Sunday Times, 29 October 2013
I remark to Judi Dench that she is 80 next year.
“Oh, yes, but don’t say that! That’s an absolutely filthy thing to say. Don’t say ‘old’, don’t say ‘retired’, don’t say ‘80’. I’m not even considering retiring.”
Well, OK, she doesn’t look or sound 78 (she will be 79 in December). Her hair is lustrously silver, she is slim and very brown, probably thanks to a summer spent swimming daily in Cornwall with her family. She looks defiantly fine, very defiantly. But time passes. Macular degeneration makes reading difficult or impossible, and she first appears at our talk struggling down the staircase on one crutch. It is five weeks since she had knee- replacement surgery.
“How is the recovery going?”
“I am fully recovered now. I don’t want to make a big thing of it. I’m doing the physio, and all that’s fine. It’s an extraordinary thing, knee replacement. How do they even set about it?”
She later pointedly discards the crutch. She has five days before the premiere of her new film, Philomena, and she is determined to make it up the red carpet unaided. (In the event she did it, triumphant in the Indian-made dress that hadn’t even arrived when we spoke.)
Of course, as M, the head of MI6, she’s dead already, having finally “kicked the bucket” — her words — at the end of Skyfall. She had been our “national boss” — again, her words — in seven Bond films, starting with GoldenEye in 1995. For a while, it seemed that only two strong women, Judi Dench and Angela Merkel, stood between the West and utter chaos. But time passes. Just behind the sofa on which I am sitting is a big painting of her as M, seated at her desk with her tacky Union Jack bulldog, looking clipped, fierce, potent. Does she miss the old girl?
“I miss that whole setup. It was so nice. But I’ve had a long time at it, and MI6 would give her the push now anyway. It can’t be somebody my age.”
Then she adds, with a touch of naughty satisfaction: “M got me noticed by young people. Most young chaps think I have just been M. They think it’s cool to boss James Bond around.”
She has five days before the premiere of her new film, Philomena, and she is determined to make it up the red carpet unaided. (In the event she did it, triumphant in the Indian-made dress that hadn’t even arrived when we spoke.)
In America, where the greats of British theatre only register when they make movies, she has been asked if she has ever done anything apart from M and Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love. She won an Oscar for the latter on the basis of eight minutes of actual screen time. She may well win another for rather more work on Philomena.
She is very grateful for the movies, specifically to the mighty mogul Harvey Weinstein, who picked up Mrs Brown (1997) for cinema rather than television release and thereby launched her late-flowering film career. She told Weinstein she had his name tattooed on her bum. “He still thinks it’s tattooed. My make-up lady painted it on, and when I met him in New York I told him. He dismissed it, so I showed him and said, ‘Here you are!’ ”
Philomena is the story of something that happened to the journalist Martin Sixsmith after he was “resigned” from his job as a new Labour spinner. With Jeff Pope, Steve Coogan wrote the script, and he plays the part of Sixsmith. He pitched it to Dench in the way she now demands and requires: he sat with her in the garden and read the whole script with different voices for every part.
Sixsmith came across Philomena Lee, an Irish woman who was struggling to find the son taken from her and sold to American adopters by nuns. Dench made a point of meeting the real Philomena. “Oh, yes, I met her before we even started filming. You need to get the flavour of somebody, you have to see them and listen to them. I think it’s a terrific, heavy responsibility when you play somebody real like Philomena — or Iris Murdoch, Queen Victoria or Elizabeth I. We had lunch, and she’s terribly funny.
“I said, ‘You have wonderful hair, Philomena,’ and she said, ‘I never have the tint bottle far from me.’ ”
Dench is Irish on her mother’s side, so, inevitably, when filming in Ireland she discovered countless previously unknown cousins. Also, crucially, Irishness helped her understand something the English often miss — the profundity of Irish faith. The Sixsmith character sees the story as an assault on the Catholic church. But, as such, it would be a story without a second act. What lifts it out of the ordinary is the way Philomena’s faith abides in spite of everything.
“It’s not an anti-religious film. When it was shown in Venice, a lot of people said that. What it’s about is somebody who, through all that, managed to keep an unshakeable faith.”
This is important to Dench because, though she seldom discusses it, she, too, has an unshakeable faith, one that gives her respite from her natural gregariousness. “I became a Quaker at 14 when I was sent to a Quaker boarding school. It suited me down to the ground. It’s very quiet, which is what I am not, and it makes you create your own form of Quakerism. It consists of sitting in silence with a lot of other people. That suits me very well, because I often don’t give myself the time to get all the drawers organised inside my head. It’s a strength I can’t do without.”
She goes to two local meeting houses and found “a lovely one” in Cornwall. I check with her that this is not simply a therapeutic technique. No, she insists, it is real Christian faith.
