Total commitment ... 70 years on, Angela Lansbury has no desire to retire. Click for more photos

Angela Lansbury

Total commitment ... 70 years on, Angela Lansbury has no desire to retire.

  • Actress Angela Lansbury poses in the press room during The Olivier Awards 2011 at Theatre Royal in London. March 13, 2011.
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray. October 22, 1987.
  • Angela Lansbury appears on stage at the 61st Annual Tony Awards in New York. June 13, 2010.
  • Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher in "Murder, She Wrote".
February 16, 1989.
  • Angela Lansbury plays Madame Armfeldt, an aging courtesan, in Trevor Nunn's revival of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical "A Little Night Music" at the Walter Kerr Theater in New York.
  • British character actress Angela Lansbury. January 1, 1950.
  • Actress Angela Lansbury wears her 2000 Kennedy Center Honoree medallion on arrival at the Kennedy Center, for an evening of entertainment, in Washington. December 3, 2000.
  • Pictured: (l-r) Christopher Meloni as Det. Elliot Stabler, Alfred Molina as Gabriel, Angela Lansbury as Eleanor Duvall, on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, "Night" episode.
  • Angela Lansbury in a scene from the film Nanny McPhee. Directed by Kirk Jones. 1996-98.
  • Angela Lansbury, pictured at last year’s Tony Awards, and right, as Jim Carrey’s nemesis, Mrs Van Gundy, in Mr. Popper’s Penguins.
  • Angela Lansbury, who is heading back to Broadway in the play "Deuce," poses in her home in midtown New York City. April 16, 2007.
  • Actress Angela Lansbury arrives at AFI's 40th Anniversary celebration presented by Target held at Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood, California. October 3, 2007.

SINGER, ACTOR, GRANDMOTHER

Angela Lansbury's New York apartment is a charming mix of practicality and warmth, much like its occupant. ''It was always just [intended as] a pied-a-terre, but I no sooner bought it than I suddenly went to work and I've done a show a year,'' she says, pouring tea.

You want to keep the engine running and not relax too much. 

Chosen for its location, within walking distance of the theatre district, the light-filled apartment is decorated with landscape paintings by her brother, Edgar, and his wife, Louise Peabody. The sideboard is covered with photographs of her children and grandchildren, her late husband, Peter Shaw (''one of the most handsome, beautiful men you could possibly imagine''), and a tiny black-and-white portrait of her mother, Irish actor Moyna Macgill, draped serenely in a fur coat. A cheerful painting by Macgill of tugboats on the East River, dating from the 1940s, hangs on the wall. ''She used to like to walk over and sit by the water at 79th Street,'' Lansbury says.

Lansbury keeps another two homes: the ''family home'' in Los Angeles and a farmhouse in Ireland, to which she returns every summer ''like the swallows''. But New York remains significant, as the city she migrated to from London in 1940 as a wartime evacuee, and the place she established herself as a theatre star. ''I think you could say I'm most attached to the theatre,'' she says. ''The live theatre is irreplaceable as a medium for actors to realise their full potential.''

The 87-year-old actor has just finished a run on Broadway in Gore Vidal's The Best Man, alongside James Earl Jones. In a few days, she and Jones will read through their next project together, a production of Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Driving Miss Daisy, which opens in Brisbane in February before touring to Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.

Lansbury says Uhry's play - ''a stunning piece of drama, so American and so southern'' - has haunted her since she first saw it in 1987. ''The values are universal and I think the relationship between these two people is so human and delightful,'' she says.

That story of a 25-year relationship between an elderly Jewish woman, and her African-American chauffeur was adapted for film in 1989, earning four Academy Awards, including for best picture.

Boyd Gaines, in the role of Daisy's son, Boolie, and Jones will be reprising roles played to acclaim on Broadway and in London's West End. Lansbury insists she is not at all concerned about the rigours of the play. ''I'd rather be on the stage than off, to be honest with you, and most actors would agree with me,'' she says. ''You want to keep the engine running and not relax too much.''

Lansbury was born in Poplar, east London, in 1925, the daughter of Macgill and socialist politician Edgar Lansbury. Her grandfather George Lansbury was a founder of the British Labour Party. It's a heritage of which she is proud. I ask if she knows her relative, Malcolm Turnbull, whose mother, Coral Lansbury, is a distant cousin. ''I had lunch with him yesterday!'' she says. ''What a nice man he is. I've been reading about him, on and off, and I gather he's a very big noise in Australia, which is terrific.''

Lansbury had met Turnbull only once before, when he was a four-year-old and she was working on the film version of Ray Lawler's Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1959) in Sydney. ''He was quick to point out to me that he is a very liberal Republican, which was sweet,'' she says. ''He knows I'm certainly a Democrat and a bit of a Labourite, you know.''

