Angela Lansbury, because her Jessica Fletcher marked the sentimental journey of all of us

Angela Lansbury, because her Jessica Fletcher marked the sentimental journey of all of us

Angela Lansbury

With an Oscar nomination at 19 and a Tony nomination at 83, Angela Lansbury has been everything in her career: the dismissive waitress of her debut Anguish (Gaslight), the quintessential evil in her best performance in Go and Kill. (The Manchurian Candidate), the embodiment of unconventional glamor in musical Mame, a very convincing but unfortunate Miss Marple in Murder in the Mirror (with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson!), The tender and maternal voice of Mrs Brics in La Bella and the beast, the surly Aunt March of Little Women. And of course the Eglantine Pine witch's apprentice of brass knobs and broomsticks. Depending on their personal situation, everyone can choose their favorite. But there are very few who, nowadays, do not link her face, her voice and even her personality to Jessica Fletcher of The Lady in Yellow.

Still today, almost forty years after debut of that show, it's hard to say what the secret of its tremendous success was. Murder, She Wrote (this is the original title) debuted in the United States on September 30, 1984 and immediately projected Lansbury to another stratospheric level of fame: she had always been, in fact, an acclaimed film actress, but often relegated to the rank of character actress. , good for the picturesque parts but never central in other words (the Oscar came only in 2013, and only honorary, for the career); she was also a Broadway phenomenon, but therefore relevant to the niche of musical amateurs and a few others. With television, the audience was hers in its entirety. And to think that at the time she was already 59, an age for which at the time - and partly even today - the stars were considered decrepit. And that the role of the mystery writer who improvises as a detective was intended for actress Jean Stapleton, who luckily turned it down.

Because Angela Lansbury was born to play Jessica Fletcher and we refuse to think that any other actress could have blended so consistently with this character. The backcombing of the hair, the tweed suits and the tracksuits (how can we forget that Lansbury also made a necklace of vhs containing workouts for mature women: real bestsellers of the time), the artificial but dazzling smile, and then those movements, that gestures, those grimaces of amazement or reprimand or even relief. Against all ageism, Jessica Fletcher was and is the archetypal old lady: reassuring but nosy, tactful but enterprising, resolute but not repulsive, with a retro flavor but still contemporary. She was almost a feminist icon sui generis, with her independence of her, her doing without men, her determination to be heard even by those who flattered or put her aside. Where she went, after all, she always died someone, with a consequent amateur and very acute investigation, with all due respect to the constantly bothered policemen and relatives who were never too superstitious; as spectators we endured the most unlikely plots, the most cringe twists, even tolerated actors who came back cyclically in different episodes with different roles, we did everything we could to see her in action. It was enough for the opening theme to start, and we were already enthralled.

In the meantime she, subsidized by practically science-fiction editorial royalties, traveled far and wide: in Maine (the deadly Cabot Cove caput mundi), in the United States all of them, and then Europe, Egypt, Russia, the Tropics, a kind of Commonwealth of crime (because it is equally undoubted that in these decades there were two old women we had cherished and thought immortal and immortal, she and Queen Elizabeth: the end of an era). And we traveled with her but above all we always stood still in the same place: in the fictitious and reassuring place of an always the same narrative scheme (arrival in a place, crime, arrest of the wrong person, quick investigation, explanation of theories, stuck victim, greetings to the friends), of a protagonist always coherent, always moved by rectitude and out of the ordinary acumen, of a world whose distortions were always corrected by the strength of the intellect (Jessica, as a good writer, had the task of rearranging reality). But even more we remained in the same place physically, usually the living room.

So many, at the news of Lansbury's death, said they were crying a person who was almost a grandmother. Not only because we have aesthetically and birthally immortalized her in the mature lady and accomplished that she is precisely the ultimate, clean and golden stereotype of the grandmother par excellence, but because with the grandmothers and grandparents we saw that show to exhaustion. In that television pleistocene made up of only six television channels, Rai 1 characterized its summer schedule by flooding it with reruns of La Signora in giallo: we children of the nineties, parked on holiday by their grandparents (often a few meters from home), we adapted to their daily routine which from 12 to 13 approximately included the ritual vision of Jessica Fletcher. It was a collective, family rite that marked the passing of the seasons and ultimately also our growth. The grandparents then died, Jessica remained, or at least she had remained until now. At some point the reruns also moved from home, from Rai 1 to Rete 4, but there is someone - like the writer - who refused to watch them on the new channel, not accepting such a heresy so prone to change ( rather binge watching on Prime Video, as long as the episodes were available there.)

Everything had to change for nothing to change, in the world of Jessica Fletcher. With her we have seen grandparents age and disappear, and hand over to our parents, who in the meantime retired and in turn became addicted to cycles of reruns, hereditary umarell of small-screen deaths. We millennials then did ours by delivering to The Lady in Yellow our elixir of generational long life, or gifs and memes: Jessica has become a web phenomenon, sarcastic and a bit funeral, but always funny, cheerful, iridescent. For my part, his immortality has also been linked to the spin-off novels that Sperling & Kupfer still publishes today, given the excellent sales: they are rather elementary thrillers, often derivative, sometimes with total plot holes (at a certain point - great sacrilege for the Fletcherian connoisseurs - Jessica was driving a car, immediately corrected in subsequent reprints), but which lead us to believe that the writer-detective is still in business, despite the series ended in 1998 .

It is also interesting to see how it ended, this Lady in Yellow: in the last years of her broadcast Angela Lansbury felt the weight of the years and a very tight production cycle, but before she could take the decision to retire, CBS decided to move the airing of the twelfth season from Sunday to Thursday, against a giant like Friends. It was a suicidal move, which Lansbury herself teased in an episode that sees a murder on the set of a sitcom with young protagonists not surprisingly called Buds. The actress could afford such releases because for many seasons she was also executive producer of the series, something rather unprecedented for the time, also guaranteeing a certain creative autonomy: it was by her own will that Jessica Fletcher never had love stories apart from the late husband Frank, to commit her sentimentally would not have been credible in her opinion.

Faced with the new structure of American seriality, even The Lady in Yellow could little. On 9 May 1998 it closed its doors, even there with an episode ironically set on a radio that interrupts the broadcasts to pursue a younger audience (there were then four TV films, but the spell was perhaps now broken). The fact is that for once even the young people didn't want the novelty: it was enough to have good old Jessica Fletcher. Even today, in a world that she herself would have found disorienting and exhausting (it took her eight seasons to replace the typewriter with a PC), Jessica is the symbol of a safe and never disappointing refuge. It is not exactly nostalgia, she is in fact something more like family, what we can have the most dear and protective and reassuring. Now that Angela Lansbury is gone we feel we have lost someone very close to our hearts, and once again we remember how our loved ones inevitably leave us. However, those summer afternoons in the dining rooms will remain, the TV on while the grandmother cooks, that unconscious light-heartedness of the wrongs always remedied, that muffled sense of justice and security and protection. The memories will remain. Jessica Fletcher will remain.

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