Никогда еще не было такой британской звезды, как Мириам Марголис. И никогда еще не было мемуаров, столь насыщенных ошеломляющими, уморительными и шокирующе откровенными историями о людях из списка “А”, с которыми она общалась. Так что приготовьтесь к возмутительным воспоминаниям Мириам…
When I was born in Oxford in 1941, at the darkest moment of the war, my parents were convinced that Britain was about to lose. Since then, I’ve skipped from moment to moment. I’ve travelled through every continent bar Antarctica. I’ve slept with a curious variety of humans. I entered a precarious profession where a short, fat, Jewish girl with no neck dared to think she could stand on a stage and be successful. I’ve completed more than 500 jobs and relished every minute of them. However, having been a working actress for over 50 years, it is a decidedly odd feeling to know that, whatever else I do, however acclaimed or successful I am, I will go to my grave best known for playing Professor Pomona Sprout in two of the Harry Potter movies.
Когда я родилась в Оксфорде в 1941 году, в самый мрачный момент войны, мои родители были убеждены, что Британия вот-вот проиграет. С тех пор я перескакиваю от момента к моменту. Я побывала на всех континентах, кроме Антарктиды. Я спала с самыми разными людьми. Я пришла в опасную профессию, где невысокая, толстая еврейская девушка без шеи осмелилась думать, что она может стоять на сцене и быть успешной. Я выполнила более 500 заданий и наслаждалась каждой минутой. Однако, проработав актрисой более 50 лет, я испытываю довольно странное чувство от осознания того, что, чем бы я еще ни занималась, каким бы признанием или успехом ни пользовалась, я сойду в могилу известной как исполнительница роли профессора Помоны Спраут в двух фильмах о Гарри Поттере.
It made a great difference to my career, making me more famous than I ever thought possible. Fans follow me in the street; people ask to have their photographs taken — selfies, as they call them — standing next to Professor Sprout. / Это сильно повлияло на мою карьеру, сделав меня более известным, чем я когда-либо думал. Поклонники преследуют меня на улице; люди просят сфотографироваться – селфи, как они их называют, – стоя рядом с профессором Спраутом.
Even now, I have to get photographs printed to sign and send out to my Harry Potter devotees but, if I’m honest, which I must be, I fell asleep during the premieres of both films. / Даже сейчас мне приходится печатать фотографии, чтобы подписать их и разослать своим поклонникам Гарри Поттера, но, если быть честным, а я должна быть честной, я заснула во время премьеры обоих фильмов.
And whenever I glimpse scenes on television, I’m never absolutely sure what’s happening — even in the ones I’m actually in! For that reason, I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a single Harry Potter film and I’ve still never read the books. When I was first interviewed for the part, I confessed I didn’t know much about the series but if they wanted someone who could act as a teacher, there was no question that I could play the part. ‘I give good teacher,’ I told them. They gave me a page of script to read; I didn’t think that it was terribly distinguished writing. In some ways it was rather banal, actually, but I read it and that was that. It was filmed mostly in the cavernous Warner Brothers Leavesden Studios, a converted aircraft factory just outside Watford. We also shot scenes in the cloisters of Gloucester Cathedral, and, of course, at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, which is used for Hogwarts.
И всякий раз, когда я мельком вижу сцены по телевизору, я никогда не могу быть абсолютно уверена в том, что происходит – даже в тех, в которых я действительно участвую! По этой причине я могу честно сказать, что не видела ни одного фильма о Гарри Поттере и до сих пор не читала этих книг. Когда я впервые проходила собеседование на роль, я призналась, что мало знаю о серии, но если им нужен был кто-то, кто мог бы сыграть роль учителя, то не было никаких сомнений, что я смогу сыграть эту роль. Я хороший учитель”, – сказала я им. Они дали мне страницу сценария, чтобы я прочитала; мне не показалось, что он был написан очень хорошо. В некоторых отношениях он был довольно банальным, но я прочитала его, и на этом все закончилось. Съемки проходили в основном в пещерной студии Warner Brothers Leavesden Studios, переоборудованном авиационном заводе недалеко от Уотфорда. Мы также снимали сцены в кельях Глостерского собора и, конечно, в замке Алнвик в Нортумберленде, который использовался для Хогвартса.
Margolyes’ first brush with Hollywood was in 1980 when she was called to audition for a small part as Secretary of the Communist Party in Warren Beatty’s (pictured) Reds / Впервые Марголис столкнулась с Голливудом в 1980 году, когда ее позвали на прослушивание на небольшую роль секретаря коммунистической партии в фильме Уоррена Битти (на фото) “Красные”.
