Dame Judi Dench: Why the sky won’t fall in on a living legend

Dame Judi Dench and director Sam Mendes (right) on the set of the James Bond film Skyfall.
Dame Judi Dench and director Sam Mendes (right) on the set of the James Bond film Skyfall.
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She’s a dame, an Oscar winner, she’s one of our truly great actors and has achieved the status of National Treasure. Film critic Tony Earnshaw talks to Yorkshire’s own Judi Dench.

It would be wrong to assume that Judi Dench, dame of the theatre, film industry darling and – cough, cough – national treasure, treats movies as secondary to theatre or that she sees them in some way as a lesser form of the day job.

She takes the work seriously. Herself she takes far less seriously. This despite the seven Olivier awards (a record), 11 BAFTAs, two Golden Globes, a Tony and an Oscar, the latter for playing one of her many single-minded monarchs.

Thus it was that in the same year as she made her seventh appearance as ‘M’ in a James Bond film she popped up as a bag lady in arch farceur Ray Cooney’s film of his own ’80s hit Run for Your Wife.

Judi Dench likes to work. And it matters not to her if the role is a meaty one in the world’s longest-running iconic franchise or a cameo amongst 150 others in an old-fashioned comedy with an old friend at the helm.

And she can still be taken by surprise. When the phone rang at her home in Surrey and the voice on the other end of the line announced it was Clint Eastwood, she thought it was a mischievous pal pulling her leg.

The call was genuine, the offer to play J Edgar Hoover’s mother very real. That was how Cleopatra came to be working with Dirty Harry. Even now Dench pinches herself, recalling the experience of acting for Eastwood as “a bit terrifying”. She has admitted to being star-struck.

She is refreshingly free of ego, as most truly great people are. And at 78 refreshingly free of any hang-ups about retirement. She’ll work ’til she drops – in movies, on TV or on the stage.

Next month she returns to the theatre for a 12-week run in John Logan’s Peter and Alice at the Noël Coward Theatre in the West End. She calls it “a conversation imagined” between Peter Llewelyn Davies and Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the inspirations for Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. Her leading man is 32-year-old Ben Whishaw.

“They met to open a Lewis Carroll exhibition in 1932. This is an imagined conversation between the two of them, and what they might have spoken about, and very interesting. It’s not like any other play I’ve ever read.” Then there are more movies.

Her substantive film career has been bookended by the James Bond films – seven of them, starting in 1995. It was a bold move to cast a woman as ‘M’, even bolder to have her describe 007 as “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur”. Only Dame Judi could get away with that.

She bade farewell to ‘M’ with Skyfall, handing over the reins to Ralph Fiennes as her successor. This key plot point was always in the film from the moment she received her script. “I was told that very early on so I could get rid of the peeved face and start smiling and nodding,” she says.

“It’s been wonderful. And after 18 years it’s a pretty nice way to finish off. I think I was emotional when they actually said ‘Cut’ and they said, ‘That’s it. Thanks very much’. That was the emotional bit.”

Dench was a late starter when it came to films. She was 29 when she made her debut in the 1964 thriller The Third Secret, was a soup kitchen worker in a Sherlock Holmes adventure about Jack the Ripper and was the screen’s most ravishing Titania in Peter Hall’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Yet she has never forgotten a comment made to her when she was still at The Old Vic in the late Fifties. Attending a screen test she was informed “Well, Miss Dench, I have to tell you: you have every single thing wrong with your face.”

Did it scar her? Probably. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s she split her time between theatre and television, acquiring a formidable reputation. There was the occasional movie but nothing substantial. All that changed in the mid ’90s when, quite suddenly, the film world took notice. First there was her key casting in GoldenEye as ‘M’, assisting Pierce Brosnan as the 007 who would resurrect the character. Then came Mrs Brown and an Oscar nomination for playing the grieving Queen Victoria.There followed Shakespeare in Love in 1997 and another nod from the Academy for her performance as an all-seeing Queen Elizabeth I. This time she won. It was overnight success at age 63.

Ever since that late flowering she has collected fans among her contemporaries.

Action star Vin Diesel talked of a “love match” when he co-starred with her in The Chronicles of Riddick. Bob Hoskins smilingly recalled her as “a right old cow, but she was charming” when they partnered on Mrs Henderson Presents, the story of the Windmill revues of the 1940s.

As for Clint Eastwood, whenever he spoke her name, he grinned. Producer Norma Heyman called her “completely fearless, quite wild” when they made Mrs Henderson Presents. Dench denies it, of course. She claims she is “fearful… of not doing things”. Yes, it was her inside the panda suit in Mrs Henderson Presents. Yes, she really did fly in a Gypsy Moth and scared the living daylights out of Hoskins.

“I like to learn something,” she says with that sly smile. “I never did archery, and then the very first shot in The Importance of Being Earnest I had a wonderful go at doing that. I’m not fearless at all. I’m fearful but as far as being given a challenge is concerned, I really love that.”

She returns to the stage for the first time in three years. As she approaches 80, is she daunted?

“I just hope I have the energy. That’s what you require: real energy. I remember being told a long time ago at The Old Vic: ‘The audience hasn’t come to see you being tired or having a cold. You have a story to tell’ and that’s what we have to do. You get a whole group of people coming and sitting in the dark, and you tell them a story.”

Roles of honour for York’s finest

Judith Olivia Dench was born on December 9, 1934, in York.

She made her professional theatre debut with The Old Vic Company in 1957, playing the role of Ophelia in Hamlet.

Her many memorable theatre performances have included Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Anya in The Cherry Orchard, Sally Bowles in Cabaret, Juno in Juno and the Paycock and Christine Foskett in Absolute Hell.

She has been Oscar- nominated six times, winning as Best Supporting Actress for Shakespeare in Love.

She is an OBE, a DBE and a Companion of Honour.

Run for Your Wife (12A) is on limited release.