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Best Of British Biographies – Judi Dench

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I know there are always tales of stage or screen royalty and there are some people who you tend to assume are the rightful occupants of that title. Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins, and Patrick Stewart are the leading examples of their generation. Amongst them there is one more who, quite simply, has to be added…Judi Dench.

Dame Judith Olivia Dench CH DBE FRSA is, quite probably, the most renowned, respected, and beloved of our currently active thespians. She has been acting professionally for, almost, as long as I’ve been alive and is renowned for her skill and range. She can seamlessly step between Shakespeare and spy films, costume drama and comedy, pirate adventures and political thrillers.


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Judi Dench – Early Days

Dame Judi was born in December 1934. Despite her refined accent she was born “oop North” in Heworth, North Yorkshire. She developed her interest in the theatre from a very early age. In her case this was the York Theatre Royal where her mother was the wardrobe mistress. Her father worked as the theatre doctor and often took her backstage with him. As a child, Dame Judi was vivacious, hot-tempered and loquacious; qualities and characteristics that are invaluable for a future performer.

1957 Hamlet

Interestingly enough, Ms Dench was a subject of the BBC documentary series Who Do You Think You Are? This is a programme in which celebrities are introduced to professional genealogists and their family tree is shaken to see what falls out. The entertainment comes from finding out whether the celeb du jour is related to royalty or rabble. Apparently the production company are quite content about dropping someone if their history is too dull.

Family Ties

Former Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston, Cherie Blair (wife of former Prime Minister, Tony Blair), Stephen Mangan (Dirk Gently in Dirk Gently), and the tonsils from Treforest, Sir Tom Jones, were all dropped for having a boring lineage. As a result, the fact that Dame Judi’s episode made it to air means that there must have been someone interesting in her heritage. It turns out that she is related to Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601). Mind you, everyone of European descent is related to Charlemagne…

1959 Hilda Lessways

Unsurprisingly, given her childhood exposure to the theatre, Dame Judi started acting in her early twenties; her debut was as the Virgin Mary in a revival of the York Mystery Plays. Well…that’s if you don’t count her stage debut as a snail in a school play. However, what is probably more surprising is that she originally trained as a set designer. She became interested in drama after her elder brother, Jeffery, started attending the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. This interest was compounded by seeing Dame Peggy Ashcroft playing Cleopatra and she, too, enrolled at the RCSSD.

First Steps Onto The Stage

Her stage debut was in 1957. She was playing Ophelia in Hamlet at the Liverpool Royal Court Theatre. According to the London Evening Standard, Dench had “talent which will be shown to better advantage when she acquires some technique to go with it.” It does seem odd that Dame Judi would get anything other than glowing reviews but it just goes to show that she has been one of our hardest working actors all her life and has steadfastly continued to improve her craft.

1968 A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Like most of our great actors, Judi Dench continued to learn her craft on the theatrical stage. During the last three years of the fifties she had twelve roles; ten of those were in the theatre and the other two were on TV.  And as is seemingly inevitable for the theatrical top tier, of those ten plays, seven were adaptations of Shakespeare; Hamlet, Measure For Measure, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, Henry V, As You Like It, and The Merry Wives Of Windsor.

Life Is A Cabaret

And that’s just the first three years of her professional life. If we take a minute to do something a wee bit different and look at Dame Judi’s Shakespeare experience via a teeny bit of spreadsheet work. Of the thirty nine, widely accepted, canon, Ms Dench has appeared in nineteen playing a total of twenty eight different roles. She has appeared in three film versions of the plays; Hamlet, Henry V, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The only role she’s repeated on stage and film is that of Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

1968 Cabaret

Another role that she made her own is one that you’ll probably never guess…especially if you’ve seen Cats! She played Sally Bowles in the West End premiere of Cabaret. She was very hesitant about playing the lead in a musical. As Sheridan Morley later said “At first she thought they were joking.” Still, she gave it her best and the feedback she got included “Judi Dench was the finest of all the Sallys that appeared in Hal Prince’s original staging”, “She sings well. The title song, in particular, is projected with great feeling”, and “Her Sally is a perfect example of how one can give a thrilling musical theatre performance without a great singing voice”.

Small Screen Start

Of course, Dame Judi is known for much, much more than her theatrical work. Let’s face it, if she wasn’t then I wouldn’t be writing about her here. Quite unusually for a young, relatively inexperienced actor, her first TV role was as the lead in a six part adaptation of a 1911 Arnold Bennett novel, Hilda Lessways. Sadly, due to the way that television programmes of that era were kept in such low regard, there are no surviving copies of her small screen debut. 