It was fun being on location. For the Alnwick scenes they put me, Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, Alan Rickman, and Kenneth Branagh all in the same lovely hotel. At the end of a long, often freezing cold, day’s filming, Richard Harris liked to be welcomed by a roaring fire in an open grate, so the hotel staff had to keep it blazing all day because no one knew what time we might finish. Maggie Smith got the room with the four-poster bed, but she thoroughly deserved it. On the first day I came down for breakfast, Richard Harris was having his toast and marmalade at another table with Maggie Smith. I said to him, brightly: ‘Good morning,’ and he growled ‘Fuck off’. I didn’t know that he had leukaemia, so I was quite offended at the time. I kept myself to myself after that, at least where Dumbledore was concerned.
Было весело сниматься на площадке. Для сцен в Алнвике меня, Мэгги Смит, Ричарда Харриса, Алана Рикмана и Кеннета Брану поселили в одном прекрасном отеле. В конце долгого, часто холодного съемочного дня Ричард Харрис любил, чтобы его встречал жаркий огонь на открытой решетке, поэтому персонал отеля должен был поддерживать огонь весь день, потому что никто не знал, во сколько мы закончим. Мэгги Смит достался номер с кроватью с балдахином, но она его вполне заслужила. В первый день, когда я пришлf на завтрак, Ричард Харрис ел свой тост с вареньем за другим столиком с Мэгги Смит. Я сказал ему: “Доброе утро”, а он прорычал: “Отвали”. Я не знал, что у него лейкемия, поэтому тогда очень обиделась. После этого я держала себя в руках, по крайней мере, когда дело касалось Дамблдора.
How I heard a shocking claim about Jacqueline
The most sobering and memorable thing I’ve ever heard was related to me by Margaret Branch, a therapist I saw during the Eighties. We subsequently became friends and one day she said: ‘I want to tell you something, and I don’t want you to speak about it until after I’m dead.’ She told me that another of her customers had been Jacqueline Du Pré, the renowned British cellist. She asked if I had heard of her, which, of course, I had. Jacqueline was one of the greatest cellists of all time; her great gift was like a meteor flashing across the music world until, at 28, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; a horrible, slow, debilitating decline.
‘We were friends for many, many years,’ Margaret said. ‘One day Jacqueline said to me: ‘Margaret, if I wanted to kill myself, would you help me?’ And I said: ‘Of course I would.’ Because I would.’ One day Jacqueline had telephoned her. ‘Margaret, remember what I said? What I asked you, and you said you would . . .? I want to do it today. I’ve given my staff the day off. I want you to come over.’ Jacqueline’s husband, the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, had a new relationship in Paris and I think he just couldn’t bear to see what had happened to Jacqueline; how the disease had transformed this beautiful, gifted young woman. ‘I had a key,’ Margaret told me. ‘I took along a syringe and the liquid. I let myself into the house. I went up to her room where she was in bed and we talked for a bit. ‘Then I said: ‘Are you absolutely sure that you want me to do this?’ Jacqueline said: ‘Yes. I am. And I can only trust you to do it for me.’
‘I was a trained nurse during the war,’ Margaret said. ‘I knew what to do . . . If you want to help someone to die, or to murder someone, without a trace, you inject them above their hairline.’ I always remember her saying that. She continued: ‘So, of course, I kissed her, and I injected her. Then I looked around, checked that there was no trace of my presence, and I let myself out of the house. ‘Just hours later, of course, Jacqueline’s close friends sat with her as she died, and nobody ever knew it was me.’ I felt honoured that Margaret should tell me, but I found it shocking; the most sobering thing I’d ever heard. I suppose she felt that she didn’t want that knowledge to go with her to her grave without anybody knowing what Jacqueline had asked of her, and yet, although she was obviously deeply affected by it, she related it to me entirely matter-of-factly. She believed that it was the highest mark of love for Jacqueline that she could show, to release her from the horrors of her illness.
Perhaps telling me was the ultimate proof of our friendship, because, obviously, if she had been found out, she would have been sentenced for murder. I hope by telling this now, I have kept my promise to Margaret.
It was always a little scary to be working with Maggie Smith. I am very fond of her, but her reputation is justified; she is a great actress with a distinguished career, she loves to laugh and she’s deliciously witty and jokey. But there is that other side to her, which is biting.
