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Best of British Biographies – Miriam Margolyes

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Some actors are known for their stage careers, others for their film and TV work. Some actors are known for their vocal versatility or their commitment to radically change their physique through diet and/or exercise. Still others are renowned either for the beauty or the character of their appearance.

A rare, special few are none of those and, at the same time, all of them. Even fewer embody both ends of a spectrum; a stridently Jewish atheist and an openly proud lesbian with world-class fellatio skills. In this case, I’m referring to the national treasure that is Miriam Margolyes.

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Miriam Margolyes was born in Oxford in 1941 to Jewish parents; her mother was a property investor and developer and her father a physician. She was an only child and, as a result, was the centre of her own world and became a bit of a performer. She was the centre of what her mother described as a “fortress family”; they were each other’s protection and strength.

Suddenly I Am Eighty

During her childhood, she was the sort of child that other children are amused and enthralled by while teachers are sometimes amused and at other times deeply vexed by. I knew children like her when I was a teacher. Part of you is thinking, “What the hell are they going to do next,” while, at the same time, you’re thinking, “This’ll make a cracking tale back in the staff room.”

1963 – University Challenge

So it’s not surprising that Ms Margolyes went on to become an actor — what is unusual is the path she took to get there. It was a trip to the cinema when she was sixteen that made her think she might like to turn to acting as a profession.  The film was Les Enfants du Paradis and she was intoxicated by the way that the theatre was portrayed and how it was central to the art world.

Unlike a lot of dramatic luminaries, Miriam Margolyes wasn’t a member of the RSC or the National Theatre, nor attended RADA. She said, “I don’t think that I’ve achieved what I hoped because I’ve never been at the National Theatre, I’ve never been at the Royal Shakespeare Company. I feel infuriated that I haven’t achieved what I’d hoped.” She did, however, join another crucible of entertainment talent…Footlights. 

I’m Not The Sort Of Woman Men Boast Of Having Slept With

For those unaware, Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club is an amateur theatrical club. It was founded in 1883 but it wasn’t until the 1960s that it came to prominence. Beyond The Fringe, The Frost Report, Monty Python, The Goodies, Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, The IT Crowd, I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, and many more were all formed by Footlights alumni. A quick look through a list of former Footlights members will reveal a lot of very famous and familiar names. 

1964 – Footlights with Eric Idle and Graeme Garden amongst others.

To be honest though, Miriam didn’t have a particularly pleasant time whilst there. She wasn’t especially welcomed. Partly because she was a woman (it was the early sixties), but mainly because she kept getting laughs at a time when the women on stage were meant to be the punchline rather than deliver them. It was a couple of years later in 1964 when Germain Greer became a full member; actually the year after Miriam left. Some of the heroes of the comedy creations listed above were particularly nasty to her.

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One other claim to fame from her college days was an appearance on University Challenge representing Newnham College, Cambridge. They won their first round but were knocked out in the second. It was during the broadcasts that Ms Margolyes was stumped by an answer, being stuck on the tip of her tongue and, in frustration, loudly shouted “fuck it”.

Thus she became possibly the first person and definitely the first woman to say “fuck” on national TV in the UK.

I Gave Up Arguing With Young People 50 Years Ago

Following her time in Cambridge, Miriam decided to become an actor. She also decided to capitalise on her greatest talent; her voice, and the range of accents she could command. The obvious place to try and get accepted and make a name for herself was radio drama…and in 1963 she gave what was described as “the most astonishing audition they’d ever heard,” because she had demonstrated so many voices.

1983 – The Black Adder

Years of being an only child had meant that Miriam entertained herself by improvising conversations between different people.

Her audition piece was a conversation in a railway carriage between a range of people; male, female, Scottish, Yorkshire, Brummie, Cockney, Aussie, French, German…all the regions and all the ages.

She showed she was a one woman rep company and had the skills to keep her in the mainstream of the entertainment industry for decades to come.

Miriam had much happier times with later generations of the Oxbridge entertainment alumni. The early eighties saw the first of three guest appearances in the Blackadder saga. She played Infanta Maria Escalosa of Spain in The Black Adder, Lady Whiteadder in Blackadder II, and Queen Victoria in Blackadder’s Christmas Carol.

Luck. Sounds Almost Exactly Like F…

Of course it wasn’t just at the BBC that Ms Margolyes used her talents. She did all manner of voice work; she was the voice of Manikin cigars, all the female voices on the dubbed versions of The Water Margin and Monkey, and the voice behind the Ann Summers erotic tape “Sexy Sonia: Leaves From My Schoolgirl Diary”.

Continuing with the sex worker theme, her first big film role was as Elephant Ethel, a Chinese prostitute, in Stand Up, Virgin Soldiers back in 1977. 

