By Judi Dench
St. Martin’s Press, $15.87, 288 pages
Judi Dench is an acting legend in her own time. There seems to be nothing she has not done, from Queen Victoria, Elizabeth I (she hated the wig) and Shakespeare characters to Miss Moneypenny in James Bond movies.
Unlike current celebrities who can achieve attention only through public misbehavior, Dame Judi is a professional, and her life as she describes it in this latest biography testifies to that. The chronology of plays and films in which she has appeared is as impressive as the number of awards with which she has been honored.
The book is “as told to John Miller,” and Miss Dench notes in a wry preface that she does not consider it an autobiography - ” I have neither the time nor the skill to write one.’ ” She apparently had to be persuaded that it could be told in her own voice while she filled in any gaps for the author.
The book takes the reader behind the scenes of a remarkable life in which the author makes clear that while she worked very hard at what she did, she also had a good time. She also had an uninhibited sense of humor to help her through it. Telling about her role as Queen Victoria in “Mrs Brown,” she relates how much she and co-star Billy Connolly laughed while working on it.
“The biggest problem we both had was with my pony, Bluey, which kept breaking wind during the takes. There is a long shot when I am on the pony and Billy is leading me, and Bluey farted at nearly every step. If you look closely, you can see our shoulders heaving,” she says.
Miss Dench emphasizes how in a theater, the audience is crucial to the cast.
“It’s the only reason you bother to be in the theater in order that tonight it can be better than last night.” She also describes the awful impact for an actor of “drying up” on lines.
“You just feel as if you are falling backward into a black hole because the audience never go so quiet as when they know an actor has dried; the silence is deadly.”
It also, Miss Dench notes, is quite different from the moment of stillness when the audience is captivated, when “the company and the audience become one thing.”
It is fascinating when she describes the routine of preparing for a daily show and the stress of a part. Ironically, she explains, all the right things, like a good night’s sleep, a bath, a light lunch and a nap can mean you get to the theater “and fall a thousand feet when you simply can’t do anything right.” On the other hand, there are days when you arrive at the theater exhausted and wonder how you’re going to get through it, and that is when something wonderful happens.
According to Miss Dench, she always does the same thing immediately before a performance. “My dresser makes me a cup of tea with honey but without milk, and then I steam my voice … then I take a phial of ginseng and royal jelly, which is just like drinking pure honey.’” Her vocal exercises include chanting “hip-bath, hip-bath,” and she remembers the time her late husband, Michael Williams, and her daughter, Finty Williams, who also is an actress, sent her as a gift for a week, a lobster salad every night from the restaurant next door to the London theater where she was playing.
Miss Dench is dismissive of retirement, noting, “I am doing the things I want to do now, so I don’t want to retire. I like the company of other people, but I love the company of actors. My idea of hell would be a one-woman show. And you don’t need to retire as an actor. There are all those parts you can play lying in bed or in a wheelchair.”
She tells a hilarious story about touring in West Africa with the Nottingham Playhouse Company and playing Shakespeare before audiences who had never seen a theater company before and loved everything, especially anything that rhymed. She recalls that every time she said “The Thane of Fife had a wife,” the audience went into hysterics and begged, “Say that again, say that again.” Miss Dench observes that after those audiences, “nothing will ever throw you again.”
Making the television comedy drama “As Time Goes By” brought her friendship with her co-star Geoffrey Palmer, whom she credits with training” her to “fine-tune my timing on television.”
Mr. Palmer told her candidly that she tried too hard, and she notes that he was capable of being “very outspoken,” which of course suited his role in the show, which he obviously relished.
Miss Dench notes caustically that the only nasty thing that happened to her in all her years of making that television show was when a woman journalist “had the extraordinary nerve” to ask her who was the first person she slept with, and when. Miss Dench, who obviously does not suffer fools gladly, observes, “I vowed I would never expose myself to such offensive questioning again, and I never have.”
When you consider the actress’ personality and her obvious self-possession, it is surprising that the question was asked. Judi Dench has not succeeded because of scandal or controversy. She is one of an increasingly rare school of consummately professional actors who treasure what they do and work at it. It is more than their job; it is, as she makes clear, their life. For her, that life began on the stage in her teens, and those who are in her audience can only hope it will last for many more years.
Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.