As Miriam Margolyes prepares to perform her one-woman show, dedicated to the women in the victorian novelist’s fiction, she reflects on her own fascinating life story

Miriam Margolyes
Miriam Margolyes
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It’s the morning after the night before, and Miriam Margolyes is knackered. She didn’t get in until 1am after doing her one-
woman show, Dickens’ Women, in Guildford and catching the last train home.

Now it’s 9am the next morning, she hasn’t had time to brush her hair let alone go for her daily swim, she’s on antibiotics for a chest infection, and in two hours a car is arriving to take her to the BBC to record a radio programme. Yet here she is in her rambling townhouse in Clapham, London, 71 years young, smiling like a Cheshire cat, and talking loudly and lengthily about anything and everything.

It’s the morning after the night before, and Miriam Margolyes is knackered. She didn’t get in until 1am after doing her one-
woman show, Dickens’ Women, in Guildford and catching the last train home. Now it’s 9am the next morning, she hasn’t had time to brush her hair let alone go for her daily swim, she’s on antibiotics for a chest infection, and in two hours a car is arriving to take her to the BBC to record a radio programme. Yet here she is in her rambling townhouse in Clapham, London, 71 years young, smiling like a Cheshire cat, and talking loudly and lengthily about anything and everything.

“My favourite actress, Dame Eileen Atkins, came to see the show last night,” she booms in that proud and sinewy voice that wraps itself around vowels and wrings out consonants. “That, for me, meant everything ... Where are you going?” she bellows to the photographer, who is setting up downstairs in Margolyes’ sitting room, which is packed with two vast shelves of books by or about Charles Dickens (“the man in my life”) and lots of 19th-century caricatures of ample naughty ladies (not unlike their owner, in fact). “Go and have a look at my pictures,” she instructs the photographer. “They are Gillray, Rowlandson, and Heath. And they are very, very good.”

Now she’s on to her one-woman show, in which she plays 23 of the great writer’s female characters and discusses his complex view of women. Dickens’ Women originally opened at the Edinburgh Festival in 1989, and has since been nominated for an Olivier and played to adoring audiences all over the world. (Everyone adores Margolyes, incidentally; she tells me this herself.) In her view it remains the greatest thing she’s ever done. “I’m passionately proud of it and committed to it,” she announces. Now a pause big enough to house a Shakespeare soliloquy. “I know people think of me as a comic actress but I am not,” she says, the voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. “I am not a comic actress and I never have been. I play comic parts and that is the difference.”

After more than two decades and during the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth, the show finally returns to Edinburgh. “I know, it’s lovely,” she sighs. “I find it moving and thrilling and a little scary. Because I’m not under the auspices of the festival proper. I am the festival improper.” This is accompanied by a great rude grin. “I think it shows I’ve got guts. I must take my chance alongside the many others.”

My first sight of Margolyes is when she bursts out of a room with her father’s name on the door. “Joseph Margolyes”, the burnished sign reads, “Physician & Doctor”. When her father, a Glaswegian Jew from the Gorbals, retired she took the sign from his Oxford 
practice and hung it here in her London home. He lived in the basement of this house for the last ten years of his life until he died in 1995 at 96. We move next door to a cluttered study where Margolyes sits in his old chair and points out a portrait of him on the wall and a photo of him smiling toothlessly on his 90th birthday. Her mother, a Jewish property developer, is an equally formidable presence in the room. Margolyes shows me pictures of the proud, stylish woman who “always wore a cape” and was “the person I loved most dearly”. Her parents continue to mean everything to her.

But first, their daughter. She is barefoot and dressed in a colourful kaftan and scarf. Her puffball of grey hair makes it look like she’s just stuck her finger in a plug socket. She is wearing no make-up and has fantastic skin, saucer eyes, and an expressive, mischievous face that makes her look like she’s about to crack a joke or give you a row. (In fact, she does pull me up at one point for inserting “like” into a sentence.) But, as is often the case with bombastic, attention-seeking people, there is a much quieter and more vulnerable side to Margolyes. “Has anything surprised you about me today?” she asks at the end of the interview. I tell her she is more serious than I thought, and that I expected more swearing and jokes about breasts and bodily functions (she has mooned Warren Beatty and flashed her breasts at Martin Scorsese in the past.) “Ahhhh,” she says sonorously. “Well, this is what I’m really like.”

