Photo Credit: Perou
I know this is an older interview that was published by ‘The Times Magazine’ on September 24 2016, but there is just so many gorgeous pictures of her that were taken by Perou for this article.
The article’s content written by Deborah Ross can be read under the cut, or on ‘The Times’ website.
Dame Judi Dench may well be our most beloved actress, with good reason. Her alchemy is such I sincerely believe she could play a bedside table and somehow make us believe it.
She has won so many awards I gave up counting, because I have a life. She has worked for nearly six decades without ever going off the boil or displaying any meanness beyond once calling the theatre critic Charles Spencer “an absolute s***”. (“But I was very angry,” she will tell me.) And it’s a career that has taken in everything: Shakespeare, West End plays, TV comedies, Hollywood films. Plus, to cap it all, as M in the Bond franchise she got to die in Daniel Craig’s arms which, if you are going to go, has to be the way to go, surely. “Is that who you would choose, Deborah?” she asks. I would, I say. And I’d probably die tingling from head to toe, to tell you the honest truth, Dame Judi. “Okey dokey,” she says.
He wouldn’t be your choice? “No.” Who would be your choice? “Good grief!” she exclaims. Come on, Dame Judi, although I can’t pretend your secret is safe with me, as it very much isn’t. A young Marlon Brando, possibly? “No.” You are so fussy, I say. “Johnny Depp,” she says. Well, at least he’s very much available at present, I say. “Or Eddie Izzard. I’m working with him at the moment and he is fabulous.” So now we know.
We meet at a Surrey hotel near to her home. She arrives with her little shih tzu, Minnie, who is now 15 – “We’ve had Minnie since she was a tiny baby; we got her before Mikey died” – and her great friend, the actress Penny Ryder, who helps her out these days.
Dame Judi is fit, “Although I was 5ft 1¾in, and when I went for a medical recently, I’d lost half an inch … God knows where it’s gone.” But she suffers from macular degeneration, so her vision isn’t good. What can you see, I ask. “It’s like a mosaic. There are bits I can’t see at all.” There is no self-pity. “You get used to it, like absolutely anything. If you have paralysis of something you gradually get used to not using that bit and using what there is. Fortunately, people know I can’t see very well as I can easily cut people dead. I can’t see their faces until I get close up, but it’s amazing how good you get at recognising the silhouette of somebody.” She can still learn scripts. “I have the font blown up to 33pt so it’s very, very large and Penny comes and helps me.”
Sometimes she and Penny veer off conversationally and I’m left playing gooseberry, as when they remember Bob Hoskins. “We worked with Bob and he was lovely, wasn’t he?” says Penny. “He said I didn’t have feet, I had hooves!” replies Dame Judi, who had to dance with him in Mrs Henderson Presents. There is some debate as to Dame Judi’s goldfish and its preferred radio station. “It’s Radio 3,” says Penny. “No, it’s Classic FM,” counters Dame Judi. Um, how do you know, I interject. Because, she says, it may be at the bottom of the bowl, but when she puts on Classic FM “it swims up straightaway”. She says the goldfish used to be called Scooby-Doo, “but it died once and I blew into its mouth and it came back to life, so now it’s called Lazarus”. She thinks Lazarus must be 20 or thereabouts. “We won him as a prize on Gosden Common before Mikey died.”
Her husband of 30 years, the actor Michael Williams, who would send her a red rose every Friday, died of lung cancer in 2001, and she does seem to see life in terms of before and after. It has been hard.
“You think how wonderful to have a long marriage but when the person is gone it’s unbelievably … It gets different. It does get easier, and different. I feel his presence in the house.” (“And particularly in the garden,” adds Penny.) “The only thing that unnerves me is you come out of the stage door to sign things and quite suddenly they’ll put under your nose a photograph of Mike, and that unnerves me. That suddenly brings me up with a terrible jolt. Not necessarily in an unpleasant way, but I’m unprepared for that sometimes. Or that thing of Radio 4 Extra and hearing Mike. That is very nice, but I don’t want to turn it on and be caught unawares.”
She is, she says, the sort of person who has to be around other people, and can’t tolerate being on her own. But if you are? “I get very irritated.” In life, as in work, she needs to be held in the gaze of others, I would venture, and quite, quite marvellously, as well as most unexpectedly, she does have a new love. This is the conservationist David Mills, whom she met in 2010 when he asked her to open the red squirrel enclosure at his wildlife centre in Surrey, and whom she’s been dating ever since. Thank God for red squirrels, I say. “Because of my David? Oh, yes. It’s all to do with red squirrels. If it hadn’t been for them, that would be it, and he was living just down the road.”
