Money and sex and religion and politics. That’s what people should be talking about,” says Miriam Margolyes from the shaded bench in her garden, where her dahlias and long grasses swoon gently in the heat. “And yet… they never do.”
Except here, of course, in south London, with cold water and coffee, and a cameo from a handsome gardener (“Marcos, do up your flies, there’s a young lady here from the Observer”) and Margolyes asking as many questions as she answers. “Is that your natural hair colour?” “Do you support a football team?” “Where did your ancestors come from?” I pity every poor person who is not me right now, drinking in the glory of Margolyes at 80, with 10 opinions for every year gone and a few left over for pudding.
“Miriam lives not very far from my daughter,” her friend, Dame Judi Dench, tells me. “And during lockdown she’d sit on her steps and have a cheering conversation with anyone passing by. I can think of no person that fits the description ‘larger than life’ as well as Miriam.” As the pandemic groaned on, Margolyes left her doorstep and drove to Tuscany, where she wrote her autobiography, a mischievous romp (an early title was Too Fat to Go to Bed With, a comment that’s stayed with her since her 20s) that begins with her accidental conception during the Blitz and continues through crushes, body image, acting, cash, delight and love. She is slightly aghast to hear I’ve already read it. “Gosh!” she says. “Gosh. Writing it was a terrifying experience. I’m an educated woman, but I’m not a writer, I’m an actress. It’s quite a revealing book, actually.” She pauses and rebalances my recorder on the green cotton of her bosom. “I was trying to remember how many times I put cocksucking in it?” “Quite a lot Miriam!” I say, cheerily.
She did “a great deal of sucking off” as a teenager, an early story in the book being set in her second year at Cambridge when, cycling along the cobbles, she turned to the American soldier whose car had stopped at the traffic lights beside her and politely invited him back to her college for a blowjob. Relating their encounter to her friends the next day, she writes, she was surprised at their shock: “I hadn’t let him anywhere near my vagina, after all. He was a pleasant chap. From Texas.” “Well, there’s no point in writing anything if it’s not true,” she says impishly. “I was actually wondering if the book would betray me as a horrid person. Because while I name a lot of people I love, I also name a lot of people I really, really don’t.”
It was on set in 1985 that Margolyes introduced herself to Stephen Fry as, “The fat Jewish lesbian that they have to have in this kind of film.” In telling the world who she is up front, Fry writes over email, “She gets her retaliation in first when it comes to anything nasty that can be said about her. I think that speaks perhaps of a past where she really did feel that what we can now see as her glorious attributes were used to make her feel inadequate or unwanted. I know she felt that her time at Cambridge was made less pleasant by her being shut out of the public school men’s club of Footlights.”
Yes, the first person in the book she really doesn’t love is John Cleese who, with their fellow Footlights contemporaries (including Bill Oddie), she claims bullied and ridiculed her. At 19, “I’d not met studied cruelty like that before,” she writes, and the pain is still with her. “I feel awkward, admitting to such bitterness 60 years later… I should’ve got over it. But I haven’t.” She scowls, shaking her head. “They were horrid. Particularly Cleese, he’s a very unpleasant man.” Adds Fry: “In many ways, she’s had the last laugh and we’re all so pleased for her.” Her real scorn, however, is reserved for the Tory government. “I think they are an appalling, incompetent, corrupt shower of twats. The cronyism and the prejudice and the bullying – I have never seen such a deplorable collection of people. I spent a week with Boris Johnson’s vile father, you know,” she says, her mouth twisting as though she has swallowed soil – she appeared alongside him in the documentary series The Real Marigold on Tour. “Horrible, just contemptible. You know, I got into trouble for saying that I wanted his son dead…” She was investigated by Ofcom for admitting, on The Last Leg, that she “had difficulty not wanting Boris Johnson to die,” while he was in hospital with Covid. “Well, I don’t want him to die. But,” she adds primly, “I wouldn’t mind if he was castrated.”
