The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - The crème de la crème or prime ham?

Dame Maggie Smith's Oscar-winning turn is one of the greatest performances of her stellar career, playing the schoolteacher we all wish we had

Maggie Smith won the first of her two Oscars for the title role in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the 1968 film based on the novel by Muriel Spark and its stage adaptation by Jay Presson Allen.

As is so often the case, you can’t help thinking that Oscar voters are easily impressed. (The same goes for BAFTA voters. Smith’s Brodie won that award too.)

Watching the film today, Smith’s flamboyant acting looks awfully hammy, but her larger-than-life performance does suit the larger-than-life character of Jean Brodie, a dangerously charismatic teacher at an exclusive girls' school in 1930s Edinburgh.

An imperious pedagogue who exerts a perilous influence on her impressionable pupils, Jean Brodie is herself a performer who is always on.

Smith’s ostenatious acting certainly compensates for Ronald Neame’s flat direction and leaves the other actors in the shade.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Robert Stephens (as art teacher Teddy Lloyd) acts opposite off-screen wife Maggie Smith (as Jean Brodie) in the Oscar-winning film based on the novel by Muriel Spark

Even Robert Stephens (then Smith’s husband) can’t compete with her, though he gives a fairly ripe portrayal of the school’s art teacher, Teddy Lloyd, one of the two men in Miss Brodie’s life (the other, music teacher Mr Lowther, is played by Gordon Jackson, better known for his TV work on Upstairs Downstairs and The Professionals).

As the school’s headmistress, and Jean Brodie’s principal adversary, Celia Johnson (of Brief Encounter fame) goes toe to toe with Smith in a number of dramatic scenes, while Pamela Franklin, as treacherous schoolgirl Sandy, makes the biggest impression out of the ‘Brodie set’ of specially favoured pupils, trimmed from six in the book to four for the film.

This is not the only trimming that’s been done to Spark’s novel in the passage from page to screen (or from page to stage, for that matter). The novel’s religious dimension is missing, as is its darting, ironic, flash-forward structure. Indeed, to be honest, most of the story’s complexities and ambiguities have been simplified and smoothed away.

Yet Jean Brodie, with her ringing catchphrases - “I am truly in my prime”, “My pupils are the crème de la crème” – remains an imperishable creation.

And an award magnet too: the actresses who’ve played the character on stage have also been laden with gongs, from  Vanessa Redgrave in the West End to Zoe Caldwell on Broadway.

As Jay Presson Allen put it: “All the women who played Brodie got whatever prize was going around at that time. Vanessa did, Maggie did.”

Allen’s play is being revived at the National Theatre The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is released on DVD by Acorn Media on 2nd August.


Jason Best

A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.