Luckily, Maggie and I got on. Sometimes she would say: ‘Oh, come and sit with me, Miriam, I’m bored.’ I would go and sit with her and we would talk and laugh. She also had a nicer trailer than I did.
I can’t say if she and the other main actors felt similarly underwhelmed by Harry Potter, but even if they didn’t consider the books the greatest works of literature in the world, they took the work seriously.
They’re rattling good stories and they were unbelievably popular, something we actors respect because the law of the box office is the first law of the movie industry.
My first brush with Hollywood was in 1980 when I was called to audition for a small part as Secretary of the Communist Party in Warren Beatty’s Reds, much of which was filmed in England.
Mr Beatty, who according to his biographer has had sex with 12,775 women (a number he disputes), insisted that he could only meet me in his trailer at lunchtime.
I knocked at the door, he called ‘come in’, then looked at me, up, down, up, quite slowly and said: ‘Do you f***?’
‘Yes, but not you,’ I replied.
‘Why is that?’ asked Warren.
‘Because I am a lesbian,’ I said.
He grinned and said: ‘Can I watch?’
I said: ‘Pull yourself together and get on with the interview.’
I got the job.
I mooned at him once and the expression of shocked surprise frozen on his face still tickles me even now, but he completely deserved it. Mooning is a powerful tool; a bottom is not threatening; it’s rude, amusing but unmistakeable.
I can’t remember why I did it, but probably because he made Diane Keaton do 50 takes of a shot she did perfectly well first time.
Diane had refused his marriage proposal and he took it out on her. She was completely delightful, totally without grandeur. One of my top ‘faves’.
I had never thought of trying to make it in America. It was the glittering centre of the entertainment industry, way out of my reach.
But in 1988 I received a Los Angeles Critics Circle award for playing Flora Finching in Christine Edzard’s film, Little Dorrit.
I was then in my late 40s and thought to myself, ‘They’re prepared to give me, a completely unknown English woman, an award and they’ve never heard of me? This is the prod I needed. I’m off!’
I was probably the fattest person my American agent Susan Smith ever had on her books but she championed actors and actresses she felt were interesting and different.
She represented everyone from Kathy Bates to Charles Dance. She introduced me to Norman Lear, the television producer whose stable of writers included Marta Kauffman and David Crane, the creators of Friends.
He put me on a retainer of $350,000 for a year and I didn’t have to do a thing. I just had to be me while they thought up a sitcom based around me. I couldn’t quite believe it.
I loved my time in California, especially the suppers organised by Eric Harrison, a retired wardrobe master born in Derbyshire.
A brilliant cook and boundlessly generous, he’d become friendly with many great names in entertainment including Vincent Price and his wife Coral Browne, who regaled us with fabulous showbiz gossip.
‘Do you know why Angela Lansbury always looks so surprised and bewildered?’ Coral famously once asked. ‘Well, it’s because she came into the bedroom on her wedding night and found the groom in her nightie!’
I’ve no idea if that’s true, but Coral certainly knew that Vinnie backed both teams. Never mind, they were deeply in love and that Hollywood marriage worked.
Quite quickly I got a job on Lawrence Kasdan’s 1990 black comedy film I Love You To Death. I played Kevin Kline’s mother. He was delightful and so was River Phoenix, a lovely young man, very polite and gentle.
He showed no signs of a drug habit and I was terribly sad when I heard he’d died taking an overdose. William Hurt was quite the opposite; surly and self-involved. When I was introduced, I put out my hand to shake his. He simply turned away. I wasn’t worth shaking hands with.
Margolyes was cast as The Nurse in Baz Luhrmann’s Hollywood production of Romeo + Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes (both pictured)
The other two English actresses on the film were Tracey Ullman and Joan Plowright. I’d known Tracey years ago when we shared a flat in Glasgow during the filming of the BBC comedy series A Kick Up The Eighties.
Joan Plowright was worried about her husband, Sir Laurence Olivier, who was too ill to travel from England. I remember meeting him outside the stage door of the New Theatre Oxford when I was at school.
I had never forgotten the power of his physicality and, over dinner in Malibu one Saturday night, I asked her what he was like when they first met. Gazing out of the window at the ocean, she looked reflective and a little sad. ‘He was . . . animal,’ she said.
There was a wealth of memory in that enigmatic sentence.
The sitcom that we finally landed was Frannie’s Turn, created and written for me by Chuck Lorre, now one of the richest and most successful producers in Hollywood, with hit shows including The Big Bang Theory, Two And A Half Men and Grace Under Fire.