And so the morning passes in this marvellous way: money, sex, religion, politics, little bit of cock-sucking, the kind reminder to hydrate and it becomes clear why people choose Margolyes not just to listen to, but to tell things to as well. “Many women, of course, have told me about lesbian tendencies that they’ve never expressed to anybody else, but felt they could tell me. I suppose because I’m intensely curious. I mean, I do ask very direct, impertinent questions. And it sometimes shakes people. Then they tell you the truth. And that’s what I want. I want to get to the reality of a situation.”
The most shocking example of this, of Margolyes’s appeal as a confessional, is in relation to her therapist. At their first meeting many decades ago, the late psychologist Margaret Branch said Margolyes had an emotional age of four, and if she was exceptionally lucky Branch would help her get to 12. It took two years, and after that they remained close friends. One day Branch told Margolyes she wanted to talk to her about another patient, the cellist Jacqueline du Pré. In 1987, du Pré had asked Branch to help her die, she said. Margolyes recalls the conversation, the slow retelling, of how Branch had taken a syringe and “the liquid” and let herself into du Pré’s house when her staff had a day off. “I was trained during the war,” Branch told Margolyes. “If you want to help someone to die, or murder them without a trace, you inject them above their hairline. So, of course, I kissed her and I injected her…… And nobody ever knew it was me.” There is a pause. “A lot of people might ask, ‘Why tell that story? It isn’t yours,’” Margolyes says. “But I felt that it was such an important story about a very great artist it should be known, a kind of a public duty. I think it’s wonderful. Heroic, actually.” Would I like some biscuits? No thank you.
Her career has evolved and expanded in a way that is pleasing to her, from voiceover artist (a memorable job was the role of Sexy Sonia in a tape for Ann Summers), to actor (she remembers the dank unwashed smell of a young Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo and Juliet), to documentary maker and professional chat-show guest. Graham Norton recalls her first coming on his show in around 2003. “She told a brilliant story, unprovoked, about getting a parking ticket in Covent Garden and ending up stripping herself completely naked in Bow Street police station.” These days, he adds, “We have to resist the temptation to have her on every week. We use her sparingly – it’s almost a case of ‘Break glass in case of emergency.’” The two have become friends, of course. She recently invited him, Stanley Tucci and Jimmy Carr out to the River Café – at the last minute her agent called and said Ewan McGregor wanted to come, too. Did she pay? “Yes, of course. I wanted to because it’s lovely. And you know, when you go on Graham Norton, you get £10,000?” She talks about money in a way that is very unusual and exciting, listing the pennies she spent on properties in the 1970s with a wild sort of glee, and the paycheques she insists on for films today, and the contract wranglings of her co-stars. It’s thrilling. It shouldn’t be.
“Did you know, people describe me now as a celebrity? I don’t feel like a celebrity at all, I just feel like an intelligent old lady. But it’s funny when people, you know, ‘cluster’. When I went for an injection in my spine on Tuesday, all the nurses were very kind and excitable. I suppose they either know me from Harry Potter or Blackadder. And some might know me from Dickens’ Women, which is my one-woman show, or Call the Midwife, or the documentaries [as well as The Real Marigold Hotel she’s made films about America, weight and Australia, among others] or films [she won a Bafta for her role in Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence] or Graham Norton of course. I’ve had a curious career, I suppose.” And through it all, there’s been Heather.
They met in 1968, soon after Margolyes had started wearing her Gay Yids badge to work at the BBC. She thought it made her seem more interesting. Though they’ve been together for 53 years, they have never lived together – Heather, an academic, lives in Amsterdam, and until the two pins of Brexit and Covid punctured their elegantly organised relationship, they would see each other about eight times a year. “Heather is absolutely tops,” Margolyes grins. “She’s a wonderful, intelligent, ironic, sensitive, observant brilliant woman and she’s just written a book, too, a magisterial piece of excellence about the trade routes in the Spice Islands from the 17th century to today.” Neither have read the other’s book, yet, though Margolyes is thinking of displaying a pile of Heather’s to sell at her upcoming book events. “She doesn’t like showbiz, but I think she’s proud of my work. She’s a reserved person, completely different emotionally from me. Very contained. And she often finds my explosions difficult. She says, ‘I didn’t like that.’ Quite… crisp.” The only gap in their relationship came after a period of infidelity by Margolyes that included an unfortunate sexual encounter. Though she elaborates on that long-ago night for me (“And that part of the body, it’s just not my area! I like to keep everything up front.”) I won’t share here as it slightly made me gag.
