Published: 04 November 2010
by GERALD ISAAMAN
BEING hailed as a national treasure must be a bore for those who receive such an accolade – especially if you suddenly fail to live up to expectations and prove to have, like most of us, a weakness or two.
Yet Dame Judi Dench, now 76, passes the test with supreme aplomb, as if she was born for the part, a singular fact that comes smiling through – like her – in this evocative memoir by an actress so many adore.
It is as if we all grew up with her, and have shared the delight of her abundant success on stage, in film and on TV.
Her first ambition was to be a ballerina, then a theatre designer, before seeing Michael Redgrave in King Lear at Stratford and falling under the magical spell of the theatre that has been her true kingdom ever since.
It was at the Central School of Speech and Drama – then at the Albert Hall before its move to Swiss Cottage – that she learned her trade from Walter Hudd, alongside students Vanessa Redgrave, Jeremy Kemp and Ian Hendry.
It was the same Walter Hudd – the Hampstead resident and wonderful old actor turned head of drama – who helped James Roose-Evans launch the Hampstead Theatre where, surprisingly, Dame Judi has never appeared, though she has been on stage at New End.
Her Hampstead days are worth concentrating on. Theo Cowan, the late publicist who spent most of his life living in other people’s houses until the architect Ted Levy built him one, identified a charming property in Prospect Place, overlooking the Hampstead Parish Churchyard.
Judi went to see it with Theo and the comedian Marty Feldman, another NW3 resident, and thought £14,400 was too much.
“But I was so glad that I bought it, which proved to be a brilliant move,” she recalls of the time, when she was playing Sally Bowles in Cabaret.
It became her family home after her marriage to Michael Williams, the inimitable actor who flew to Australia to propose on a beautiful day, with the RSC in Adelaide, Judi insisting: “This is absolutely no good at all. We had better wait for a rainy day in Battersea.”
And they did, marrying, in February 1971, at St Mary’s, Holly Place, Hampstead, with Ian Richardson and Alec McCowen as the ushers and Danny La Rue sitting with his wedding present of two crystal glasses on his knee throughout the ceremony.
Prospect Place later became home for their daughter, Finty, and was the dramatic scene of a fire caused by a candle, Judi bursting into tears when she saw the burnt-out shell of her first married home. Judi and Michael had by then moved to Surrey where, in 2001, Michael, such a perfect foil in the TV comedy series Times Goes By, died from cancer.
There was the grief too of the death in 1991 of her great friend Dame Peggy Ashcroft, in the Royal Free, Hampstead. Judi writes: “When I went to see her there one June 14, the registrar took me into a room and said quietly, ‘She died about 20 minutes ago.’ I was so glad I heard the news that way.
“When I announced it at the end of the performance that night, I thought I wouldn’t call for silence, because Peggy wouldn’t have wanted that. So I called for applause, and it just went on and on. We could have stood there for half an hour while everyone clapped.”
The poignancy of actual and fictional life are echoes of Dame Judi’s own totally honest attitude towards her career which, thankfully, she often plays for fun – laughter providing the energy to see the curtain continually rising.
It manifests itself in other ways. Her memoirs may be seen as lightweight, but don’t believe it. She gives stern advice to young actors who can’t be bothered with the stage and give no serious thought to their work in today’s headline-seeking celebrity culture.
Forever exuberant, Judi declares her desire to give every audience “a marvellous experience”, and, as an epitaph, insists: “You retire if you are in a job that has just kept you employed, and given you some kind of income, and then you retire to do things that you really want to do. Well, I am doing the things I want to do now. So I don’t want to retire.”
Bravo, bow and scrape!
• And Furthermore by Judi Dench is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson