Down-to-earth Dame Judi

She is in many people's estimation Britain's favourite actress. As York's Dame Judi Dench reaches 70 this week Michael Hickling reports on the making of a star

For Dame Judi Dench the language of admiration is universal. On a fleeting visit to York Minster with her brother Peter, a party of French kids halfway down an aisle spotted her and a loud stage whisper echoed excitedly through the nave: "Zro Zro Sept!"

Playing the spy mistress M in the James Bond movies brought Dench to an international audience which knows nothing and cares less about the classical English stage where she has been one of its chief adornments for 50 years.

In what used to be called the legitimate theatre, her reputation was secured as soon as she made her first entrance straight from drama school. It's the films that have made her bigger box office but even as an authentic, Oscar-winning Hollywood star, she has stayed free of the self-regard that usually goes with that status. That she remains so grounded and detached from the otherwise universal cult of celebrity is in large part due to her upbringing, and her family's roots in York and in its theatrical traditions.

The Denches arrived here early in 1932. Dr Reg Dench, brought up in Dublin where he had trained as a doctor, came to York with his wife Olave to take up a partnership in a General Practice in Heworth. They had two boys, Peter and Jeffery. A couple of years later the family was completed with the birth of Judith Olivia on December 9 at the Holgate Nursing Home.

Reg and Olave's passion was the theatre and they joined the amateur Settlement Players where Reg specialised in character parts and Olave concentrated on the wardrobe. Reg also became medical advisor to the York repertory company. At weekends and at Christmas time there were always extra guests from the rep at the dining table in their house in Heworth.

When the York community came together for the Festival of Britain in 1951 to produce and perform in the medieval Mystery Plays – which hadn't been put on for 500 years or so – Reg, Olave and their daughter were all in it. Jeffery became a professional actor. Peter, who succeeded his father as a GP, is now retired and still lives in the city. He concedes that the ownership which local people feel towards his sister can be overwhelming. "My wife says she'll never walk down Coney Street with her again. It takes about 24 hours. People with family connections feel related.

"We are originally from Dorset. Apparently if you stood on the pier at Weymouth and shouted "Dench!" they'd all come sculling towards you. There's a histrionic thing running right through the family. Sarah Siddons might be in there somewhere. We've done a family tree for Jude although it hasn't been presented to her yet." (For family, friends and colleagues it's never Judi – "Jude" was the preference of Coral Browne, Gertrude to her Ophelia in Dench's debut in Hamlet at the Old Vic, and it has stuck ever since).

Nothing big is planned for her birthday next Thursday. Jude will be in Scotland. "I don't think she wants to know," says Peter Dench. "She'd rather not be 70. On the Parkinson show he mentioned she had her 70th birthday coming up and she was a bit sharp about it. She's suggested a combined family party early next year when Jeffery will be 76 and I'll be 80 a week or

so after."

Peter and Jeffery attended the then all-boys St Peter's school. Jude chose The Mount, a Quaker school, although the family were Methodist, shading into C of E. She liked the uniform but also took the school's ethos to heart. "At the Mount they very much cherished the individual," she told one interviewer. "I was grateful to become a Quaker because I'd found that in some other church services you didn't really have to do anything. A Quaker meeting requires extraordinary concentration and it also creates in one a private core, so that you have a stillness about you. That has been very valuable, especially in my profession."

She appeared in school plays including A Midsummer Night's Dream. Pictures from 1950 in the family album show Jude in her Mount school uniform as a rather solemn and withdrawn-looking girl. One family group is posed around a car and caravan on a holiday to Chantilly in France. Peter Dench peers at them and says, "That's the caravan that overtook our car on the inside." Someone else's caravan then? "No it was ours."

After the Mount, Judi went to art college intent on a career in theatrical design. "She had one or two terms but it didn't work out," says Peter. "Father said, 'what do you want to do?' and she said, 'Jeffery is having a lovely time (he had trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama). I think I'll do that.' No one was more surprised than my father when she got the top award and finished with two contracts in her pocket." One was to play the Virgin Mary for the next production in the three-yearly cycle of the York Mystery plays (she had played an angel in 1954). The other was to play Ophelia with the heart-throb of the day, John Neville, as Hamlet at the Old Vic.

From such beginnings, her career seems to have been on a more-or-less permanently upward trajectory. But the private core she talks about and the sense of uncertainty which seems to go with it, has remained intact "Celebrity is the last role she'll ever play," adds Peter who has seen almost everything she has ever done. The only notable production he missed was a Romeo and Juliet when he was called to a confinement.

