Judi Dench by John Miller

DAILY MAIL                                      24 October 1998

JUDIDENCH: With a crack in her voice
(Weidenfeld & Nicolson £20.00)

Dame Judi Dench is a gift to playwrights but she poses problems for a biographer.

The daughter of theatre-loving parents who encouraged her desire to act, she was plucked straight from drama school to play Ophelia at the Old Vic. Her performance was not universally admired (neither the first nor the last time that a debutante was hampered by hype) and she had to relinquish the role for its American tour. But that setback, one of remarkably few in a long career, merely steeled her resolve. She remained at the Vic, quietly learning her craft, until her first major success, as Juliet for Franco Zeffirelli (although even this did not satisfy Edith Evans, who told her ‘You all looked so dirty’).

Since then she has played almost all Shakespeare’s heroines and is the only actress this century to triumph as both Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth. She has starred in musicals (the original Sally Bowles in Cabaret, and Desiree in A Little Night Music). She has made top-rating sit-coms and enjoyed a late flowering in films.  She is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest actresses in the world, adored by her audiences and revered by her peers.

Miller provides an excellent role-by-role analysis of Dame Judi’s career from her schoolgirl Titania (the young Margaret Drabble was one of the fairies) to her award-winning Queen Victoria. He includes judicious quotations from the leading critics and admiring tributes from her colleagues. His book will stand as the definitive portrait of an actress who embodies the company principle as much in her unstarry generosity to her fellow-actors as in her life-long commitment to the subsidised theatre.

The facts speak for themselves, but a biographer needs more.   This is where Miller might seem to run into difficulties. The extraordinary intimacy of Dame Judi’s performances creates such a unique bond with her audiences that they feel proprietorial towards her. And yet she remains a very private person.

Dame Judi has a famously happy marriage to Michael Williams. They both had previous loves – “fleeting romances that are common in the nomadic actor’s life, as well as a few deeper attachments which ended unhappily’. Miller, rightly, draws a veil over these, citing his subject’s disgust with the journalist who crassly asked ‘Who was the first person you slept with and when?’ Instead of grubbing around for salacious details, he captures Dame Judi’s character through the reminiscences other many friends.

The book is a fund of marvellous anecdotes.   Even Dame Judi’s wedding provided a moment of high comedy, when a flustered usher (Alec McCowen) mistook a huge limousine arriving at the church for the bridal party and signalled to the organist, leaving a bewildered Danny La Rue to walk down the aisle to the strains of Here Comes The Bride.

There are charming recollections of the young Judi’s encounters with older admirers, such as Miles Malleson who forced her and Maggie Smith to spend much of the Edinburgh Festival locked in the loo in order to escape his advances, and Sir Ralph Richardson who bit her ear, declaring: ‘What’s a bite between friends?’

Actor after actor attests to her sexiness. Young men such as Patrick Garland, Ian Richardson and Ian Holm found themselves in love with her. John Hurt describes her as ‘our answer to Simone Signoret; she has that same quality – deeply sexual and at the same time tremendously vulnerable and moving’.

The strangest revelation to her spell-bound audiences will be that Dame Judi is a consummate practical joker. It is as if the intensity of her commitment requires some means of release. So she substituted nude photographs for the costume designs handed round in Bond’s The Sea and wrote Go Home Yank on her corset to greet her American co-star on the last night of A Little Night Music.

Equally memorable have been her unscheduled ‘guest’ appearances in friends’ productions; including a Cardinal when Donald Sinden was playing Henry VIII and a red-bearded pirate when Stephen Moore played Captain Hook. Even Sir Peter Hall was startled to find an additional masked chorus member at an early rehearsal of Oedipus.

Miller does not neglect the serious side of Dame Judi’s character. She is patron of 183 charities (more than many royalty). She is a staunch Quaker and a firm believer in the extended family (for years, she lived near Stratford with both her mother and parents-in-law). She is a true friend; both she and Michael Williams fasted every Wednesday for eighteen months in solidarity with the actress Dearbhla Molloy, whose sister was on a life-support machine.

This is an enchanting portrait of a great actress and a great lady who, although in her seventh decade, remains as busy as ever. She eschews any thought of retirement and Miller notes that Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies was still delighting audiences on her hundredth birthday. It is a precedent that Dame Judi’s millions of admirers can only hope that she will heed.