ensemble with her portrayal of the strict, seemingly unkind but ultimately vulnerable housekeeper Medlock, a moving performance that won her a BAFTA nomination.

5. Harry Potter (2001-2011) – Professor McGonagall

Smith’s portrayal of Minerva McGonagall, professor in transfiguration and headmistress at Hogwarts, introduced her spellbinding acting talents to a whole new generation of filmgoers.

Channelling aspects of Jean Brodie, this fiery Scottish teacher is renowned for her no-nonsense attitude, and numerous moments of levity are conjured from the vibrant energy of Smith’s portrayal. It’s impossible to image the blockbuster franchise without Smith as McGonagall.

6. Gosford Park (2001) – Constance Trentham

Written by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes – who won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay – Gosford Park is a critically acclaimed and star-studded period murder mystery that could be best described as Downton meets Agatha Christie.

Directed by the esteemed Robert Altman (Short Cuts; McCabe and Mrs Miller), it centres around a group of wealthy guests and their servants as they descend on the titular country estate for a party.

However, when the host (Michael Gambon) is found dead, an ensuing investigation depicts the events from the perspectives of upstairs guests and downstairs servants.

Smith portrays sharp-witted Countess Trentham. Much like her role in Downton, Smith is infinitely entertaining within an equally outstanding film.

7. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012) – Muriel Donnelly

Feel-good comedy-drama The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel boasts a formidable British ensemble – Smith joins Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Celia Imrie.

Adapted from Deborah Moggach’s novel These Foolish Things, the film stars Smith as cranky and racist Muriel Donnelly. Along with six other British pensioners, she moves to Jaipur, India seeking a luxurious retirement in the eponymous establishment.

However, when they arrive they discover the hotel isn’t as exotic as they imagined. Giving a performance thousands of miles away from the sort of extravagance Downton’s Dowager is used to, Smith takes her wit to a whole other level with this hilarious performance. She and the rest of the cast would later reprise their roles in 2015 sequel The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

8. The Lady in the Van (2015) – Miss Shepherd

Based on the memoirs of playwright and screenwriter Alan Bennett (played by Alex Jennings), delightful comedy The Lady in the Van is the story of his friendship with an eccentric homeless woman, Mary Shepherd (Smith), who lives in a rundown old van.

As their relationship develops over the course of 15 years, we begin to learn more of Mary’s extraordinary life. Smith had previously portrayed the character on both stage and radio, and her brilliantly irascible performance in the film earned her Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations.

Click here to book your tickets for Downton Abbey
, opening in Cineworld cinemas on 13th September. Don't forget to tweet us your favourite Maggie Smith roles @Cineworld.

Andy Murray is a writer who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team.