I played Irish-Italian seamstress Frannie Escobar, a happy, gregarious woman muddling through a mid-life crisis. We shot in one of the many huge hangars on the CBS Burbank lot, next to the studio where they filmed Roseanne, the hit sitcom at the time.
People who worked on Roseanne were always escaping to our studio, telling us how ghastly Roseanne Barr was, and how frightened everyone was of her. They all loved John Goodman, who played her husband. He visited too one day, a glorious chap.
Our set was a happy, inclusive one, unlike Roseanne’s, but Frannie’s Turn was cancelled after only five episodes.
Luckily, I soon got roles in a number of films, including Mrs Manson Mingott in Martin Scorsese’s The Age Of Innocence. On that film, I had the joy of meeting Michelle Pfeiffer.
When I was introduced for the first time, I said ‘Hello Fatty’ because she was so beautiful, I couldn’t stand it. Bless her, she laughed.
I also got to work with Daniel Day-Lewis which was fascinating as he really does hold his character off-screen and that can be a bit disconcerting.
When he played Christy Brown in My Left Foot, I heard that he expected Fiona Shaw to literally wipe his bottom. Rest assured, she wasn’t having any of that!
He’s a serious man, thoughtful, but he responds to female charms and Winona Ryder and Daniel were often intertwingled in the make-up trailer. He was quite shocked when I asked him if they were sleeping together.
‘You can’t ask questions like that, Miriam,’ he said. Well, frankly, I didn’t need to.
I was anxious when filming started, because I admire Scorsese so much, but Martin turned out to be a gentle soul, driven by his love of film, and the role earned me a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress in 1994.
The actress soon got roles in a number of films, including Mrs Manson Mingott in Martin Scorsese’s The Age Of Innocence, where she met Michelle Pfeiffer (pictured)
However many times people scorn awards and say they are nonsense (as I have done myself), when you get one it’s a gorgeous feeling.
And when Maggie Smith came up to me and said: ‘I’m delighted you won. You deserved to,’ it was one of the crowning moments of my career.
Barely a year later, I was cast as The Nurse in Baz Luhrmann’s Hollywood production of Romeo + Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.
Leonardo has grown into an extremely fine actor but back then he was just a handsome boy who didn’t always wash; he was quite smelly in that very male way some young men are.
Sometimes he wore a dress. ‘Leonardo, I think you’re gay,’ I said. He laughed and said, ‘No Miriam. I’m really not gay.’ But I was wrong. He did it to be talked about — much as I did when I smoked a pipe as an undergraduate at Cambridge.
Day I tried to spell-bind Spielberg
One of my favourite Hollywood stories concerned Shelley Winters. When a casting director asked her what she’d done before, she leaned down into her bag and took out one Oscar, then another Oscar, and thumped them down on the desk.
‘That’s what I’ve done,’ she said.
I know how she felt, because LA casting directors are extremely tough on actors at auditions. They don’t understand how scary it is to stand in front of a desk full of people who look at you coldly as one of them barks questions about your previous jobs.
After one too many such ordeals, I thought, ‘I’m not going to be made to feel like a piece of dirt under their feet.’
At an interview with Stephen Spielberg, who is actually a most courteous and pleasant man, I brought copies of the brochure of my Tuscan farmhouse, and before they said anything to me, I said: ‘Good afternoon. Thank you so much for inviting me to the audition.
‘Before we start, may I show you my farmhouse near Siena, in case any of you would be interested in renting it?’
Once I took control of the interview they weren’t able to make me feel small. They would look at the brochure, then they would open up and we would have a conversation.
I didn’t get the part with Spielberg and I can’t say that I ever actually rented the house to any casting people, but at least they saw me as a human being, not just somebody who desperately wanted a job.
We filmed in Mexico City, paradise for someone like me who loves fossicking around flea markets and antiques shops, and, like me, Leonardo was into bling in a big way, too.
We’d spend hours going through the markets together. I don’t know that I’ve ever had such fun.
I have seen him since and he smelt divine, I’m happy to report. I liked him tremendously and admired his work, but luckily I was immune from his groin charms, unlike poor Claire Danes, then only 17. It was obvious to all of us that she really was in love with her Romeo, but Leonardo wasn’t in love with her. She wasn’t his type at all.
He didn’t know how to cope with her evident infatuation. He wasn’t sensitive to her feelings, was dismissive of her and could be quite nasty in his keenness to get away, while Claire was utterly sincere and so open. It was painful to watch.