1986 – Blackadder II

This was a film of its time and that time is, in a lot of ways, best forgotten.

The star was Robin Askwith, who was renowned for being a cheeky chappy best known for the ruder, “end of the pier-type” films that were popular back then; Confessions Of A Window Cleaner, Carry On Girls, and Four Dimensions Of Greta to name but a few. Basically, a way of getting some bare flesh on screen without the commitment of full blown pornography.

Small parts followed in prestigious films. Reds, Scrubbers, and Yentl, had her working with the likes of Warren Beatty (who she flashed) and Barbra Streisand (who she didn’t).

From then on Miriam’s film appearances grew and grew in number, length and stature. One of the interesting aspects of researching an article like this is you realise how often you must have seen the person you are writing about without realising it. 

Rex, Dear. He’s Just A Little Pig

Cinema in the eighties tended to be less ubiquitous than it is now. There were fewer multiplexes and more single screen theatres. As a result, unless you lived in a larger city, you tended to miss a lot of films, and only caught up when home video rentals took off.

I now realise that I must have seen Ms Margolyes in Electric Dreams, Morons From Outer Space, Pacific Heights, and Dead Again! I have Pacific Heights in my film collection and thought I’d take a quick look and see if there was a reason why I couldn’t remember her. 

1990 – Pacific Heights with Melanie Griffith and Matthew Modine

Sure enough, at around the five minute mark, there is a scene with an estate agent showing Drake And Patty (Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith) around the house; the centre of the film. The estate agent is, of course, our Miriam.

The reason I never noticed her before is her uncanny command of accents. If I’d heard someone from Oxford describing the property I might have taken more notice. Instead, she sounds like, to my ear anyway, like someone from the West Coast, USA.

Nay, He’s A Flower. In Faith, A Very Flower…

The early nineties continued with Ms Margolyes’ star in the ascendant. She worked with Martin Scorsese on The Age Of Innocence and, a few years later, with Baz Luhrmann as the nurse in his version of Romeo And Juliet, stylised as Romeo + Juliet.

Incidentally…think you don’t like Shakespeare? Don’t make up your mind until after you’ve seen Romeo + Juliet! While the text is, essentially, unchanged the setting has been brought up to date and transported to the West Coast. 

1996 – Romeo + Juliet

Obviously someone with such an immense talent for voices and accents will be called upon to do a lot of voice work for animations and live action/animation hybrids.

As a result, Miriam got her biggest voice role as Fly, the female sheepdog, in Babe and Babe: Pig In The City.

Apparently, Fly was originally recorded with a Scottish accent; being a Scottish Border Collie that made perfect sense to Miriam. However, the suits decided Americans can’t cope with accents and had her flown back, expenses paid and first class, to re-record her with the inferior, mid-Atlantic accent she now has.

The new millennium saw Miriam Margolyes being introduced into the role that has, by her own admission, made her recognised by children around the whole world; Pomona Sprout, head of Hufflepuff House and Professor of Herbology in the Harry Potter franchise.

Prior to being cast, Miriam had never read the Harry Potter books and still hasn’t! She knows enough about the franchise to know that Professor Sprout appears in all the books…but only two of the films.

That is just a waste of talent in my opinion.

Oh, Longbottom’s Been Neglecting His Earmuffs

Incidentally, don’t go up and say that you’re in Gryffindor but you don’t mind that she’s head of Hufflepuff…she won’t care! Incidentally again, I don’t know why there’s such a fuss and palaver about being in Gryffindor, other than that HP himself was in it. Personally, I identify more with Ravenclaw; when all those thousands of letters arrived I wouldn’t have wasted time and energy jumping up and down trying to grab one fluttering around.

I’d have used my little grey cells and picked one up off the floor.

2002 – Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets

But, as happens to us all, age takes its toll. While, as Ms Margolyes herself puts it, she hurtles towards incontinence and immobility, there is still fun to be had. She has found a new lease of life doing documentaries because, “You don’t have to learn lines, you have a licence to be inquisitive and to travel the world – with somebody else paying.”

Throw in two other factors; her vocal talents and Charles Dickens! As a world-renowned voice artist, she will continue to work as long as they can wheel her into a studio.

The other thing that will keep her going is her lifelong love of Dickens. There are a plethora of more mature roles for women and Miriam has a love and vast knowledge for them; she wrote and has performed her show Dickens’ Women all over the world. 

Oh Skittleshins To Mrs Fisk

As if to prove my point, two of her most recent parts were Mrs Fisk in The Man Who Invented Christmas and the voice role of Queen Oofeefa in Early Man.

I do recommend that you grab a copy of her autobiography This Much Is True. Trust me…in reality, she is far more talented, amusing, and filthy than I would ever dare to make up!

2021 – Call the Midwife

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