1981 A Fine Romance with Michael Williams

The next few years saw her theatrical outings interspersed with more frequent television appearances. Mainly in things like Armchair Theatre, Theatre 625, or adaptations of Chekov but also in well known series like Z-Cars, The Troubleshooters, and Jackanory. Those names might not mean much to a lot of people but I remember them being on as I was growing up.I have to admit, though, that I don’t remember seeing Judi Dench in any of them. Well, not when they were first shown but I have seen clips of her on Jackanory.

I’ll Tell You A Story

Incidentally, while Jackanory may be thought of as a children’s programme that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t attract any talent. As well as Dame Judi, readers have included Ian McKellen, Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Patrick Stewart, and King Charles aka the artist formerly known as Prince Charles. Still, I do remember the very first episodes that were read by Lee Montague. I just can’t remember all of the episodes that followed!

1997 Mrs Brown with Billy Connolly

Perhaps her success in Cabaret led to Judi being cast as Grizabella in the London premiere of Cats. Unfortunately, she tore her Achilles tendon and had to pull out. As a result, the part went to Elaine Page and, while I love and admire Dame Judi greatly, I really can’t imagine anyone else singing Memory.  Still, it ran for nearly nine thousand episodes before closing in 2002 so it would have been one hell of a commitment!

My Husband And I

Now you can go off and read many scholarly articles about Dame Judi’s “big breakthrough” and they may well make mention of many excellent performances on the stage and I am in absolutely no position to argue with them. Let’s face it, her “big breakthrough” years are given as the seventies and, for that decade, I was a callow youth. I was unimpressed by theatrical expertise and, for large periods of time, pharmaceutically encumbered. The early eighties saw me coming back to Earth, returning to sanity, and becoming a respectable member of society.

1998 Shakespeare In Love

This just happened to coincide with a certain TV series…A Fine Romance which ran for four seasons between 1981 and 1984. This was a romantic comedy about two middle aged singletons. They are both reasonably happy with their life and work, Laura is a translator and Mike is a landscape gardener. Despite their seeming happiness, Laura’s family decide to get involved, get the two of them together, and we follow the high jinks and hilarity that follow. One delightful twist was that Mike was played by Michael Williams, Judi Dench’s real life husband.

Dum Tee Dum

The eighties saw Dame Judi in a variety of productions in all areas. These included performances that garnered her six BAFTAs, three Olivier Awards, three Evening Standard Theatre Awards, a Broadcasting Press Guild Award, a CableACE Award, and her Dame-hood…Dame-ship…whatever it’s called when you are endameified. It was the end of the eighties that saw two events that had a particular resonance.

2006 Casino Royale

The first was one that particularly resonated for me. There is a radio drama being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 called The Archers. It started in 1951 and there is a twelve minute episode after the seven o’clock news every evening apart from Saturdays. It is a contemporary drama in a rural setting and the original intention was educating farmers following World War II but now it has, thanks to the internet, got followers around the world. To mark the show’s 10,000th episode in 1989, Judi played the usually silent character, Pru Forrest.

Have You Met Mr Branagh?

Another, probably bigger, thing that took place toward the end of the eighties was the beginnings of an unofficial partnership between Dame Judi Dench and Sir Kenneth Branagh. In 1988 Judi made her directorial debut with a touring production of Much Ado About Nothing. This saw Samantha Bond as Beatrice and Kenneth Branagh as Benedick. The following year saw the roles reversed with Kenneth directing Judi in Henry V.  Those productions were the start of a long working relationship.

2015 The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel with Bill Nighy

If I may step out of the timeline for a minute, let’s face it…I’m writing so I can do as I please, Kenneth and Judi have worked together on seven films. The first, Henry V, saw Kenneth directing and playing the title role with Judi playing Mistress Quickly. There was a similar relationship with 1996’s Hamlet; Kenneth directing and playing the title role, Judi playing Hecuba. Then there was a break until 2011 when they appeared together in My Week With Marilyn. This time Kenneth was just playing Sir Laurence Olivier while Judi played Dame Sybil Thorndike.

You Are Funny Looking, Monsieur Poirot

In 2017 we saw Kenneth directing Murder On The Orient Express. KB played Hercule Poirot while JB was Princess Dragomiroff. Branagh, Dench, and Christie are quite an entertaining combination. But Judi and Kenneth have always had Shakespeare as their first love. Perhaps unsurprisingly 2018 saw them starring together in All Is True, a beautifully filmed fiction about the final few years of Shakespeare’s life. They played William and Anne Shakespeare, Kenneth directed.