Many years later, I was in a restaurant and she came up to me and said: ‘We worked together on a film once, I don’t know if you remember me? My name is Claire Danes.’
It was the opposite of the arrogant behaviour of some stars and so typical of her. Take Arnold Schwarzenegger with whom I worked in the 1999 supernatural thriller End Of Days.
I was playing Mabel, the sister of Satan. What a pig of a man! Although he was relatively professional with me — because he didn’t fancy me — he was awfully gropey with women he was interested in.
Fortunately, I’ve also had the joy of working with some of the greats, among them Barbra Streisand. She is a prima donna, but she has a right to be.
The first time I met her was when I played a village woman in her 1983 movie Yentl and then in 2012 I did a day’s filming on The Guilt Trip, starring Barbra and Seth Rogen.
Barbra remembered me, which was nice, but, at the end, she left the set without saying goodbye.
One of the other actresses wanted a photograph with her and she refused. I thought, ‘What a pity.’
The only time I’ve spurned a member of the public was once, when desperate to go to the loo, a lady got in my way demanding a selfie.
I said: ‘Get out of my way or I’ll pee on your foot!’
Of course, you don’t have to cross the Atlantic to find examples of badly behaved thespians.
I’ve come across quite a few in my time and in Monday’s Mail I’ll tell you about more of my adventures — and misadventures — with the stars of stage and screen.
Adapted from This Much Is True by Miriam Margolyes, published by John Murray on September 16, £20. © Miriam Margolyes 2021.
Pre-order a copy of This Much Is True for £10 (RRP £20) at whsmith.co.uk by entering code MIRIAM at checkout. Voucher valid until September 22, 2021.
Snobbish, sexist and ‘total shit!’: MIRIAM MARGOLYES’ withering verdict on Monty Python stars John Cleese and Graham Chapman… as revealed in this rollicking second extract from her brilliant new memoir
Снобизм, сексизм и “полное дерьмо!”: язвительный вердикт Мириам Марголис о звездах “Монти Пайтон” Джоне Клизе и Грэме Чепмене… о чем рассказывает второй отрывок из ее блестящих мемуаров.
There has never been a British actress quite so candid as Miriam Margolyes, perhaps best-known as Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films.
On Saturday, in the first exclusive extract from her eye-popping new memoir, she shared her frank views on A-listers from Dame Maggie Smith to Warren Beatty. In today’s instalment, she recalls the ups and downs of her Cambridge University days and the unalloyed joy of making Blackadder . . . The three years I spent at Cambridge gave me everything I have. That was a time when I was fully alive, when I fully became myself. But I lost my smile a little when I performed in the Footlights revue of 1962. I didn’t like the Footlights boys and they really didn’t like me. They made that obvious. When I say ‘they’, I refer to a most distinguished group: John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Bill Oddie, Humphrey Barclay (later Head of Comedy at LWT), Tony Hendra and Tim Brooke-Taylor.
В субботу, в первом эксклюзивном отрывке из своих впечатляющих мемуаров, она поделилась своим откровенным мнением о звездах первой величины – от дамы Мэгги Смит до Уоррена Битти. В сегодняшнем отрывке она вспоминает о взлетах и падениях во время учебы в Кембриджском университете и о беспримесной радости от создания “Блэкаддера”… Три года, проведенные в Кембридже, дали мне все, что у меня есть. Это было время, когда я была полностью жива, когда я полностью стала собой. Но я немного потерял свою улыбку, когда выступал в ревю Footlights в 1962 году. Мне не нравились ребята из Footlights, а я им очень не нравилась. Они сделали это очевидным. Когда я говорю “они”, я имею в виду самую выдающуюся группу: Джон Клиз, Грэм Чепмен, Билл Одди, Хамфри Барклай (впоследствии глава отдела комедии на LWT), Тони Хендра и Тим Брук-Тейлор.
Not my heroes: Miriam’s fellow Cambridge undergraduates and future Pythons John Cleese and Graham Chapman, with Aimi MacDonald and, front left, Tim Brooke-Taylor and, right, Marty Feldman / Не мои герои: Сокурсники Мириам по Кембриджу и будущие Пайтоны Джон Клиз и Грэм Чепмен с Айми Макдональд и, слева на первом плане, Тим Брук-Тейлор и, справа, Марти Фельдман
The only girl in the show, I was a pert little madam and thought I was as good as they were — and they didn’t. My perception was that they thought I was a jumped-up, pushy, overconfident, fat little Jew. But I was funny, and they didn’t like it. If you think about it, the Monty Python shows didn’t feature funny women, only the occasional dolly bird. And I certainly wasn’t that. Their attitudes towards women stemmed from the minor public schools most of them had attended. At that time, and the whole time I was at Cambridge, a woman could not be a member of the Footlights Club. Girls were not welcome: we attended only as guests. These chaps wanted to sleep with women, not compete with them. I was neither decorative nor bedworthy, and they found me unbearable.