“Ours is an honourable relationship,” she goes on. “It was originally, of course, based on lust. When we went to bed that first time, we didn’t get up for a week. The lust passes, but the love has grown.” They haven’t seen each other for almost a year. “It’s monstrous. She came to Tuscany for six weeks. And then she went back because she was having cataract removals. It’s a real fuck being old, I can’t bear it.” They are civilly partnered, to ensure if one of them becomes ill, the other is informed. “No, it has nothing to do with romance at all. It was simply about hospitals. At the ceremony the registrar said, ‘Which one of you is the groom and which one’s the bride?’” She hoots. When they’re together, “We sleep in separate rooms, but in the mornings, just as I used to do with Mummy, I climb into her bed, and we laugh together and talk. And that’s very precious.”
Margolyes doesn’t have many regrets, but one that still pains her was the decision to come out to her mother. They were a close, adoring family, “and I was an only child. So I was the centre of their world. You know, there’s a phrase in Latin, num. And if num comes at the end of a question, it’s expecting the answer ‘Yes’. And I expected the answer yes, always, because of them.” She frowns though, as she remembers travelling back home to Oxford from London, in order to tell her mother about Heather. “It hurt her. I really wounded her. So no, that was not the right thing to do. She came from the generation that found homosexuality unacceptable. And if you love somebody, and they turn out to be unacceptable, it’s very distressing. She wasn’t the adapting kind, so she had this parcel of unpleasant knowledge that she didn’t want, didn’t need. She went on loving me, but it was obviously coloured with sadness, because I would never be married with children.” Margolyes strokes the pitted cotton of her skirt grimly. “I think I caused her to have her stroke.” It was the only time she saw her father cry. “Ian McKellen doesn’t agree with me,” she adds. “We often have discussions about this, because he feels that you should tell people who you are and they will eventually adapt. But,” she chuckles darkly, “he doesn’t know Jews.” She looks up brightly, decisive, at the windows that overlook her garden. “I do hope my neighbours are listening,” she twinkles.
Instead of softening into conservatism as is customary when people get older, Margolyes has become more political. She hasn’t mellowed, she says, she’s “billowed”. “Tell me,” she asks, leaning forwards, “What do you feel about my position on Israel and antisemitism?” When she meets new people she introduces herself as Jewish, and watches for a flinch. “The English are naturally antisemitic,” she says. “But because of the Holocaust, it was not acceptable to voice it. Now,” because of Israel’s abuse of Palestinians, “they do.” Her outspokenness on the subject has made her unpopular with some other Jews. At a Zoom Seder over lockdown one guest said she wouldn’t sit at the same table as Margolyes, even a virtual one, and promptly left. She has lost friends, been called a terrorist. “Yes. It makes me sad. I think that this will change as more of the Israeli government’s actions become known and the diaspora will perhaps change their minds. I don’t want a two-state solution. I just want a state in which people live together. It makes me an outcast, but I have to ride that out, because I am right.” Stephen Fry is awed by her fierceness. “She cannot bear unkindness, unfairness and above all, bullying – but unlike most of us she fearlessly lowers her head and charges right in to batter it, come what may.” We all believe in love, in justice … “Ah, but Miriam lives by those beliefs, and the world is all the richer for it.”
She grins, and the shade moves to protect her. Why did she choose to write this book now? “Well, in the past I thought I shouldn’t because I’ll tell the truth and it will mean I’ll never work again and nobody will ask me to lunch. But sometimes it’s quite nice to be able to make a statement.” A memoir is, she says, “The obituary that you write yourself. I am feeling alive at the moment. But when you are old you know you’re going to die, and probably quite soon. We, those of us who are old, well, it’s the tunnel that there’s no light at the end of. But I’m certainly not over. And I won’t be bullied by death. I do feel a sense of impending doom,” she says, “I’d be nuts if I didn’t.” She gathers herself, and raises her chin. “The trick is, not to let it crowd out the joy.”
This Much is True by Miriam Margolyes is published by John Murray Press at £20. Buy a copy for £17.40 at guardianbookshop.com