Lansbury's father died when she was nine, casting a pall over the family and establishing in Lansbury a precocious sense of responsibility. ''The sadness and loss that the family felt … certainly contributed greatly to a sense of depression in the family,'' she says. ''And, as you know, England can be a depressing place; those very dull winter fogs and not much sunshine.''

She was close to her mother, who depended on her heavily. ''I provided a support system for her, even though I was very young,'' she says. ''She was a woman who suffered greatly from depression and I think life was not easy for her.''

Going to the US after the outbreak of World War II felt like ''a release'' for the whole family, she says. Arriving in New York City, they spent their first two nights at the Algonquin Hotel, then ''the theatrical hotel'', she recalls. ''Can you imagine? It was like being part of a movie.''

Lansbury won a scholarship to drama school and, while a teenager, was signed to MGM. Her first film role, as a cockney maid in Gaslight (1944) with Ingrid Bergman, earned her an Oscar nomination. Two films later, for The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), she was again nominated for best supporting actress, establishing her reputation as a character actress. Her twin brothers also thrived in the entertainment industry, Bruce as a screenwriter and producer and Edgar as a designer and producer. ''Moyna's children all did extremely well,'' she says.

In the 1950s, she expanded her repertoire to plays and musicals, on Broadway and later in the West End, starring memorably in Gypsy, Mame, Dear World and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

In spite of her success, Lansbury remembers herself as an ingenue. ''I didn't date a lot of young guys,'' she says. ''I always hooked up with one person and then stuck with them, you know.''

Her first marriage, at 19, to older actor Richard Cromwell, lasted only seven months. Unbeknown to her, he was gay. In 1949, she found a soul mate in actor and businessman Peter Shaw, to whom she remained married for 53 years until his death in 2003. ''After all, I'd had a very unfortunate first marriage, which was a total misunderstanding … and so to marry an Englishman who was smack on - it was like I'd come home, it was wonderful,'' she says.

The couple ran an ''English household - Sunday dinner, silly things like that'' - and eschewed the American tendency to celebrity. ''That's not what the British theatre is about,'' she says. ''They're not in the star business.''

Shaw became her manager and the couple had two children, Deirdre (now a restaurateur) and Anthony (a producer). After their home in Malibu burnt to the ground in 1970, and harbouring concerns about drug use by the children, the family moved to Ireland, a place she regards as a refuge. ''It's very wild and beautiful and when the weather's fine it's heaven on Earth, and when the weather's bad it's exciting and all you want to do is light the fire and haul in,'' she says. ''And I have dear, dear wonderful friends all around, not in the theatre.''

For many, the role she is most strongly associated with is Jessica Fletcher, the mystery novelist and amateur detective in the television series Murder, She Wrote, which ran for 12 years. Although Lansbury believes strongly in ''leaving the character in the dressing room'', she concedes there are attributes she shares with Fletcher: ''her down-to-earthness, her liberality about things and people and situations, her sense of fair play''.

In 2007, she returned to Broadway after an absence of 23 years and has appeared in a big production every year since. To what does she credit her success and versatility? ''I have tremendous 'stick-at-itness','' she says. ''I don't give up. I stick with a thing until I can do it or learn it or become it.''

Working with the best people is important, too, to avoid becoming ''substandard'' oneself, she says. She is slightly baffled by the work ethic of her twentysomething colleagues, who take a night off if they feel unwell. ''They're not prepared to give their lives over to what they're doing and that's just about what you have to do.''

It also frustrates her a little that she can't talk to them about the breadth of her career. ''I realise they have no idea,'' she says. ''How could they? But I can't mention a movie or even an actor in a movie because they've never heard of them.''

Nevertheless, she has her share of young fans. She graced this month's cover of biannual British journal The Gentlewoman (''for modern women of style and purpose'') in a photograph by enfant terrible Terry Richardson, and was named a ''secret style icon'' by teenage publishing wunderkind Tavi Levinson in her online magazine, Rookie.

After a 70-year career, Lansbury insists she has suffered very few disappointments. She darkens when recalling being passed over for Lucille Ball in the movie part of Mame (''a bit of a mistake, I like to think, on the part of Warner Brothers'') and she missed out, early in her career, on working with her favourite actor. ''I never got to work with Errol Flynn but he was my hero and I admired him,'' she says. ''Then I was sort of shocked by all the chit-chat that came out about his shenanigans with the girls and so on, but that also made him kind of fascinating.''

She is not the type to dwell on regrets and terminates such lines of inquiry with, ''Anyway, that's neither here nor there.'' She is all about moving forward and is already anticipating a role in New York this time next year in the Enid Bagnold play The Chalk Garden.

Though it might all sound a bit exhausting, Lansbury says there is a kind of energy that comes from the work. ''You could call it a power play in a sense,'' she says. ''Maybe that's what we, as actors, kind of like about it … we're in control - nobody can stop us.

''Once that curtain goes up, the audience is ours to entertain and to bring the story to and I think that it's a terrific high, it really is.''

Driving Miss Daisy opens at the Theatre Royal on March 1.