Miriam Margolyes: the ultimate character actress for Dickens

MIRIAM Margolyes limps down bustling Quay Street in Sydney's Haymarket district, trundling a little suitcase on wheels.

No one notices this little hobbit of a woman with her wild briar patch of grey curls; indeed, this celebrated British character actress might as well be wearing an invisibility cloak.

But when she marches up to the front desk of the hotel she's checking into this morning, it's a different story. Out of that small frame comes a startlingly big voice - crystal clear, impeccably inflected, and honed to perfection by childhood elocution lessons. "What level is my room, please?" she booms across the foyer to the startled desk clerk. Bellhops and hotel guests jump.

Voices are people, Margolyes once said. If that's the case, many lives are crammed into that dumpling body of hers. Upstairs in her hotel room, she spools them out one by one: a drunken Victorian nurse, an aristocratic English twit, an outraged middle-class Indian. "Voices betray people perhaps in ways that they never imagine," she says with brisk authority. "People think if they've done their face and clothes, it's all fine, but the voice shows everything. It shows background, education, regional particulars, what they're trying to emulate. I think of Robert Maxwell, the newspaper man who was a bit of a crook. He was a Czechoslovakian Jew who was trying to be an English gentleman and all of that you can hear in his voice."

At 70, Margolyes resembles an unruly child, mischief sparkling from those penny-round brown eyes. She's earthy, engagingly blunt, funny and fiercely political. She once mooned Warren Beatty on the set of Reds and flashed her breasts at Martin Scorsese and the crew on the set of The Age of Innocence ("it had been a long day, I thought they needed cheering up"); her unstoppable chatter has even earned her the ire of the Queen, no less, who told her curtly "to be quiet" at a function at Buckingham Palace.

She swears freely, snorts, cackles, is startlingly candid about her politics, her flaws, her enemies (John Cleese and Bill Oddie, principally). Margolyes is, as you expect, an entertaining study.

She has just started a return Australian tour of her popular one-woman show Dickens' Women, part of worldwide celebrations marking the bicentenary of Dickens's birth. A self-confessed Dickens tragic from the time she read Oliver Twist at age 10, she developed the show with co-writer and director Sonia Fraser and launched it at the Edinburgh Festival in 1989. It features 23 female characters with biographical links to Dickens's life, and opens with the drunken midwife Mrs Gamp (possibly her favourite, she thinks: "she's got that mixture of evil and comedy that is particularly Dickensian"), and closes with the haunting figure of Miss Flite, the elderly eccentric from Bleak House; in between come Miss Havisham, Mrs Micawber and scores of others, all now old, cherished friends she talks to daily. "They are real to me."

Her passion for their creator is infectious. As a young Jewish child "outside the English class structure", as she puts it, she was subconsciously drawn to Fagin and the other rank outsiders and misfits of Oliver Twist; as an elderly, overweight gay woman, she still feels a keen affinity for the florid grotesques, orphans and eccentrics of Dickens's richly imagined worlds. She's drawn, too, to the larger-than-life, typically Georgian nature of his characters - "they had big, fat cheeks and jowls, they were portly, or rake-thin and witchlike. I find it easy to step into that world because I myself am a slightly excessive person. I'm too fat, I'm too noisy, I'm a little bit in excess in every department.

"Directors are always saying to me, 'a bit less, Miriam'. And with Dickens, you don't have to do that."

The show is no hagiography: Margolyes is keenly conscious of Dickens's misogynistic streak. "He felt betrayed by women, so his depictions of women are tinged by a kind of rage, a malevolence sometimes." Yet she speaks of the writer with a mix of intimacy and reverence, as if he were a respected contemporary.

In this sunny Sydney hotel room she conjures up his early life in rich detail. Suddenly you see a ghostly picture of a small boy bringing food to his parents in prison, waking up at 4am to trudge to work across a London peopled by drunks "screwing on the ground", footsore workers, wailing hungry children, wealthy people in carriages. "He saw it all. And he never really lost the eye of the child, gazing at things and documenting it first in his mind, then on the page."

Her passion for the author is such that she is a regular attendee at one of the quirkiest academic events on the Dickens-lover's calendar - the annual week-long Dickens Universe conference run by the University of California in Santa Cruz. Described by a critic as a "immersive summer camp . . . with a general air of Dickensian jollity", it is a slightly eccentric, loving homage to all things Dickens.

"It's a unique gathering of enthusiasts, both scholarly and amateur, who gather in the seductive environment of the Santa Cruz campus to study a book in detail, with graduate students, professors and anyone who loves Charles Dickens," Margolyes says.

"It's true that there are a smattering of eccentrics, as you might expect, but no more than at any literary conference. The accommodation is all on campus, student apartments are shared, discussions go late into the night. There are costume balls, Victorian tea parties, magic lantern shows and for five days, we're hurtling in a glorious Dickens explosion."