“I think I was a bit trivial as a young person,” she continues. “But I’m not trivial any more. I’m so different from the image that people have of me that it’s quite disturbing sometimes. You know, I would like to be a scholar. I’m often quite withdrawn.”

How would she describe her public and private selves? “My public persona is of a cheery, roly poly, friendly, funny, sunny, naughty, middle-aged to elderly person,” she says, which sounds about right. After all, we’re talking about the first woman to use an expletive on British TV when she appeared on University Challenge in 1963 as a Cambridge student. Oh, and even the Queen once told her to shut up. “In my own private view of myself I am very thoughtful, quite elitist, and very judgmental,” she goes on. “Much more serious and possibly more unlikeable than I’m perceived to be. But I’m very cunning.” Now the cat’s grin again. “I’ve always been cunning. And I know how to appear. I know what people want and I give it to them.”

Most recently, we saw Margolyes the cunning performer on The Graham Norton Show, where she bantered with rapper (“I don’t know many black people”) and failed to recognise Prince William because of his bald patch. It was classic Margolyes: cheeky, silly and bossy. She tends to fall somewhere between naughty little girl and old tyrant and comes across as curiously ageless. She has never seemed younger than middle-aged, yet even in her seventies she remains the puppyish girl. It’s a loveable combination, but she thinks it means people don’t take her seriously enough.

“I have not been at the National,” she mourns. “I have not been at the RSC. I have been asked once in each case and I wasn’t free. The offer has not been repeated. And unless I am invited to perform with one of the major companies or one of the major directors I don’t consider that I’ve made it. At all. No.”

So never mind the Bafta for The Age of Innocence, in which she was directed by Martin Scorsese, her role as Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter franchise or the sexy bunny she voiced in those Cadbury’s Caramel ads of the Eighties. She clearly has high standards. “Yes,” she replies. “And I do know that going on The Graham Norton Show is not going to get the RSC to cast me as Mrs Malaprop.” She leans forward and looks down her nose at me imperiously. “But they should!” Actually, she doesn’t think her parents would have liked it either. “I’m sure if I thought about mummy and daddy more I would never appear on The Graham Norton Show,” she says, looking miffed. “I think they’d be very pissed off.” It was entertaining, though. “I am very entertaining,” she agrees. “But I’m naughty and they wouldn’t have liked that.”

Margolyes was born in 1941 in London’s East End, a child of the war, conceived in an air raid. “They clung to each other,” she says. “In terror, I suppose.” The family almost immediately moved to Oxford. Her parents were very different to one another. “Maybe the two halves of my character are me becoming my parents,” she muses. So her exuberance is from her mother and her thoughtful side from her father? “Yes,” she says. “My mother was tempestuous, shrewd, and outwardly very confident, though in fact she was not confident because she was not educated. She was very affectionate and loving. Oh, she loved life.” It was her mother who insisted on elocution lessons and invited the famous intellectual Isaiah Berlin, one of her husband’s patients, to dinner so she could ask him to sponsor her daughter’s application to Cambridge.

And her father? “He was a Glasgow man. A very measured character, suspicious, frightened of the world, and a very good doctor. He took his work seriously, as I do. He loved words and his vocabulary was excellent. He had integrity. He was a good man.” How did his side of the family end up in Scotland? “My grandfather came as a peddler selling jewels,” she says, showing me an old photo of his family at a photographer’s studio in Glasgow in the 1890s in which her father is just nine years old. “Eventually he got a nice big shop in St Enoch’s Square and did very well. He passed it to my uncle, who was a millionaire by the time he died. You know, I love Scotland. It received this immigrant family. It is a country remarkably free of anti-Semitism. For me, Glasgow is where the heart is. I had the great joy of appearing at the Citizens Theatre last year and I just kept thinking, ‘oh if only daddy was here to see me’.”