They have just returned from a holiday in Scotland, which was wonderful, if midgy. “David had a picture of one blown up very big so I could see what was biting us.” They’ve been on some interesting dates. “We were invited to a party for David Attenborough by the BBC. They’d asked him what he’d like to see at the Barbican, so he chose an opera. They asked a few people to have drinks before, then we had drinks in the interval, and also after, so we had all the joy of that, but that night it was a performed opera, like a concert, and I can’t see anyway and just before it started David said, ‘I haven’t got my glasses.’ So we couldn’t read the programme and we couldn’t read the subtitles … At one point there was a gunshot and David said, ‘Somebody has been shot,’ but that’s all we knew.” You know how to have a good time, don’t you, Dame Judi? “It was a glorious night, but just such a terribly funny position to be in, Deborah.”
She is famed for her warmth, rightly. She knows my name, which is rare among big stars who either haven’t a clue or get it wrong and call you “Barbara” or “Rebecca”. (Always “Barbara” or “Rebecca”, never “Scheherazade”.) She is 81 and looks ravishingly herself. (“Oh, thank you, Deborah.”) She says she uses Clarins for sensitive skin, “the one with the orange top. But, of course, they’ve stopped doing it now.”
She has yet to go down the facelift or Botox route, although, who knows, “maybe I will give in in a year or two”. I say please don’t. People who do it don’t look younger; they just look weird. She says, “They do look quite strange, I know. You can rarely not notice.”
For her 81st birthday, her daughter, Finty, treated her to a tattoo on her inner wrist that says “Carpe diem”, but she won’t show me. There was a lot of fuss when the news came out, she says, “and now I just want it to quiet down”.
Her diction is wondrously clear. I tell her that the beauty of knowing you are about to see any Dame Judi Dench performance is knowing you’ll be able to hear every single word. She says she worries about actors today, because they are not taught to project their voices any more. “Sometimes I can’t hear young actors. It’s a pity. They’ve started miking up everyone at the National.”
Sometimes, I say, I watch TV dramas with the subtitles on, simply so I don’t have to strain to catch the dialogue. “Oh, absolutely,” she says. “Did you see Jamaica Inn? I didn’t understand a word anybody said. Maybe we need to get hearing aids. I saw an ad the other say. It said ‘Specsavers’ and you could have your ears tested. Or did I dream that?” “I think they attach something to your spectacles,” says Penny. “You can have a little ear thing?” she queries. Perhaps you are confusing it with Earsavers, I suggest. “I don’t know,” she replies, laughing. She laughs a lot.
I wonder if, by some miracle, someone had never seen anything she’d been in, what she’d choose to show them. She says, “I have no idea. I am very squeamish about seeing anything I’ve done. I remember when we did Macbeth at the Other Place with Trevor Nunn and Ian McKellen, and we filmed it, and then went to Trevor’s to see the film, and I was so disappointed. I thought what we were doing was very different from what I saw on screen. Also, the choices you make … That’s what is lovely about the theatre. Every night you can think, ‘I’m going to work on that little bit,’ and you can work on it and make it better.”
Were you sad to be written out of Bond? “I think I bumped into Sam Mendes and Barbara Broccoli at the Wolseley, who told me that was it. Then it was reported I burst into tears and ran home. Not true. But I was very happy doing the ones I did.”
Have you ever accepted a part, then regretted it? “No. There are parts I haven’t enjoyed as much as other parts. I played The Royal Family for Peter Hall. I never read a play; I just get it told to me by somebody. And it’s really not a good play. But we also had fun doing that.”
She doesn’t read scripts, it’s true. Instead, someone will paraphrase the story for her. That used to be Michael’s job, but now it’s her agent, or she just goes with what happens to tickle her. Her latest film is the adventure fantasy Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, based on the bestselling novel for young adults by Ransom Riggs. She says she agreed to come on board because, “They said I would be playing Miss Avocet, and all I knew about an avocet is that it is a bird with very, very long legs and I thought it would be engaging to play a bird with very, very long legs.” It’s directed by Tim Burton, whom she is mad for. “He’s got incredible enthusiasm and gets every excited and it’s infectious.”
