Interview with Judi Dench - Dec. 13/09

Dame Judi Dench talks with Pam Francis of People.co.uk. She's one of my fave actresses and I just realized that I didn't add her to my Hall of Fame yet, an error to be corrected soon!

As she celebrates turning 75, Dame Judi Dench is certain of one thing - she refuses to be hailed as a national treasure.

The much-loved actress, whose landmark birthday was on Wednesday, scolds me for the very thought of the idea. "On no, please don't say that. I hate it. It's such a dusty old thing to be called," she insists. Yet despite her disarming manner and modesty, such is her status in the world of stage, films and TV you almost feel you should curtsey in the presence of showbiz royalty.

The multi award-winning star, whose first role was as a snail at five years old, has played everything from Shakespeare to James Bond's boss M in her long career. She won an Oscar in 1999 for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare In Love, and again shows her versatility by doubling as a PARROT in TV's Cranford!

Wearing a chocolate-brown dress over a white top, set off with necklaces, bangles and rings, she exudes a mature glamour with her pixie cropped silver hair, high cheekbones, and impishly-slanted blue eyes. But it's her seductive throaty voice that fascinates as she talks about her Christmas appearance in Cranford. As soon as she heard the BBC was making a festive two-parter of the 1840s costume drama which attracted 10 million viewers, she set aside 10 weeks to don her bonnet and wig once more as Miss Matty Jenkyns.

"It was lovely coming back to old friends, both the characters and the people," says Judi, whose friendships with co-stars Imelda Staunton, Julia McKenzie and Barbara Flynn go back years. The only one missing was her dear friend Dame Eileen Atkins who, as screen sister Miss Deborah, was killed off in the last series.

"It's not right without her. She was rather careless as to die. But we never forgot her. We had a life-size cut out of Eileen made which appeared on set before or after takes," says Judi, with a mischievous twinkle.

Cranford is filmed in the Wiltshire National Trust village of Lacock, which has become a tourist attraction with its old white-washed cottages and inns - no satellite dishes or TV aerials allowed.

During the last series the cast baked cakes to eat between filming scenes. This year there was lots of laughter, thanks to the parrot who is key to the plot. When the colourful bird was unavailable for some extra voiceover work on his scenes, Judi stepped in as the parrot! She explains: "He couldn't come on the day. It came to me in a flash. I knew exactly how he sounded and behaved, so I offered my services. You can't tell it's not the parrot!"

But the star of the show was Sykes the bulldog who has to pee on order against the church pulpit and jump up on Miss Matty's dress. "Oh he was amazing," says Judi, "He never failed to do a perfect take. He could do a whole chat show on his own." As Miss Matty, the veteran actress has many tender scenes with Tilly, the beautiful blonde baby daughter of maid Martha.

Judi says she has always loved the sound of children pounding around her own wood-beamed period cottage on a five-acre estate in Surrey. When we met for lunch in her village pub, she revealed she and her actor husband Michael Williams would have loved a bigger family, to add to their pride and joy, actress daughter Finty Williams. She says: "I wish we'd had lots more children. That's the only regret I have. I was older and it didn't happen. We tried to adopt a child and they didn't like it becase we were over 40. And that Michael was a Catholic and I was a Quaker. It obviously wasn't meant to be."

Instead, she invested extra love in her grandson Sammy, 12, and describes being a grandma as heaven. "They say that grandchildren are given to you to compensate for getting old. It does make you feel very young - and quite tired!"

She will be spending Christmas with Finty, Sammy and other family and friends. Missing, will be her beloved husband Michael, who died in 2001 after battling lung cancer. Married for 30 years, he sent her a red rose every single week. Their relationship was in some ways reflected in their 1980s TV sitcom A Fine Romance.

When I ask about the secret of their long-lasting marriage, she tells me: "I never took him for granted and he never took me for granted. "And if either of us did, we soon let the other one know. It's making allowances for another person and how they feel. That's the secret."

She remembers her very first role as clearly as if it was yesterday. "At five I was a snail. I had to wear a shell, brown tights and a brown romper suit which was a glam costume one way or another. "I remember doing my performance standing up, and someone in the wings said, 'Get down, get down!'" she recalls.

But she has no doubts about the most important role in her life. "It would have to be that Michael thought me a good wife, and Finty thought me a good mother, and that I was a good sister, aunt and grandmother. All those things. They are the most important things to me - my family."

Meanwhile, she is currently getting rave reviews for her risqué song and dance number with a red boa in the movie Nine, with Daniel Day-Lewis and Nicole Kidman. In the New Year, she returns to the Rose Theatre, in Kingston, Surrey, for A Midsummer Night's Dream.

But first she will enjoy Christmas with her loved ones. "I love Christmas ," says Judi. "I once did a play a very long time ago in July with Ian McKellen who walked into my dressing room as I was wrapping up parcels and said, 'Remind me never to work with you from July onwards'."

As far as reaching the golden age of 75, she adds: "I don't mind getting older or anyone knowing about my age. I just don't ever want to think I can't do things. I don't like that."

Dame Judi with Ewan McGregor posing for a commercial for Film Four

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