Margolyes was a supremely confident and happy child. “I was very much loved and that makes you confident,” she notes. “I have always had charm, and known it. Even people who don’t like what I stand for can’t help liking me because I’m a nice person. I just am. So I was a naughty, performing little girl, probably quite spoilt, with an enormous capacity for friendship.”

Cambridge was where Margolyes became herself. She started wearing a fur hat, smoking a pipe and joining drama societies. She was the only woman in the 1962 Footlights Revue, acting alongside John Cleese and Bill Oddie at a time women were only allowed to be guest members. The first person who directed her was Sir Trevor Nunn. “I wanted to cut a dash,” she tells me. “I wanted to be somebody that people would remember. I was a bit silly. But I had always assumed it was absolutely right to go up on a stage. My mother guided me into performance because she had wanted to be a performer herself. It was second nature to me.”

After Cambridge, Margolyes sold encyclopaedias door to door and wrote to everyone she could think of asking for an audition. Eventually she was hired by the BBC Drama Repertory Company and started appearing on radio. From the beginning, it was her voice, that instrument honed by her mother, that made her. “Well, it certainly wasn’t my body, was it?” she guffaws.

In 1968 Margolyes met her partner, an Australian academic. They have been together 44 years. “We were introduced by a mutual friend. I knew immediately that she was the one. Immediately! She had no idea, though. She didn’t even know I was gay, although we called it queer at the time. She thought I was a very noisy woman, pleasant but noisy. And then I invited her to lunch and propositioned her. And she never went home. It was wonderful. She has had a lot to put up with over the years but our true love has grown and deepened and been essential for both of us. A life shared.”

Her partner lives in Holland, Margolyes is in London, and they share homes in Italy and Australia. They meet up whenever possible. It’s been a long, loving relationship, but sadly also one that her parents could never accept. “Oh no, it was horrifying to them unfortunately,” Margolyes says. “Such a disappointment.”

She came out to her mother in her twenties. Three days later her mother had a severe stroke that left her crippled. Another seven years of illness followed, and then she died. “I can’t know if it was connected,” Margolyes says. “People say to me, don’t be silly, it couldn’t possibly... that wouldn’t have done it... but the fact is I caused her pain. The creature who loved me more than anyone else except my partner... I caused her pain.” But Margolyes can’t be responsible for her mother’s response to her sexuality. “It is unacceptable to me,” Margolyes replies without hesitation. “My parents did not have the mindset to deal with it. I think people go around these days incredibly indulgently. I don’t think it’s right to tell if you know that it’s hard for the people who have to hear it. It’s very selfish to lay that on them just so you can be out.” It’s a controversial position and I tell Margolyes that I think she is being harsh on herself and other gay people who just want to live a life openly, and without shame. “Yes, I know people completely disagree with me, including my great friend Ian McKellen,” she says. “But this is how I feel. I hurt the most dear person and I regret it.”

Our time is up, the car has arrived, and Margolyes is already bossing the driver and offering me a lift to the station. She has switched back to performance mode, charming the socks off everyone, and showing the flamboyance she inherited in spades from her mother. But the other side lurks in there too, the studiousness that comes from her father. Margolyes is nothing like her deeply conventional parents, yet everything she is comes from them. I ask her how she feels about ageing. “Frightened,” she says, shifting again into serious mode. “I worry about having a stroke like my mother did. I have very bad 
knees. I don’t think there is a lot to be said for ageing.”

Yet she doesn’t have the face of a 71-year-old. “Yes, I’ve kept my face,” she agrees. “I think it must be very scary to have been a beautiful woman and to see that you are losing your looks. I have never been a beautiful woman. I’m not losing my looks, I’m gaining new ones.” She laughs and starts ordering the driver to put my bags in the car. “You can tell people off when you’re old though, which is nice,” she says, the naughty smile pushing at the corners of her mouth again. “And I do so like bossing people around.”

Dickens’ Women, August 8-25, Pleasance Courtyard, 2.30pm, tickets £16.50-£17.50, box office tel: 
0131-556 6550,