Единственная девушка в шоу, я была маленькой проворной мадам и думала, что я так же хороша, как они – а они не были. Мне казалось, что они считают меня выскочкой, нахальной, самоуверенной, толстой маленькой еврейкой. Но я был смешным, и им это не нравилось. Если подумать, в шоу “Монти Пайтон” не было смешных женщин, только иногда кукольные птички. И я, конечно, не была такой. Их отношение к женщинам проистекало из несерьезных государственных школ, которые большинство из них посещали. В то время, и все время, пока я училась в Кембридже, женщина не могла быть членом клуба Footlights. Девушки не принимались: мы посещали клуб только в качестве гостей. Эти парни хотели спать с женщинами, а не соревноваться с ними. Я не была ни декоративной, ни достойной постели, и они находили меня невыносимой.
The problem was exacerbated by my excellent notices, which were resented. They acknowledged each other’s cleverness, but only just, and there was considerable class antagonism. David Frost was looked down on, for example, because he was merely a middle-class lad from Gillingham, and they were not happy when Clive James arrived during the Sixties. His brilliance was unstoppable but they disparaged his Australian roots. It was like water off a duck’s back with Clive; he had no respect for any of them. And they quickly changed their minds about his acceptability. Cambridge was a competitive place; in Footlights, that became toxic. It was the first time in my life that I experienced that sort of competition. Someone decided I was not to be spoken to offstage: I would go on, do my bits, then the minute I stood in the wings, I was ignored; silence and cold stares.
Проблема усугублялась моими отличными оценками, которые вызывали негодование. Они признавали ум друг друга, но только в общих чертах, и существовал значительный классовый антагонизм. Например, на Дэвида Фроста смотрели свысока, потому что он был всего лишь парнем из среднего класса из Гиллингема, и они не были счастливы, когда в шестидесятые годы пришел Клайв Джеймс. Его блеск был неудержим, но они презирали его австралийские корни. С Клайвом это было как вода с утки; он не уважал никого из них. И они быстро изменили свое мнение о его приемлемости. Кембридж был местом конкуренции; в Footlights это стало токсичным. Это был первый раз в моей жизни, когда я испытал такого рода конкуренцию. Кто-то решил, что со мной нельзя разговаривать вне сцены: я выходил, исполнял свои партии, а потом, когда я стоял в кулисах, меня игнорировали; молчание и холодные взгляды.
Slow, searching — my best male kiss
I didn’t have sexual intercourse at Cambridge, partly because my parents told me I mustn’t and also because I didn’t know until I was 27 that I was gay (we called it ‘queer’).
However, it was imperative to have a boyfriend, so I spent a very enjoyable year as an ‘item’ with David Bree, an engineering student who worked backstage at the university’s theatre and said he fell in love with me from his lighting box high in the eaves.
When I came on stage, he didn’t look at anyone else. He didn’t see all the things that I think of when I think of myself; he didn’t think I was fat; he saw someone he really fancied. He thought: ‘That girl’s got oomph!’
David’s kissing technique was excellent. Only Bob Monkhouse, with whom I later acted on television, surpassed his osculatory skill.
Bob’s was the best male kiss I think I’ve ever had — slow, searching, not slurpy. I thought, if I was straight, I would go for Bob. He was interested in people — wise, kind, funny, generous, all the things you hope a star will be. He is one of my heroes.
In total contrast I name Terry Scott, who was the nastiest person I have ever worked with. How the divine June Whitfield put up with him, I cannot imagine.
He was horrid to the chorus girls, tried to grope and kiss them and if they wouldn’t play, he rubbished them publicly. Of course, he would have behaved himself with June.
During the entire run of that 1962 revue, directed by Trevor Nunn, they treated me as if I were invisible and did not speak to me at all. Initially, I had no idea why. I was 19 and it was painful. I used to go back to my room in Newnham College and weep.