I say I’ve only been able to see clips and it looks quite scary. She says it is quite scary, although possibly not as scary as Bambi, which is the first film she ever saw at the cinema. “I have never let my daughter see it. I was so affected … Oh, God.” I say I’d noted Rupert Everett is in the Peregrine cast. Was he a good boy or a naughty boy? She says she didn’t have any scenes with him. “But you had a long chat with Terence Stamp, didn’t you?” says Penny. “Terence Stamp, Pen? He wasn’t in Peregrine.” “What was he in then?” asks Penny. “He was in something. What was it when he came and sat with us … What was that?” says Judi. “I thought it was Peregrine,” says Penny. “I don’t know. Terence Stamp? Maybe he was in it. I can’t remember. How terrible.” (Just to put you out of your misery, he is in it.)
She has always said she is purely an instinctive actress, that “the subconscious is what works on the part. It’s like coming back to a crossword at the end of the day and filing in 17 answers straight off.” But I do wonder if she has a dark side. Would she have been able to play that super-creepy grand villainess, Barbara Covett, from Notes on a Scandal, if not? What part of her subconscious might she have been tapping into there? I’d read she does have a temper, which she confirms. “I do, and the older I get, the angrier and angrier I get. I get very angry about grammar, when someone says ‘me and somebody’.”
Is it true you once locked Michael out when he spent too long in the pub? “I did. But you see we had friends to stay and all the chaps went to the pub and they didn’t come back so we locked the door and went to bed and wouldn’t get up to let them in again. So they had to get a ladder and climb in a window. But I only did that once.”
She contacted The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer after he wrote a stinging review of her performance in Madame de Sade in 2009. “I’ve always rather admired you,” she wrote, “but now realise you’re an absolute s***.” “Oh, stop,” she says when I bring it up. I persist. Would you say it was out of character, that letter? “No. Why? I was very angry.”
I wonder what she does in her downtime. She used to love embroidering, but that’s no longer possible. “So no more rude cushions.” She would give rude cushions as gifts to friends. She gave one to David Hare with “F*** off” embroidered across it. I say Judi, for God’s sake, why can’t you just do “Home sweet home” like a normal person? She laughs one of her throaty laughs, then says, “Because everyone does that!”
So what might you do, if you found yourself home alone? Aside from get irritated? “I might sort a cupboard, but I can’t even do that now I can’t see. I will try to do general things around the house, with the radio on all the time.” Silence isn’t an option? “I have the radios going everywhere and the fish has a radio of his own.”
Her TV favourite is University Challenge – “I am besotted by those students” – and she is thinking of taking up painting again. “David has an art club every Tuesday and I gave it up for a while and then I suddenly thought, I am always telling people you must paint. It’s not as if it’s going into an exhibition. No one is going to look at it. You’re only doing it for yourself. I can’t see much, which is frustrating, but I can still do something.” She and Michael were both keen painters. “I remember once being in Scotland and the car breaking down and so we rang [the AA] and they said, ‘Yes, we’ll send somebody.’ We were miles from anywhere, and we sat painting and we were so absorbed we looked round and there were these people [from the AA] sitting by the car. We said hello and they said, ‘We didn’t want to disturb you.’ They’d apparently been there for quite some time.”
Michael was a Catholic, much comforted by his religion during his last days, and he was even, she says, made a papal knight the day before he died. Does that come from the Pope, I ask. “I think it does. He was too ill to be up. He was in the bedroom with the cardinal.” “No, it was the priest from Maiden Lane,” says Penny, “and we had the baby alarm.” “Oh yes. We had a great mass of people downstairs and everyone heard … It was a very good day.” He knew what was going on? “He did, he did.”
She is still working as much as she ever did. Currently, it’s Victoria and Abdul, a film about Queen Victoria’s relationship with a young Indian boy. She is still more star-struck than star, and was thrilled recently to meet Glenn Close, whom she’d seen in Sunset Boulevard. “She was wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. I was bewitched by her.” And she’s still just one classy lady, basically.
Indeed, I suffered a tape recorder malfunction on the day we met, so later got on to her agent to ask if she might call me as some of our chat was missing and I wished to recap. I was not hopeful, but she phoned the next day – from an Isle of Wight ferry, I think – and that was an act of great generosity, pure and simple. A scrumptious woman all her life, Dustin Hoffman once said of her, and you would have to be nuts to disagree.