Judi Dench's wry, shy take on a glorious stage career

By Diana McLellan
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, February 26, 2011; 5:21 PM


By Judi Dench as told to John Miller

St. Martin's. 268 pp. $26.99

Suddenly, every time I point my TV remote, out jumps Dame Judi Dench. She twinkles as elderly ingenue Jean Hardcastle in the sitcom "As Time Goes By." She bosses crisply as "M," scolding James Bond as "a sexist misogynistic dinosaur." She swans about with rotten teeth and a heart of gold in "Shakespeare in Love."

Dame J's sweet little face, sturdy little person and slanted sapphire eyes always toss us such a cozy frisson that we forget the long, brilliant theatrical career she laid down long before these relatively piddling TV and movie triumphs. Encouraging parents helped. In 1960, as young Dench hurled herself into the role of Shakespeare's Juliet for England's Old Vic, and cried in anguish, "Where are my father and my mother, Nurse?" her doctor Daddy called consolingly from the audience, "Here we are, darling, in Row H." (True? Well, as my friend Maggie says, "It is now.")

She's always played a great queen. She was Titania, the Fairy Queen, in 1962 and again in 2010. The second go-round, she based her style on her own Elizabeth in "Shakespeare in Love" - perhaps to make up for getting that Oscar for "eight quick minutes." More fondly, she recalls cradling Anthony Hopkins in her arms during his lengthy death scene onstage in Shakespeare's "Anthony and Cleopatra" in 1987. The Egyptian Queen had another whole act to go before clasping the asp to her bosom, so he'd whisper smugly in the midst of his death throes, "You do Act V, and I'll have a nice cup of tea." A close observer might have noticed her shoulders shaking when she played Queen Victoria in the movie "Mrs. Brown": During an enchanting long shot of her trusty ghillie leading Herself through the Highland braes, her pony broke wind with almost every step.

On the printed page, she's no dazzling raconteur like Alec Guinness or tell-all hellion like Tallulah Bankhead. She's wry, dry, sly - even shy when it comes to showing her stuffing in this new mini-memoir, "And Furthermore."

But, yes, she's had regrets. She wishes she'd played Shaw's Joan of Arc in 1966 as "a real troublemaker, a pain in the arse, which she must have been." She deplores a curly wig she sported as Portia in a 1971 production of "The Merchant of Venice." Even more, she regrets the slip of the tongue that had her tell Bassanio (played by her real-life husband) that she spoke so long as "to stay you from erection." (It was supposed to be "election.") Half the cast and the wind band got the giggles and had to leave the stage.

She blanches still over the 1982 nightmare when, playing the fearsome Lady Bracknell in "The Importance of Being Earnest," she dropped the most important half-page of dialogue, including the immortal line on Jack Worthing's origins in a bag left at a train station: "A handbag?" Probably most of the audience just filled it in, but one former fan wrote to her bitterly, "You have ruined my entire Christmas."

For non-theater fans, "And Furthermore" will seem a too-dutiful recounting of stories about obscure cast members. For me, too much is left out. When Dame Judi says she learned a lot, I want to ask her, "How about sharing that?" When she mentions a "lovely" house or "enjoying" a play, Ms. Nosy here wants to know: Exactly how? And why? This small flaw, I guess, must be laid at the door of her "as-told-to" amanuensis, John Miller. Perhaps he was too awed by her damehood to press for details.

It's hard to picture this terrifying Lady Catherine de Bourgh in "Pride and Prejudice" and this decaying Iris Murdoch in "Iris" as the young, all-guts-and-garters Sally Bowles in "Cabaret." But she was, in 1968. She still treasures the memory of overhearing, from her basement dressing room, a departing member of the audience reproaching, "Arthur, you told me it was all about nuns and children!"

Splendid photographs throughout the book form a fine peep show of graceful aging. Now in her late 70s, Judi Dench has no intention of retiring. Like Sarah Bernhardt, who played Hamlet after losing a leg, she sees no reason to slow down. "There are all those parts you can play lying in bed, or in a wheelchair," she points out. I hope that, if necessary, she will.

McLellan is author of "The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood."

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