My dislike of that whole, largely male world of comedy has never left me. I feel awkward, admitting to such bitterness — it seems absurd, I should have got over it. But I haven’t. The treatment I received from those Footlights boys was diminishing, pointed and vicious. On reflection, it is they who diminished themselves.
I admire the creation of Monty Python and The Goodies and I think they were men of genius, but they were not gentlemen.
John Cleese, Bill Oddie and Graham Chapman were total s***s — and they have never apologised. The only one who did was the late Tim Brooke-Taylor. All the perpetrators went into light entertainment and I went into drama, so thankfully our paths were seldom to cross. But nearly 60 years later I have not forgotten.
Some are born comic, some achieve comedy, some have comedy thrust upon them. I am definitely in that third camp. There is something about my face and body that makes people laugh. I’ve always known that. It’s professionally useful, socially perhaps a bit limiting, but I’m asked to dinner parties because of it and I’m not going to moan about looking different.
I’d assumed comedy was not for me after the nastiness of Footlights but I have ended up working with many of the non-Cambridge-educated greats of comedy (including Kenneth Williams and Ken Dodd).
Day I made history on University Challenge
My TV career began even before I left Cambridge, in what would later be seen as my trademark shocking style.
In 1963, I was part of the team representing Newnham College in the debut series of Granada TV’s University Challenge, presented by Bamber Gascoigne.
When I couldn’t deliver an answer to something that was on the tip of my tongue, in frustration I swore loudly and we lost the point.
It was beeped out of the actual transmission — but my claim is still staked to be the first person ever to swear on national television.
I was certainly the first woman to do so. I met Bamber again last year and he acknowledged that my ‘F*** it!’ has resounded in his memory for almost 60 years now.
In 1982, I got the call to be a part of Blackadder, playing the ugly Spanish infanta in the fourth episode, The Queen Of Spain’s Beard. Although I didn’t know many of the other cast members personally, I instantly liked Rowan Atkinson, who played Edmund Blackadder.
The thing that fascinated me most was his nervousness. His stammer is not evident now but he definitely had a faltering delivery back then, and it used to infuriate him. He was never nasty to anybody else, but he just couldn’t bear it when he made mistakes and would get himself into a frenzy. It was painful to see; his face would contort with rage.
I later went to the first night of his one-man show on Broadway, which was a disaster. It was actually brilliant but I could feel that it wasn’t going down well with the audience, who just couldn’t understand his humour, and I knew he’d be terribly disappointed.
After the first-night party, everybody went to Sardi’s, a nearby celebrity restaurant. Rowan was already well-known for Blackadder — the place was packed. Then the reviews came out and they were bad.
And all the people at the party just drifted away — one minute the room was full of babble and a throng of merrymakers, the next minute there were only about six people left, and I was one of them.
It was a chilly experience because America does not like, cannot deal with and is afraid of failure. Rowan has never been a failure since but he was that night. I think it was the audience who failed him.
It was an honour to be in Blackadder. I was in it in three extreme incarnations: as a Spanish Infanta, as Queen Victoria and as my favourite, Lady Whiteadder, the fanatical Puritan. She gave me flashbacks to my caricatures of the more ridiculous teachers at school.
Call me ‘Sexy Sonia’
In the early Seventies I got my first voice job, playing a character called ‘Sexy Sonia’ on a porn tape sold by the Ann Summers sex shop.
I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the pornography aspect — Daddy already felt that being an actress was akin to prostitution. So I rang up the shop and asked, ‘This is voice only, isn’t it? We’re definitely not on camera, are we?’ The woman reassured me that it was only an audiotape.
The script had no redeeming features and so much panting and gasping that I had a bad headache by the end of the recording. Truly, one climax is much like another, but I was having to delve into my sub-conscious to achieve the variety I felt was expected.
After all, at least if you have real sex, you have some fulfilment. My only fulfilment was the 300 quid I was paid.
But I wasn’t complaining: that was a big pay cheque for those days. Although I got no royalties, my commercial instincts came to the fore when the tape was on sale and I wanted to find out how it was doing.
So I went into Ann Summers (the shop was full of browsing men, all deliberately avoiding eye contact) and said loudly to the chap behind the counter, ‘Oh, hello, I wonder if you could help me. I’m ‘Sexy Sonia’ and I wondered how I was selling.’
Some of the customers’ heads turned but the salesman froze.
‘Shhhhh!’ he whispered.
He didn’t want the customers to connect me with the tape; I assume he thought that if the punters saw me, they probably wouldn’t buy it. But I was delighted to discover that it was a nice little earner for them.
