Nicola Pagett, the actress who played the rebellious and thoroughly spoiled Elizabeth Bellamy on popular British television series “Upstairs, Downstairs” and the title role in an acclaimed BBC version of “Anna Karenina,” died March 3rd in a hospice all in one Suburb of London. She was 75 years old.
The cause was a brain tumor, said her daughter Eve Swannell.
Ms. Pagett was 26 years old when she was cast in the original Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-76), the prestigious, multi-award-winning British drama set in a spacious Belgravia townhouse for the first three decades of the 20th century . The Bellamys, Richard and Lady Marjorie, live there with their two grown children and about half a dozen servants as the world of the London aristocracy changes around them.
In the first season, Elizabeth comes home from school in Germany, a changed girl woman of 17 years. She reads Goethe, talks incessantly about politics, rejects an arranged marriage with a rich Scot, goes to her debutant ball and rejects the conservatism of her parents and entertains indecent socialist poets in the morning room.
Then she marries a charming poet (played by Ian Ogilvy) who shares her progressive social attitudes but not her physical desires. In season 2, she goes to her parents’ home, inconveniently pregnant by his publisher (due to an assignment that the husband arranged). She gives birth to a daughter, goes to jail with fellow suffragists, has an affair with an Armenian financier and tries to run a hat shop before sailing to New York with Spanish flu and stock market crash.
“Nothing more could have happened to me anyway,” she told the Washington Post years later of her decision to leave the show. “I could see the writers say, ‘What the hell are we doing with her now?'”
Ms. Pagett continued to be on-screen, particularly in Anna Karenina (1977), a lavish 10-part, eight-hour BBC production of Leo Tolstoy’s novel. Her performance as the doomed, adulterous title character garnered rave reviews.
And she had a thriving London theater career for decades. She toured with Vivien Leigh on “The Contessa” (1965). She appeared with Alec Guinness in “A Journey Around My Father” (1971). In 1974 she engaged in the work of three great playwrights (Shakespeare, Chekhov and Ibsen) simultaneously during a special Greenwich Theater season. She was Ophelia in “Hamlet”, Masha in “The Seagull” and Regina in “Ghosts”.
The playwright Harold Pinter’s favorite she played Helen when he directed Jean Giraudoux’s “The Trojan War Will Not Happen” (1983). In a 1985 revival of Pinter’s “Old Times”, she was the center of an emotional triangle where her husband and long-time roommate pit against each other to prove their love. She was part of the original London cast of his “Party Time” (1991), which was about a cocktail hour with fashionable narcissists, chatting about island vacations and past love affairs while a violent conflict raged outside.
When she played the purposeful wife of a psychiatrist in Joe Orton’s black comedy “What the Butler Saw” in 1995, she had a breakdown. Doctors said she had manic depression, which is now more commonly referred to as bipolar disorder.
During this time, Ms. Pagett wrote love letters to Alastair Campbell, the press secretary for Prime Minister Tony Blair, whom she became obsessed with after seeing him on television. With the help of the drug lithium and more than one stay in a mental hospital, she largely recovered, but soon withdrew from acting.
She had become “completely loud,” she wrote in Diamonds Behind My Eyes (1997), a treatise on her psychiatric crisis, but asked not to be described as mentally ill. “It goes right up my nose.”
Nicola Mary Paget Scott was born on June 15, 1945 in Cairo to British parents who met in Egypt. Harold Scott was a senior executive at Shell Oil, and Barbara (Black) Scott was posted there with the Royal Naval Service for Women.
Nicola spent her childhood abroad. When she was around 8 years old, she played Snow White at her monastery school in Yokohama, Japan, and decided to start her career as an actress.
At 17, she entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for a two-year program, then appeared in repertoire productions and changed her name (including adding a “T” to Paget). In 1968 she made her London stage debut in “The Boston Summer”.
By then, Ms. Pagett had already started her film career, mostly through guest appearances on British television series. In the film “Anne of a Thousand Days” (1969) she was Princess Mary, the teenager Daughter of Katharina von Aragon and Heinrich VIII. In “There is a girl in my soup” (1970) she was a radiant young bride who was delighted by a horny TV presenter (Peter Sellers) during her wedding reception.
She later appeared in “Frankenstein: The True Story” (1973), a television film co-written by Christopher Isherwood. She played a celebrity in “Scoop” (1987) based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel; a mother of the bride who imagines the father of the groom in the series “A Bit of a Do” (1989); and a second rate stage actress from Liverpool in “An Awfully Big Adventure” (1989).
Her last film role was in Up Rising (2000), a miniseries about a retired couple in a village full of curiosities.
Ms. Pagett married the actor who became writer Graham Swannell in 1975. He co-authored her memoir, but they divorced after it was published.
In addition to her daughter, a film and television production manager, Ms. Pagett survived a sister, Angela.
Like many actors, Ms. Pagett preferred theater to film, particularly after the 1978 film Oliver’s Story, the largely forgotten sequel to Love Story, in which she played Ryan O’Neal’s shy blind date the furniture designer. Many of their scenes have been cut.
Yes, the immediate response from a live theater audience has been great. But also, as The Telegraph quoted her as saying: “For two hours I am my own lover on stage. I can’t be cut or stopped or changed – or lost. “
Besides, Mrs. Pagett had learned what really mattered. As she told The Independent in 1992, her original ambition was “to open in the West End and let men in capes take me to dinner”. But she soon discovered a greater thrill.
“I like to look in the eyes of someone whose work I respect,” she said, “and see them look back as if they were saying, ‘I think you can too.'”