Why Harry Potter actress Miriam Margolyes wants to be remembered for more than just her power to shock

Miriam Margolyes may have turned 80 this year but the actress says she has never been busier. She is in the midst of shooting a feature film and is busy promoting her autobiography, This Much is True. She appeared in Harrogate yesterday and is heading to Sheffield at the end of the month.

Miriam Margolyes Picture: Claire Sutton
Miriam Margolyes Picture: Claire Sutton

Miriam Margolyes may have turned 80 this year but the actress says she has never been busier. She is in the midst of shooting a feature film and is busy promoting her autobiography, This Much is True. She is heading to Yorkshire to appear in Harrogate tomorrow and Sheffield at the end of the month.

Writing your autobiography at 80 may seem rather late as most celebrities these days have their memoirs published when they have barely reached half that age. Not so Margolyes. “I never wanted to write an autobiography at all,” she says. “But then my publisher contacted me and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was also only possible because of Covid. If I’d been working and rushing about I wouldn’t have had the time or inclination.”

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In the end it was written in just five months during lockdown when she found herself stuck in Tuscany, where she has a house.

Miriam Margolyes during the filming for the Graham Norton Show Picture: PA

Known for her outspoken and often outrageous comments – she is said to be Graham Norton’s favourite chat show guest for that very reason – she says proudly that the team of lawyers employed by her publisher allowed her to keep every word.

“I wanted this to be about much more than just me being rude,” says Margolyes. “I wanted it to be above all about the truth. Yes, I do speak my mind and I will never apologise for saying what I think, but I also think I have some interesting things to say about politics and religion and other things. I don’t want people to think I am just a trivial, mouthy woman.”

But don’t worry there are still naughty stories dotted throughout the book.

Margolyes was born in 1941 to second-generation Jewish immigrant parents. An only child, she was always surrounded by love and that gave her confidence to be herself. She says she enjoyed writing about her parents, especially her mother, who was a massive influence in her life, although she adds that it was hard to admit they had flaws.

Actress Miriam Margolyes attends the World Premiere of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows - Part 2 (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

One of her big regrets was coming out to her parents, as she believes it sparked her mother’s stroke a few days afterwards. A more severe one happened several months later, leading to a downward spiral of health until she died in 1974.

“I always believed that my coming out in some way caused it,” Margolyes says. “They always wanted grandchildren and by telling them I was gay I caused the person I loved most in the world a pain she could not bear. It was a horrendous time and I was very unhappy. I knew I couldn’t change what I was. Mummy brought me up to tell her everything but I should not have told them. Although I believe in telling the truth, I do feel you shouldn’t tell people things they cannot deal with.”

She “formally became a lesbian” in 1966 and quickly fell in love with Heather, an academic, who remains her partner 53 years later, although they spend much of the time apart as Heather lives in Australia.

Despite having a blissful childhood, Margolyes admits that she always needed attention and used comedy, and often misbehaviour, especially at school, to get that attention. When she went to Cambridge she smoked a pipe and again liked to shock. It is where her acting career began as one of the only female members of the famous Cambridge Footlights.

But it was not a happy time, she recalls in her memoir. She says the men showed her “studied cruelty”, adding: “My dislike of that whole, largely male, world of comedy has never left me.” The Footlights lot “thought I was a jumped-up, pushy, overconfident, fat little Jew”, she says.

“I never got over it, even though it was 60 years ago. It was terrible at the time. But once it was over and I got a job, people were very generous to me with their affection.”

And in many ways Margolyes had the last laugh as she is still one of the UK’s most prolific actresses. She won a Bafta for her role in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence and was cast in the role of Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter film series. She admits that she had never read the JK Rowling books or seen any of the films but loved the experience acting alongside some “wonderful people”.

She has become synonymous with the works of Charles Dickens after she co-wrote and performed a one-woman show, Dickens’ Women, in which she played 23 characters from his novels. She would love to be in any future adaptations of his books.

“I just seemed to be good at it,” she says of acting. “If you are good at something and other people think you are good and you have the opportunity, then you should go for it.”

More recently she has appeared in the BBC series Call the Midwife. “I never in a million years thought I’d end up playing a nun – I thought they’d have me playing a Jewish housewife but then I ended up as a nun and I was very pleased.”

But Margolyes never takes her success for granted. “I haven’t always been so well known,” she says. “There were a lot of times when I was out of work. And I do still find it extraordinary that at the age of 80 I have never been more in demand.”

Margolyes is an ardent socialist, and is very critical of the Government. But she says reports that she wanted Boris Johnson to die when he had Covid were misquoted. “I never said I wanted Boris Johnson dead. I did say I had difficulty not wanting him to die but then I thought about it and I don’t want to be that sort of person that wanted somebody to die. What I want is for him to change.” Her comments on comedy TV show The Last Leg led to more than 500 complaints, but Ofcom decided not to launch an investigation.

Margolyes’ public condemnation of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians has also led to a backlash from the Jewish community. But she is unapologetic. “If I see an injustice, then I will speak up about it and try to influence people’s opinions. Mummy always told me to do the right thing and I think I am doing the right thing, trying to influence people – whether it is about politics or religion.”

She does admits that shes like to shock and push the boundaries, especially when it come to talking about politics, religion and sex. “I do like to shake people up a bit.”

Hosted by Cause UK, join Miriam Margolyes “in conversation with Anna Wallace” at the Royal Hall in Harrogate tomorrow at 3pm talking about her autobiography This Much is True. Box office team, 07762 159115.

Margolyes will also be in conversation with Paulette Edwards as part of the University of Sheffield’s Off the Shelf festival on October 31. www.offtheshelf.org.uk/event/this-much-is-true-miriam-margolyes