It’s hard to be subtle bellowing out lines like ‘Wicked child!!! Drink is urine for the last leper in Hell!’ I particularly relished slapping Rowan and Tim McInnerny each time I shouted ‘Wicked Child!’
I loved every moment of it and I loved the boys — they were a sweet, funny bunch and the atmosphere was totally different from the nail-biting competition of the Footlights. A generation or two later, there was a pleasure in each other’s success and a generosity of spirit between the lads that I hadn’t seen before.
It was just as funny — funnier, even — but without the personal edge. I like people to get on, and my Blackadder pals were gentlemen and gentle men.
I have always needed an audience and always loved acting, even at school. When, as Brutus in the Oxford High production of Julius Caesar, my toga kept slipping, revealing rather more bosom than Brutus was normally expected to have, some parents in the front row showed alarm.
On another occasion, as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I forgot my words but just made up some nonsense and carried on. Once a show-off, always a show-off!
At Cambridge, I appeared in 20 productions. By my second year, I knew I wanted to be an actress and two years after graduating I began getting parts with the BBC Radio Drama Company (RDC).
It was an honour to be in Blackadder. I was in it in three extreme incarnations: as a Spanish Infanta, as Queen Victoria and as my favourite, Lady Whiteadder, the fanatical Puritan
I loved it but it wasn’t enough: I wanted to act with both my voice and my body, so I began auditioning for TV. One of my early TV appearances was in 1967, on the soap opera Crossroads, playing the rather unpleasant mother of a character called Shirley Perkins.
There was a green room where we rested between takes. I was once sitting in an armchair when Noele Gordon, the star of Crossroads, came in.
‘That’s MY chair,’ she barked.
‘Oh sorry,’ I said, ‘I didn’t see your name on it.’
We reckoned she only had the job because she was sleeping with the boss of the channel. But that little tussle was nothing compared with my worst-ever professional experience, working with Glenda Jackson in The White Devil at the Old Vic in 1976.
I played a servant to Glenda Jackson’s character. A star actress with little patience and no humility, she has given great performances — but she didn’t in The White Devil, and knowing that she was rubbish made her even nastier.
It wasn’t just her. The general mood was unpleasant and rivalry and discord among the cast members sporadically bubbled over in little moments of irritation and nastiness.
It was the hottest summer on record. We poured with sweat all day; the physical discomfort was intense and that spilled over into rehearsals. I’ve talked to other cast members about our experience, however, and not all hated it. My own misery may have coloured my memories.
One day, Glenda and I had a terrible falling-out; I cannot remember what it was about, but I called her a cow and she called me an amateur. I think she won that one!
Also in the cast was Jonathan Pryce, who was particularly combative and scornful if anyone made mistakes. He patrolled the set like a shark, eating up errors from other cast members.
It didn’t help that our opening night had to be delayed. During the eventual opening-night curtain call, the composer and conductor Andre Previn, who was in the audience, got up and shouted, ‘Rubbish!’ and the show closed after only six weeks.
It is agony to go on stage every night and know your work is poor — but when it goes well there is no feeling like it; to inhabit your part and to hear the audience gasp and know they are catching their breath because of you.
I cherish my audiences and am grateful for them, yet my stage fright has only increased as I’ve got older. I now have to have a bucket in the wings because I am so often sick before I go on stage. I’m not alone in this: Maggie Smith once told me how nervous she gets, to the point of vomiting.
And this is but one potential pitfall of working in the theatre. There are so many more. It was after one performance of She Stoops To Conquer, with Donald Sinden and David Essex, that Princess Margaret came backstage. Tiny and cool, she had enjoyed the show and congratulated us. Carl Toms, a friend of hers, had designed the show. I knew he had been ill and, without thinking, asked if she would pass on to him our loving best wishes.
For a split second, her eyes narrowed and she stiffened. She was deciding whether I had been guilty of massive impertinence. But she saw from my concerned face that I only wanted to send Carl good wishes. She relaxed and said: ‘Yes, I will. I enjoyed your performance, rushing acraws the stage, backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards.’ And, finally, she smiled.
The danger was over but I would not fare as well with her older sister. As I will explain in tomorrow’s Mail, meeting the Queen was something I had dreamed of all my life — but my one and only encounter with Her Majesty actually ended with my getting a royal reprimand.
Adapted from This Much Is True, by Miriam Margolyes, published by John Murray on September 16, £20. © Miriam Margolyes 2021.