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Nicola Pagett - An Obituary

Nicola Pagett – Actress

Born June 15, 1945; died March 3, 2021 


Nicola Pagett, who has died of a brain tumour aged 75, was an actress whose refined presence lent itself to numerous aristocratic roles over a distinguished high profile thirty year stage and television career . She first came to prominence in Upstairs Downstairs, Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins’ cross class early twentieth century set TV drama that ran from 1971 to 1975. Pagett played Elizabeth Bellamy, the rebellious daughter of Lady Marjorie Bellamy and her Conservative MP husband Richard. During her time in the show, Elizabeth flirted with socialism, became a suffragette, and married a sexless poet before being dispatched to America following Pagett’s departure after two series’. 


Pagett went on to play the title role of Anna Karenina in a ten-part BBC adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel that saw her make Tolstoy’s free spirited heroine her own. “There's nothing remotely ethereal or delicate about me,” Pagett told the New York Times in 1978 during the programme’s American run. “I'm sort of peasant stock. Words won't blow me off my feet. I'm not fragile - not that sort of lady.”


Pagett was latterly known for playing the upper crust and erotically charged Liz Roddenhurst in David Nobbs’ comedy drama, A Bit of a Do (1989). Inbetween came a stream of TV and film roles that ran alongside an impressive theatre career. This saw her play major roles at the National Theatre and on the West End. In the mid 1990s, however, a breakdown saw her write about her mental illness with a frankness rare for its time.


Nicola Mary Pagett Scott was born in Cairo, Egypt, the eldest of two sisters to Herbert and Barbara Scott. Her father was an oil company executive, and her peripatetic early life saw her grow up in Hong Kong, Cyprus and Japan. It was while at Saint Maur International School in Yokohama, Japan that the determined seven year old stood up on a desk and declared her intention of becoming an actress.


Aged twelve she was dispatched to boarding school in Bexhill-on-Sea, and by the time she was seventeen had been accepted at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She made her stage debut in 1964 with the Worthing Repertory Company before touring with Vivien Leigh in Paul Osborn’s play, La Contessa, the following year.


In Pagett’s own words, it wasn’t until she joined the Citizens Theatre Company in Glasgow that she began to find her feet as an actress. With the Citz then under the artistic direction of Michael Blakemore and Michael Meacham, Pagett performed there in productions of Twelfth Night, Phedre and five more shows. These included The Seven Year Itch (1967), acting alongside Blakemore, who had previously directed her in Nightmare Abbey (1966). She also performed at the Citz’s experimental Close Theatre, in Doris Lessing’s Play With a Tiger (1966).


“If I hadn't gone to Glasgow,” Pagett told the Independent in 1992, “I wouldn't have known I could do it. It gave me the confidence to go on and do other stuff by good writers.”


By this time she had made her TV debut in Robert Bolt’s play, The Flowering Cherry, (1965), and went on to play guest roles in the likes of Danger Man (1965), Gideon’s Way (1965), and later in Man in a Suitcase (1968) and The Avengers (1968). There was an early role too opposite Maurice Roeves in Cock, Hen and Courting Pit (1966), a contribution to the BBC’s Wednesday Play strand by David Halliwell.


Pagett made her London stage debut in The Boston Story (1968), and played Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There were seasons at the Royal Court and Nottingham Playhouse, while on the West End she appeared in John Mortimer’s A Voyage Round My Father (1971). At Greenwich Theatre in 1974, she played Ophelia in Hamlet and Masha in The Seagull. 


Later, she appeared with Michael Gambon and Liv Ullmann in a revival of Old Times (1985) by Harold Pinter. Her mix of glacial seriousness and cut-glass vulnerability was perfect for Pinter’s work, and at the Almeida she appeared in a double bill of his short plays, Party Time and Mountain Language (1991).


There were films too, including Anne of a Thousand Days (1969) and There’s a Girl in My Soup (1970), with later turns in Love Story sequel, Oliver’s Story (1978) and Privates on Parade (1983). 


In 1975, she married actor/writer Graham Swannell, who she met while appearing in Julian Mitchell’s adaptation of Ivy Compton-Bennett’s A Family and a Fortune (1974). They were together until 1997.


On TV, Pagett played hairdresser Sonia Drysdale in Roy Clarke’s twelve-part comedy, Ain’t Misbehavin' (1994-1995). As Sonia, Pagett teamed up with Peter Davison’s mild mannered stationary shop owner in an attempt to thwart their respective spouses affair.


Her illness manifested itself while she was appearing in a 1995 National Theatre revival of Joe Orton’s farce, What the Butler Saw. As recounted in her lyrical and moving memoir, Diamonds Behind My Eyes (1997), she became obsessed with someone she called ‘The Stranger’, later revealed to be Tony Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell. Pagett was eventually diagnosed as bipolar.


She was last seen on screen as the sensible Sally Kegworthy in Nick Vivian’s English village set comedy drama, Up Rising (2000) in what was a last glimpse of Pagett’s rare and luminescent talent.


She is survived by her daughter Eve and her sister Angela.

The Herald, March 30th 2021




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