Nicola Pagett, Upstairs, Downstairs star who excelled on stage and wrote about her manic depression – obituary

Nicola Pagett as Elizabeth Bellamy in Upstairs Downstairs - ITV/Shutterstock
Nicola Pagett as Elizabeth Bellamy in Upstairs Downstairs - ITV/Shutterstock

Nicola Pagett, who has died from a brain tumour aged 75, was the feline beauty with saucer eyes whose roles included Elizabeth Bellamy in the popular ITV 1970s costume drama Upstairs, Downstairs, the title role of Anna Karenina in the BBC’s 10-episode epic of 1977 and the promiscuous Liz Badger in the ITV comedy series A Bit of a Do (1989), co-starring David Jason.

Reserved in person, Nicola Pagett was sought after by directors for her skill at conveying passion and inner turmoil – this may have foreshadowed the mental illness she would suffer later in life. Jonathan Miller singled out her “wounded, baleful allure” and “mysteriously afflicted eroticism”.

And for Ken Riddington, the producer who cast her in Anna Karenina, she was the first choice: “We were looking for beauty, a sort of vulnerability and intelligence. We chose Nicola and I still can’t think of anyone I’d rather have.”

Nicola Pagett in 1971 - Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty 
Nicola Pagett in 1971 - Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty

She was born Nicola Mary Pagett Scott on June 15 1945 in Alexandria where her father was working as an executive with Shell Oil. After three years in Egypt the family moved to Hong Kong, then Cyprus and Japan, where she attended a Catholic convent in Yokohama and, she told an interviewer, “became a Catholic on the quiet”. The nuns instilled in her respect for authority and a conviction that “If I’ve got to do something, I’ve got to do it well.”

She had fallen in love with the stage aged about eight after playing the title role in Snow White and later, boarding at the Beehive School in Bexhill-on-Sea, she got a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, doing a stint at secretarial college until she was old enough to go.

Adopting the stage name Nicola Pagett, she began her acting career at Worthing Rep, and after just a year was offered a role opposite Vivien Leigh in one of the great star’s last stage plays, La Contessa.

Nicolas Pagett with Ian Ogilvy in Upstairs, Downstairs, 1972 - Shutterstock
Nicolas Pagett with Ian Ogilvy in Upstairs, Downstairs, 1972 - Shutterstock

Driven by a passion “to wake the soul with gentle strokes of art”, Nicola Pagett progressed to major productions of Shakespeare, Molière, Pinter and Rattigan. In the 1970s and 1980s she was a more-or-less permanent fixture in theatre listings.

She received enthusiastic notices playing the daughter-in-law in John Mortimer’s A Voyage Round My Father (Haymarket, 1971) with Alec Guinness – and he would write with affection about her 25 years later when he published My Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor.

In 1974, which The Daily Telegraph described as her “bumper year”, she joined the National Theatre for The Marriage of Figaro and played extensively in Jonathan Miller’s season at the Greenwich Theatre, her icy sexuality and air of mystery illuminating the roles of Ophelia in Hamlet, Regina the maid in Ibsen’s Ghosts and Irina, the fading diva in Chekhov’s The Seagull.

By this time she had made her name in Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-3) as Elizabeth, the spoilt daughter of Richard Bellamy and Lady Marjorie, whose disastrous marriage to a celibate poet leads her to have an affair with his publisher and conceive a child.

Nicola Pagett, left, rehearsing with Vivien Leigh for La Contessa, 1965 - Shutterstock
Nicola Pagett, left, rehearsing with Vivien Leigh for La Contessa, 1965 - Shutterstock

She was not so keen on the film world, though, complaining about having to go to bed by 9.30pm to be ready for early morning calls, but played Princess Mary in Anne of a Thousand Days (1969), starring Richard Burton, and had parts in Operation Daybreak (1975); Privates on Parade (1983); There’s a Girl in My Soup (1970) and An Awfully Big Adventure (1995) with Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman.

In TV movies, she played Elizabeth Fanshawe in Frankenstein: The True Story (1973), considered one of the best in the Frankenstein genre. In Scoop (1987), adapted by William Boyd from Evelyn Waugh’s satirical novel, she was Julia Stitch, the socialite whose machinations result in the Daily Beast’s hapless nature columnist William Boot (Michael Maloney) being mistakenly sent to cover a civil war in obscure Ishmaelia.

In 1978 she made a rare appearance in a big Hollywood production, Oliver’s Story, a sequel to Love Story, in which she co-starred with Candice Bergen, as a shy young woman who is Ryan O’Neal’s potential love interest.

The film was lacklustre and panned by critics, but its director John Korty reserved high praise for Nicola Pagett: “As soon as you meet her you can sense an intelligence working. She has humour, a brightness and quickness that are very rare.”

He had wanted her for the lead role, but the studio insisted that the star part go to an American; then her character was edited out of the final section of the movie.

The experience convinced her that live theatre was best: “There’s only one lot who never lie to you and that’s an audience. They’re always honest, and when you get a reaction from them, a silence or the laugh you’re after, it’s marvellous. On stage for two hours, I’m my own mistress. I can’t be cut or stopped, or changed – or lost.”

Nicola Pagett, David Jason and Gwen Taylor in A Bit of a Do, a comedy from Yorkshire Television, 1989 - ITV/Shutterstock
Nicola Pagett, David Jason and Gwen Taylor in A Bit of a Do, a comedy from Yorkshire Television, 1989 - ITV/Shutterstock

A later triumph came in Pinter’s thrilling 1983 revival of Jean Giraudoux’s pre-war play The Trojan War Will Not Take Place for the National Theatre. The Telegraph’s John Barber found Nicola Pagett’s Helen “languid and tantalising … [her] wanton loveliness could quite easily launch a thousand ships.” Two years later she again excelled in Pinter’s Old Times (Haymarket).

In 1997 Nicola Pagett published an autobiography, Diamonds Behind My Eyes, in which she described her experience of mental illness, which had reached crisis point in 1995 when she was starring alongside the then-newcomer David Tennant in a National Theatre production of Joe Orton’s What The Butler Saw, from which she had to retire early.

She went, as she put it “completely noisettes” (“please don’t call me mentally ill … it gets right up my nose,” she said at the time) and became obsessed with a man she called “the Stranger”, whom she had never met but had seen on television. She bombarded him with love letters and sent him a cheque for £6 million signed “Moi”.

In 1995 at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards - Nils Jorgensen/Shutterstock
In 1995 at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards - Nils Jorgensen/Shutterstock

Her mania escalated into full-blown psychosis and eventually she was sectioned, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed lithium. After several stays in hospital she was discharged in November 1996.

The story made headlines when the “Stranger” was revealed (by an unnamed source) to be Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s press secretary. The revelation left her “deeply embarrassed” and led her to pull out of a promotional tour for her autobiography.

Nicola Pagett rebuilt her life with courage and tenacity, however, avoiding too much stimulation – “I’ve got to watch it with Handel” – and largely retiring from acting.

In 1977 she married the actor and writer Graham Swannell. The marriage was dissolved in 1999 and afterwards she lived alone in south-west London with two Persian cats. She is survived by her daughter, Eve.

Nicola Pagett, born June 15 1945, died March 3 2021