Lesser-told story of Belfast-born film star who was mother of iconic superstar

Angela Lansbury (left) and mother, Moyna MacGill, in Kind Lady, 1951
Angela Lansbury (left) and mother, Moyna MacGill, in Kind Lady, 1951

A faded newspaper clipping from 1947 arrived in Roamer’s mailbox this week, copied from “a web site about old Belfast”, the sender explained.

The clipping (too faded to reprint) was an old black and white photograph of actress Angela Lansbury with her mother.

Moyna MacGill, 1945

Moyna MacGill, 1945

Though only a teenager at the time, Angela is instantly recognisable as Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote, the longest-running detective drama series in TV history.

Accompanying the old photo was a short introduction to Lansbury’s mother “from the Ormeau Road and known locally as Chattie McIldowie. Her parents were William and Brigid McIldowie. Chattie started her career as an actress in Belfast and moved to London where she changed her name to Moyna MacGill”.

(The name has acquired a variety of spellings down the years – Macgill, McGill and Magill.)

Her daughter – Dame Angela Brigid Lansbury DBE – has had a spectacular TV, film, theatre and singing career and she’s often quoted as attributing her singing-voice (Mame and Gypsy) to her maternal grandfather, who was keenly involved in Belfast’s busy choral music scene.

Screenshot of Angela Lansbury from The Picture of Dorian Gray, where she appeared with her mum Moyna

Screenshot of Angela Lansbury from The Picture of Dorian Gray, where she appeared with her mum Moyna

Early in July 1924 the News Letter carried a headline – ‘Moyna Macgill’s New Film Certain to Attract Huge Audiences’.

The article was about her film called Miriam Rozella, a silent, British-made drama-movie starring Moyna and released in March – a year and a half before daughter Angela was born on October 16, 1925 in London.

Miriam Rozella was screened “before a large audience” the News Letter reported, “in the Imperial Picture House, Belfast”.

The News Letter liked its “many dramatic scenes” and applauded Moyna Macgill’s performance where she “acts with grace, and her performance appeals to all that is best in human nature. It is a picture that is certain to attract big crowds.”

"My mother gave me tremendous self-confidence." Angela Lansbury in MGM's Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), One of her earliest movies

"My mother gave me tremendous self-confidence." Angela Lansbury in MGM's Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), One of her earliest movies

The whole world knows Dame Angela Lansbury and the many parts she’s played in Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, The King and I, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and most famously, Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote.

But her Belfast-born mother’s life on stage and screen, including several co-starring billings with daughter Angela, is a similarly intriguing story, much less told.

“Moyna Macgill was an able but luckless actor,” her biography on ulsteractors.com rightly recounts, describing her as an “obdurate and methodical character player, whose career, although not glittering, will probably be forgotten and instead will be unfairly remembered as the mother of Angela Lansbury.”

The biography summarises her as “brave enough at age 47 and with the none too trifling pressure of four children, to undertake and establish, largely without the comfort of a contract, a relatively modest career in the maelstrom of 40s Hollywood.”

Moyna MacGill, Irene Ryan, Florence Bates and Margaret Hamilton, in Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven, 1948

Moyna MacGill, Irene Ryan, Florence Bates and Margaret Hamilton, in Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven, 1948

She was born Charlotte Lillian McIldowie in Belfast on Decenber 10, 1895 and, probably influenced by her father William’s involvement in music and theatre, moved to London where she was on stage by the end of the First World War.

Some sources say that she was spotted in the London Underground by director and producer George Pearson, who offered her a walk-on part in one of his films.

The ulsteractors.com website puts her debut “as a supporting role in the Somerset Maugham comedy ‘Love in a Cottage’, at the Globe Theatre London in 1918.”

In 1919 she married Reginald Denham, an English writer, actor, theatre and film director and producer.

She made several notable early stage appearances between 1920 and 1922 including an adaptation of George Meredith’s drama ‘Rhoda Fleming’ at the Ambassadors Theatre and ‘Angelo: The Romance of a Great Composer’ in Drury Lane.

Moyna’s debut in movies came in 1920 as Violet Grimshaw in Garryowen, a silent film about horse-racing directed by George Pearson where an impoverished Irish gentleman tries to rescue his family from ruin by running his horse Garryowen at The Derby.

She appeared in several other London shows prior to her last silent movie before soundtracks were added – ‘Miriam Rozelle’ in 1924, reviewed by the News Letter as “a picture that is certain to attract big crowds”.

She had two West End appearances in 1927, one with John Gielgud at the Strand Theatre and another in the long running ‘Interference’ at St James’ Theatre.

Her marriage to Reginald Denham ended in 1924 (with one daughter, Isolde) and soon afterwards she married Edgar Lansbury, the son of Labour party leader George Lansbury.

The marriage lasted until Lansbury’s death in 1934 and produced three children; the eldest was Angela.

In 1942, together with all four children, Moyna moved to America, to a part in a touring company’s series of Noel Coward short plays.

A minor role in RKO’s Second World War drama ‘Forever and a Day’ in 1943 restarted her screen career after a gap of almost two decades and she appeared in nine movies in two years, working for some of Hollywood’s major studios.

In Academy Award-winning ‘National Velvet’ in 1944 she shared the screen with teenage daughter Angela (and 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor!)

Mother and daughter worked again in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ in 1945, where Angela won a Best Supporting Oscar, and in ‘Kind Lady’ in 1951.

Moyna made other TV, big-screen and stage appearances in The Twilight Zone, Dr Kildare, The Unsinkable Molly Brown and My Fair Lady.

She died on November 25, 1975 in Los Angeles, California, remembered lovingly by superstar-daughter Angela as a mother who “gave me the opportunity to realise my talents at a very young age. She gave me tremendous self-confidence.”