2017 Victoria And Abdul with Ali Fazal

In 2020 we were all suffering from lockdown fever and hoping for something to entertain us. Kenneth directed an adaptation of one of my favourite YA novels, Artemis Fowl. There was a gender switch and Judi played Commander Julius Root. As both I and Jilly have said, this was not a good film and did nothing to ease the lock down woes. However, their latest collaboration is a completely different kettle of fish.

And Still They Work Together

Belfast is a film telling the story of a young boy growing up in Belfast during the start of The Troubles that blighted life there for thirty years. Put like that, and Belfast doesn’t sound an enjoyable experience; it is, however, immensely enjoyable and up lifting. The young boy in question is based on Kenneth Branagh’s early years and he only actually appears in an alternate ending. He did write, direct, and win an Oscar for his screenplay. Dame Judi plays his grandmother.

2018 All Is True with Kenneth Branagh

Anyway, back to the nineties. The early part of that decade saw Dame Judi starring in another successful rom com serial, As Time Goes By. This ran from 1992 to 2005 and comprised of nine seasons and two specials. It tells the story of two lovers who haven’t seen each other for nearly forty years. When they meet up again they are both single again and decide to see how things progress. This time around, Dame Judi’s love interest is the much missed Geoffrey Palmer.

Behave 007

The middle of the decade saw Judi Dench landing the role of M in the James Bond franchise. This was in GoldenEye with Pierce Brosnan as Bond. You may think that there would have been all manner of mutterings regarding “woke nonsense” or whatever the phrase was back then over a female M. However, we had a genuine case of art imitating life. When the film was released, the Director General of the Security Service was, indeed, a woman, Dame Stella Rimington. 

2019 Cats

Dame Judi stayed on as M for eight films if you include the uncredited, video cameo in Spectre. She saw out the Brosnan years and blossomed in the Daniel Craig years. M was, traditionally, almost a peripheral character who came on, gave some plot exposition, and disappeared until the next film. However, in Skyfall, M came much more to the fore and was actually integral to the plot with a big part in the finale.

And The Oscar Goes To…

During her tenure as M, Dame Judi played a couple of real life queens. In 1997 she played Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown. The following year she played Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare In Love. She was only on screen for under six minutes (5:52 to be precise) across four scenes but it was enough to win her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. 

2020 Artemis Fowl

While writing this article I had the pleasure of hosting RunPee COO Jilly while she was spending time in Europe. One of things we did was, obviously, to watch films together. A particular favourite was, actually, two particular favourites…The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. These were a delightful couple of films in that they were, like Calendar Girls, a showcase of British talent: as well as Judi Dench there was Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, and Celia Imrie.

Still Going Strong

The problem with writing articles about people of the stature of Dame Judi Dench is that you run a very real danger of rabbiting on for hours in a bid to do justice to the sheer volume of quality work that they’ve done over the years. This isn’t helped by the person in question not seeing to show any signs of slowing down! She is still racking up an average of three projects a year…I’ve seen her, in the cinema, eight times since I retired.

2020 Blithe Spirit with Isla Fisher and Dan Stevens

She played Queen Victoria (again) in Victoria And Abdul. At the opposite end of the social and political scale she played Soviet spy Joan Stanley in Red Joan. She was marvellous as Madame Arcati in the 2020 remake of Blithe Spirit; second only to Margaret Rutherford in my humble opinion. And she made up for having to drop out of the stage production of Cats by appearing as Old Deuteronomy in the film version. Incidentally, I enjoyed that film when it came out and still do!

Nobody Ordered

She is also not too self centred to allow herself to have a little fun poked at her. For me, one of the huge pleasures of the lockdown was Staged. For those of you haven’t seen it, it is a comedy series set during the lockdown. The premise is that real life friends David Tennant and Michael Sheen are trying to sort out rehearsals over a video-conferencing system. The series looked, and may well have been, filmed on that software. As the series progressed more and more guest stars popped up until Dame Judi popped up as a schoolma’am-ish character giving David and Michael a verbal clip around the ear. 

2020 Staged with David Tennant and Michael Sheen

She also has an, almost, split second cameo in Spirited. A song had a lyric which goes “Deplore them with decorum like you’re Judi bloody Dench” and the original plan was to get a lookalike until someone suggested asking the dame herself. Well, as they say…if you don’t ask, you don’t get. They asked, she was game, and so was born one of the funniest, most jaw dropping cameos ever. It also goes to show why she is one of our most treasured of national treasures.

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