This is important to Dench because, though she seldom discusses it, she, too, has an unshakeable faith, one that gives her respite from her natural gregariousness
We are at her home in deepest, greenest Surrey, a place that feels more remote than it actually is — “Satnav kind of gives up when you get here,” she says. Part of the house dates back to 1680, and she’s very proud that she knows that the original occupant, a yeoman farmer, had a couple of horses, a cow, some linen shirts and a bit of silver. It was all in a book given to her by the previous owner when she moved in with her husband, the actor Michael Williams, 30 years ago.
The house has been so carefully restored, it would still be recognised by that yeoman. Outside it seems to have sunk into the vegetation, and inside it is Englishly cluttered but kept in order by a sturdy housekeeper, who works around us as we speak, and by a large, yeomanlike gardener. They are both so timelessly English that I have an uncanny feeling they have both been here since 1680 and Dench and I are just passing through.
The eternal yeomanry and a largeish menagerie — a giant goldfish called Lazarus, a snoring shih-tzu called Minnie, assorted cats and, in the garden pond, coots, ducks and water voles — apart, she is alone in this house. Her daughter, Finty, has moved out to live in central London. Dench has said in the past she wished she had had more children. Finty’s son, Sammy, has also moved away. Michael Williams, of course, died of cancer in 2001, a cataclysmic event to which Dench responded with a frenzy of work.
“I went to film The Shipping News in Nova Scotia and was there for three weeks, then I flew back and did the whole of Iris, then I flew back to Newfoundland to finish The Shipping News, and flew back to do The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s the best thing I could have done. Grief, like fear, supplies you with energy. There’s a transference with fear as there is with grief.”
She hates me using the word “alone” as much as she hates me saying “80”. She can’t really do alone, either professionally or domestically. She doesn’t like to be alone on stage: she declined Beckett’s Happy Days because Winnie, buried up to her bosom in a mound of earth, spends most of her time alone.
“I wouldn’t do a one-woman show. I wouldn’t dream of it. I need other people — for the jokes, mostly. If everyone is going to be very serious and take it very seriously, I don’t want to do it.”
The daughter of artistically inclined parents in York — her father was a GP, and his brass Dr Dench plate sits proudly on one of her shelves — she seems to have fallen into acting when she decided she couldn’t be a designer. At the Central School of Speech & Drama, her group were given the task of preparing a mime by the old actor Walter Hudd. They were to take a few weeks. Dench forgot about it and had to improvise on the day. She came up with a very minimalist performance.
“I did it on the hoof, I hadn’t thought about it. Everybody else did very complicated pieces. Walter just said after mine, ‘That’s how you do it.’ And that was it, it was really accidental. He made me think, and I was suddenly mad keen about the whole thing.”
She was, in short, a natural. The rest is theatrical history. Perhaps only Helen Mirren could challenge her as the great British actress of the era. I suggest the two make a movie — like Pacino and De Niro in Heat — in which Mirren plays the cop and Dench the gangster. It is a conversational bait to which she declines to rise.
In spite of all that, theatre is in her blood and Shakespeare is in her bones. She likes the dangerous freedom of it
It is movies that have made her happy in her later years, though. She is, I think, genuinely modest, so it is quite natural for her to display schoolgirlish excitement about her meetings with Spacey, Blanchett, Clooney and Eastwood; and she is awestruck when I tell her I am to see Robert De Niro a few days later. “Oh, I’d like to hear about De Niro. You know, I’ve never met him.”
In spite of all that, theatre is in her blood and Shakespeare is in her bones. She likes the dangerous freedom of it. “What is fascinating is the thought that you can walk on the stage and decide you are not going to say those lines. That’s a very, very dangerous place to me. I remember telling John Mills that, and he said Larry [Olivier] once said that to him. There’s a club of us. I just think of walking on and turning to the audience and saying, ‘Don’t you have homes to go to?’ It’s dangerous, like Tourette’s.”
She can, meanwhile, recite whole plays of Shakespeare, and she drifts off into a rhapsody of quotations about sleep from Macbeth. “ ‘Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care… The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, balm of hurt minds.’ Well, he didn’t have to write any more, did he? He didn’t have to write anything else for me to know he was a genius.
“ ‘The balm of hurt minds,’ ” she repeats and seems to drift away. I sense she’s feeling lonely in this big, earthy, remote-feeling house. But never mind.
“We’re very lucky to know Shakespeare,” she says. I turn off the recorders, and she says: “Champagne?” She struggles to her feet, waking and irritating Minnie, who has been snoring on her lap throughout, and, defiantly ignoring the crutch, she leads me to the kitchen, where she falls about laughing when I screw up the uncorking and splash champagne all over the place.