Dame's treat

 

In person, Judi Dench is neither terse nor twittering - she is shy and, thanks to her Irish blood, fond of the f-word, learns Donald Clarke.

In Mrs Henderson Presents, Stephen Frears's amiable study of Soho's Windmill Theatre during the blitz years, Dame Judi Dench gets to say both the f-word and one of the p-words. One suspects that the film-makers regard this as a joke in itself. Though Dench has, over the last 50 years, established a reputation as one of the great classical stage actors, her appearances on film and television have tended towards the cosy. People who go to the cinema desperate for something "nice" tend to be fond of Judi.

"You occasionally get glimpses of how tiresome she finds the doily-and-serviette crowd," Billy Connolly, her co-star in Mrs Brown, once remarked in the New Yorker. "You know, those English twittering f***ing women - they think she's one of them, and she isn't." "Did he say that? Oh that's very good," she says. "I think people are very surprised, but I do swear a lot actually." Well, she is from Irish stock and we like a bit of that.

"Yes, I suppose so. My mother was from Dublin. I remember my father gave her a new [vacuum cleaner], an Electrolux, and she didn't like it. When the man came to service it she threw every bit of it down the stairs at him. That did make me laugh. But, yes, people do always try and sum you up in a couple of lines, and it's ridiculous."

Other profiles have suggested that, though she is awfully agreeable, she might have a tendency towards - always a worrying euphemism this - not suffering fools gladly. As it happens, she suffers this particular idiot with admirable graciousness. Padding about a room in London's Savoy Hotel, Dame Judi, chic in neutral shades, frets unduly over where we should sit. She seems surprisingly shy. I suspect that what some have taken as terseness might just be a symptom of her discomfort with the interview business.

"Well I can't express myself very well," she says when we finally settle down in the comfy seats. "That is why I became an actor I suppose - someone else writes the words for you. I simply can't make a speech in public, for example. I had to make a speech to open the Kensington Antiques Fair and I was so nervous I got sick in the cab on the way there. I am not good at that. I am not good at going into a party. Never liked that."

Judith Olivia Dench was born 71 years ago in York. Her father, a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, was a doctor with a taste for amateur dramatics. Her mother, while not flinging vacuum cleaners about the place, made costumes for her husband's productions. It doesn't sound as if they would have been too shocked by their daughter going on the stage.

"Oh no. They were fantastically approving. I remember when I was playing Juliet at the Old Vic my father and mother came to see me. There is this line where I say: 'Where are my father and mother, Nurse?' And Dad was heard to say: 'We're here in row H, dear'."

After leaving school, Judi, who had never harboured any ambitions to be an actor, trained in theatrical design. It was only when her brother Jeffrey began telling her exciting stories of his experiences at Central School of Speech and Drama that she got the idea to apply also. "Yes. It was an experiment really," she says. Vanessa Redgrave, a near contemporary at Central, remembers the young bohemian bounding about in jeans and a polo neck. She soon came to be known for her beautifully hoarse voice - "When I was in Cabaret they put up a sign saying: 'No, Judi Dench does not have a cold'." Then, shortly after graduation, she found herself playing Ophelia at the Old Vic Theatre.

"Oh we got terrible notices," she says. "People are always saying to me: 'You always get such fabulous notices.' But I got terrible reviews for that. I did get a good one from Kenneth Tynan though and I do have that in the scrapbook. If I keep nothing else I'll keep that." Later, when she appeared as Titania in Peter Hall's near-legendary production of A Midsummer Night's Dream her career as a distinguished stage actor was properly launched. But while contemporaries such as Redgrave, Glenda Jackson and Maggie Smith were securing roles in films, Dench had to wait another 30 years to become a movie star.

Since her Oscar-nominated turn as Queen Victoria in 1997's Mrs Brown, Dench has rarely been off our cinema screens. "Well that's all thanks to Harvey Weinstein," she says, referring to the Anglophile founder of Miramax Pictures. "And it all happened by accident, because Mrs Brown was originally made for television. Though I have since had the tattoo of Harvey removed from my bum." (She once jokingly told an interviewer she had such a marking and then, as a joke, did indeed have Weinstein's name painted on her buttock. Harvey laughed like a drain when Judi revealed it to him.)

Dench eventually won a best supporting actress Oscar for her role as another queen, Elizabeth I, in Shakespeare in Love. She has given husky breath to M, James Bond's boss, in four 007 films. Earlier this year she even managed to appear in a Vin Diesel picture, the utterly bizarre Chronicles of Riddick: "Tremendous fun, but I had absolutely no idea what was going on in the plot." So it is surprising to note just how few films she appeared in while a young actress. No Miss Jean Brodie. No Women in Love. No Blowup.

"I was never really interested in the movies then," she says. Really? All that fun? All that glamour? "I was told very early on: 'You have nothing to interest the film industry.' That hurt quite a lot. It was not fashionable for people who looked like me to be in films and I was eventually quite realistic about that. It doesn't hurt me now. But it hurt me then - oh yes. I really only had ambitions to be at the Vic and the National Theatre and I achieved those ambitions. I would still always like to go back to the theatre because, like a fish, that's my water."

She did, however, find plenty of work on television. Perhaps that is why so many of Connolly's twittering women feel an affinity for her. The telly is an intimate medium and we are thus more likely to identify with its stars than revere them. In much of her work for the small screen - the sitcom A Fine Romance, the BBC's first adaptation of Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate - Dench acted alongside her late husband, Michael Williams. It seems to have been a very effective partnership. Dame Judi famously never reads scripts before she turns up for the first day of rehearsal, so, until his death in 2001, Williams's input was crucial in helping her decide which projects to accept. Williams once said that he rushed towards the dark while she rushed towards the light. What did he mean? "Well, that was because he was a Cancerian and I was Sagittarius. He was always much darker in personality. But he always said that was a good thing because we each stopped the other from going to the opposite extreme."

I am surprised (and slightly discomfited) to hear somebody as sensible as Dench allude to astrology. It seems odd that somebody who was raised a Quaker and who still attends the occasional meeting would give credence to such flashy hocus-pocus. But then many of us are probably guilty of taking a stereotypical view of Quakers: sensible, rational, forgiving.

"Yes and I suppose people try and identify actors as being a particular sort of person too," she agrees. "Well, the quietness of the meetings is just something I need. Now that is anathema to me in some ways, but the discipline is very helpful to me."

I can see what she means when she describes the contemplative calm of the Quaker meeting as being anathema. Though Dench is shy and a little cautious with strangers, she is, it seems, an immensely social person. For some years she shared her small home in Surrey with her mother, daughter and two in-laws. When I ask her about her role as the title character in Mrs Henderson Presents she further confirms her gregariousness. The real Mrs Henderson bought the Windmill Theatre, home of tastefully static nude revues, after her husband, something-or-other in the colonies, passed on. One can't help but imagine that Dench must have sympathised with a character furthering a career after being widowed.

"I don't think I recognise that connection so much," she says. "But I do recognise her desire to be with the company in the theatre.

"That, really, is why I like working so much. That is my life really: being with the company and hanging out with those people. That is what I like so much, not really being on stage. It's the bits in between I find so irresistible. I have still an energy like Mrs Henderson - a kind of inborn energy - I still love to learn something new."

Mrs Henderson Presents is released tomorrow