Miriam Margolyes: "I Remember..."

Simon Hemelryk

Miriam Margolyes is one of Britain's best-loved character actors. Here, she looks back on her life and career, and shares the memories that made her the woman she is today.

I Remember...

Miriam Margolyes

…sitting in my pram, sucking my thumb, in the front garden of our flat in Oxford

A woman came up and said, “If you do that, a bogeyman will cut it off.” I was only two, but I thought, That woman’s mad. How stupid of her. Of course there isn’t a bogeyman. No one’s coming. So I was immediately sceptical and convinced I was right. Nothing has changed.

…handing sandwiches to bus crews on VE Day 

There was a big party in the street, and my mother Ruth had decided to mark the occasion by making tea for the drivers. I was four and she lifted me up to hand it to them in their cabs. They were delighted because they couldn’t really move anywhere for all the people.

My mother was an excellent cook and every Thursday she’d make delicious fish by dipping it in egg and potato flour and frying it in olive oil. I used to love watching her. But she was too fat, and we were always trying to stop her having potatoes. We had a row at the family table once because she grabbed one and ate it. I was so upset with her that I ran away to the cemetery and cried and cried. And now I do the same thing—eat things I shouldn’t.

…Mother did the housework in the nude

She liked to get it done, then have a bath. It upset the au pairs at first, but they got used to it. She was a vivid, ebullient personality, but very shrewd. Joseph, my father, was a GP, but it was mother who made the money. She bought houses to rent to students and became the finest landlord in Oxford, with tenants including the young Jacob Rothschild, Tariq Ali and Ken Loach.

My father was more straight-laced. I loved him, but we never understood each other. He didn’t like music or the theatre, but my mother insisted on having a piano and she and I used to sing music-hall songs together.

Miriam Margolyes with parents

…taking the 11-plus, desperate for the loo

The exam was held in a school that had no locks on its toilet doors, so I just couldn’t go. I’ve always attributed my lack of success in the test to that. My parents paid for me to attend the Oxford High School for Girls. I loved it. I had two very close friends, Catherine Pasternak Slater and Anna Truelove, the daughter of a noted surgeon. We’re still friends—I went to Catherine’s golden wedding anniversary recently.

My friends were a lot cleverer than me. I was naughty, funny—the form wag. When I was about 12 years old, I “fainted” in the playground. Miss Brown, the biology teacher, was very concerned that Miss Jackson, the maths teacher, just kicked me and said, “Oh, she’s shamming.” But Miss Jackson was quite right. Still, I had to be carried in and missed the afternoon’s lessons. Another time, I came in wearing my mother’s fur coat and heels, pretending to be a parent looking for a school for her daughter.

…I played Gertrude, rather well, in Hamlet at school 

I also played Brutus in Julius Caesar, causing consternation when my toga fell down, revealing rather more bosom than Brutus was normally expected to have. But I was considered a good actress—I won the public-speaking prize every year and, of course, public speaking is what I still do.

…I couldn’t stop smiling when I got into Newnham College, Cambridge

I didn’t think I’d manage it because my friends were smarter, so it was a moment of profound satisfaction. I’d used the word “ambiguity” in my entrance exam, and I think you’ll probably get in if you do that. But Isaiah Berlin was also my sponsor (my father was his doctor) and no university is going to turn down someone with a reference from the country’s premier intellectual.

Miriam Margolyes and the Cambridge comedians

…losing that smile a little when I performed in the 1962 Cambridge Revue

Trevor Nunn directed and John Cleese and Bill Oddie were in it, but the Footlights boys didn’t like me. They thought I was pushy and didn’t appreciate someone else being funny. They wanted to sleep with women, not have them as com-petition. But I did lots of other acting at college and I loved the fellowship between the girls at Newnham. Some are still my dearest friends.

Two of my English tutors, Dr Frank Leavis and his wife Queenie, also had a profound effect on me. They taught me that literature has a crucial moral dimension, and I’ve always kept to that philosophy, avoiding any part I don’t believe in. I’m a much more serious person than people give me credit for—I’m not a funny little bundle.

…radio was a great training ground for my acting

I joined the BBC Drama Repertory Company in 1965 rather than drama school, so I learned my craft on the job, doing play after play and working with so many different people—from Paul Schofield to Wilfred Pickles. Voice work became so important to me later. I played a lot of supporting roles in theatre and TV during my early career. Then, in 1974, a leading voice-over agency took me on. I started doing regular voice-overs and I’ve done thousands since.

…writing to an old school friend to tell her I’d become a lesbian

She said, “Oh, I know a lesbian,” and introduced me to a school friend she’d met while living in Australia. She thought we would obviously gravitate…and we did. We went on a first date to see the film The Charge of the Light Brigade and are still together 45 years later.

…taking America by storm

In 1988, I played Flora Finching in the film of Little Dorrit and won a Los Angeles Critics Circle award. Then a publicist got me on the Katie Couric morning show—I’ve always been great at chat, so I chatted. Johnny Carson saw it and invited me on to The Tonight Show. I was a hit and suddenly a whole new US career started, with lots of movies and TV over the next 16 years. 

A particularly wonderful film I was in was Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence in 1993. I got to work with Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder and Daniel Day-Lewis. In fact, I knew Dan’s mother because we’d both had our wombs out in the same ward. I liked him very much, but he does hold his character off-screen and that’s a bit disconcerting. I know when he played Christy Brown in My Left Foot he expected Fiona Shaw to wipe his bottom. It didn’t happen!

…Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bottom

I was in the horror film End of Days with him in 1999, playing the Devil’s servant Mabel. I had my throat sliced by a glass table at the end, and I remember Schwarzenegger farted right in my face when I was down on the floor, trying not to move. I shouted, “F*** you, Arnie!” I was really cross.

…my first time on Broadway

I played the role of Madame Morrible in Wicked in 2008 and knowing that you were pleasing a theatre like that, packed to the gunnels, was amazing. But I also loved being in the wings and watching the dancers, the light flickering on their beautiful bodies! And they were larky and fun—as the oldest person in the cast, to be on such good terms with all these young people was a joy.
 

Miriam Margolyes in Wicked

…My very first read through of Trollied

I was scared because the cast had all been working together. But this lovely lady who’s in it called Rita May said, “ ’Ello love, do you want to sit here, next to me? I know what’s going on and I’ll tell you.” I play a sex-crazed grandma. It’s heaven!

Being happy, mostly. I don’t have existential doubts. I’m not really very thoughtful—I just plod along. When people die, that hurts. Last year I lost my friend Sonia Fraser, with whom I wrote my one-woman show Dickens’ Women. I’ve performed it hundreds of times around the world, but now that she’s dead I don’t feel like doing it again. So as I get older, I’m aware my days are numbered and you think about that a bit. But not too much.

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