Her public appearances when not in character are an ordeal, he says. "When she comes to York with a request to do something official she's scared stiff. She was asked to unveil a plaque on the house where the poet WH Auden was born and she was really terrified. I had to give her a slug of brandy. She said, 'I can't hide on these occasions. I'm an actress – projecting myself is not a thing I do'. She feels that very strongly. She came to the Mount school to open something or other and on the way she said, 'Oh, for God's sake can't we just drive past?'"

John White was a York amateur actor when he first encountered her in 1957. He had been cast as Adam in the Mystery Plays and she was the (professional) Virgin Mary. "She came with a certain status," says John. "She came back to York from college, still the sweet 16-year-old who had gone away. She has never altered in that sense. She was a gorgeous young girl with a quick sense of humour, prone to giggles. A very sunny personality. She had a talent you could spot a mile off." John White and his wife Dorothy got to know Jude's parents and the two extended families became friendly.

Some 30 years on, John renewed his acting connection with her. In 1983 he left his job on the board of an interior decorating company and went professional with the stage name Richard Conway. One of his first jobs was with the Royal Shakespeare Company at the London Barbican, in a play called Waste by Harley Granville Barker, in which Jude was starring. "She had no idea I was coming," says John. "I arrived at the first rehearsal and the director said, 'Come and meet Richard Conway'. She looked at me and she was agog. All she could think to say was, 'How's Dorothy?'"

"She was never an upstage actress. She's able to stand aside from all that, even though it's a competitive business. She leads any company she's in. If she gets tired she won't take herself off to the Ritz. She'll crash out in the green room and have a kip like anyone else. If there are games to be organised on a matine afternoon, she'll be the one to do it.

"Everyone feels she's a mate – if you were in a company she would know if you had problems, because she notices the smallest thing and feels concern. She got together with Michael Williams after he'd had a car accident which put him in hospital and she used to go and see him. That's when the relationship started, sick visiting."

She married Michael – Mikey – in February 1971. Their daughter Tara Cressida Frances – Finty – was born in September, 1972. One of Jude's happiest Christmases on stage was at Stratford when she was able to combine her twin passions – work and family – in a production of Wind in the Willows. Michael played Mole, Jeffery Dench played Ratty and Jude was a very pregnant weasel. As a couple Michael and Jude also won the hearts of 14 million viewers each week in the sitcom A Fine Romance screened between 1980 and 1984. In 1988, she became Dame Judi Dench, DBE for her contributions to the arts. In 1991, with Geoffrey Palmer in Bob Larbey's As Time Goes By, she was onto another audience winner which ran for eight seasons to 2002.

She put herself on the feature film map with her portrayal of Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown and her Oscar nomination for Best Actress was followed by an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love. By then Pierce Brosnan, as 007, was used to getting the rough end of her tongue in the Bond films.

For her last landmark birthday, her husband had been there to organise the 60th celebration party. Michael, a practising Catholic, died of cancer in January 2001. "She misses him extremely; immensely," says Peter Dench. "It was a terrible blow. The Vatican said they were going to give him a Papal honour and he was going to receive it in Rome, although he obviously wasn't. A representative of the Church came down to their house in Reigate instead. Afterwards, a half dozen of us went up to have a bit of a word with Mikey over the next half hour. He died the next day. It was very moving.

"She's since thrown herself into her work. She did three films in a row. The last time we spoke she had spent the day in a Tiger Moth and enjoyed it. It's for a film about the woman who started the Windmill Theatre."

The film is called Mrs Henderson Presents and Dame Judi plays Laura Henderson – a woman who was no longer a young woman when she bought the Windmill in London's pre-war Soho and spotted a legal loophole which would help her theatre to win back audiences lost to the cinema. She was able to put nude models on stage – so long as they didn't move a muscle. The Windmill famously became the place which could claim "We Never Closed". Laura fell out with her theatre manager who banned her from entering. She found a way round him too by disguising herself as a man and once as a polar bear.

The big awards have continued to flow for Dame Judi, such as the BAFTA Film Best Actress Award for Iris for which she was again nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress. With Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Judi performed in a sell-out run of David Hare's new play The Breath of Life. And the pair of them have had rave reviews for their latest film Ladies in Lavender.

Her approach has always been down-to-earth. She admits that she hardly ever looks at a script before the first rehearsal and learns them "by osmosis". The reason is not indolence but a powerful sense that acting has to be a collective experience. "It means that you don't start the process before you're actually with everybody, and then you can listen to them." Asked once if she intellectualised about acting, she replied, "No, I only do instinctive."

Being happy to dress up at 70 as a polar bear suggests her relish for the job is undiminished and that maintaining the dignity of a Dame does not worry her unduly.

"If it was me, I'd have retired five years ago," says Peter Dench. "Not with Jude. Not likely."