IN some way, you sense Margolyes still harbours a vestigial sense of being an outsider, that, despite all her plaudits (she was awarded an OBE in 2002), she remains the little girl, who like Dickens himself, craved a higher place on the social ladder.

Born into an aspirational, secular Jewish family in West Ham, in London's East End, on May 18, 1941, she was the only child of a physician, Joseph, of Belarusian descent, and his wife Ruth. She was conceived during an air-raid ("I came into being in an explosion") and the family home was later bombed, prompting a move to the safer surrounds of Oxford.

Her mother, a "ballsy", shrewd, extrovert who left school at 14, was a vital influence, giving Margolyes an unquenchable self-confidence; her father was deeply conventional, with a locked-up interior life that remained a mystery to her all her life.

"I think somehow he was always afraid that the door would shut in his face. But if he was frightened by life, she was not." She pauses. "Without a question I get my confidence from her."

Margolyes certainly had chutzpah in spades. At 17 she modelled nude for Augustus John; she suspects her parents allowed her only because they weren't too sure about what it involved. "Also, they had seen him on the television and knew he was a very famous painter, and I think they thought it would be nice for Miriam to meet someone so exalted."

I'm struck that a teenage girl could be so confident about her body image. She grimaces and says "well, I wouldn't do it now, because my body is a bloody awful body. But back then, I wasn't nervous at all. All I wanted was to do it expertly. I didn't want to be fumbling around. So I practised taking off my clothes, and I thought, 'I'll wear a dress so I can take it off in one easy movement. I'll just take off my knickers then, and I'm not going to wear stockings, so it will be as easy as anything.' " She grins; her plan came unstuck when John got her to climb a ladder. "That I didn't expect."

Margolyes's canny mother invited the eminent intellectual Isaiah Berlin, a patient of her father's, to dinner and got him to act as a referee for her daughter's application to Cambridge. Margolyes still finds it "very moving that she would know from the depths of her ignorance about intellectual things that here was the one person in the world that no university would turn back."

It was a rarefied, intimidating new world. Her tutors included F.R. Leavis; peers included Clive James and Germaine Greer. Determined to cut a dash, Margolyes stalked around smoking a pipe and wearing a fur hat, and turned up for her final examinations in evening dress and carrying an apple. "I thought that if I was going to fail - I didn't - I'm going to go out with a bang."

She was the only woman in the 1962 Cambridge Footlights Revue, acting alongside the likes of Cleese and Oddie, neither of whom, she says, were "terribly nice boys". Their hostile silence, fuelled by a dislike of her outspokenness and confidence, left deep scars. Some bridges were mended this year after she sent a congratulatory email to former Goodies star Tim Brooke-Taylor, another Footlights contemporary, after he and Graeme Garden were awarded OBEs. "I didn't write to Bill, because I don't like Bill, but I wrote to Tim, who wrote back a really sweet email. He had no idea that everybody had been so awful. I felt considerably healed as a result of that."

She screws up her face. "But Cleese still doesn't like me. And I don't like him."

After university, Margolyes auditioned for the BBC drama department and began her career doing radio roles, commercials and voiceover work. She moved into television, featuring in everything from Blackadder with Rowan Atkinson ("a lovely man, very private, an introvert") to The Life and Loves of a She-Devil and Oliver Twist. In film, a breakthrough early role came in Yentl in 1983 and many, many followed, including Scorsese's The Age of Innocence and two Harry Potter films. She's built an extensive audio book career, done children's films (she was the voice of Fly in Babe, among other things) and forged a prolific stage career (credits range from Samuel Beckett's Endgame to the West End and Broadway productions of Wicked).

She feels "phenomenally lucky. You know, I'm very clear-eyed about the fact I'm not a beautiful woman, I'm not what you think of as an actress. But I've managed to make a career, and it's been a very satisfying one." Still, there are frustrations: that she's never been invited to perform at the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company, that she's often overlooked for more serious, substantial roles.

She can certainly act: Pamela Rabe, who performed with her in Gertrude Stein and a Companion in Australia in 1987, hailed "her wonderful mix of fearlessness and vulnerability"; her turn as Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit for Melbourne Theatre Company was praised. And when she appeared in the Gale Edwards-directed The Way of the World for Sydney Theatre Company her Lady Wishfort was glorious, said The Australian's, critic John McCallum.

She sighs. "I think I'm recognised for one thing, and I want to be recognised for something else, and that's just greedy. I think - but I hope not - that I may just have to settle for the smiles that I've got."

Margolyes is far more contemplative and vulnerable than you'd imagine. She fears rejection and loneliness, confesses to suffering "very badly" from stage fright, though "it goes once onstage". Asked about this more uncertain private self, she pauses. "Well, I mean, I wouldn't just want to be the naughty Miriam. I have to be aware of the dark side of life, otherwise I wouldn't be a fully-rounded, serious human being and I hope I am."

It strikes me as as desperately sad that she said recently her weight bothers her "hugely. It has overshadowed and crushed my life." She shrugs. "I don't know what sort of life I would have had if I had not been as heavy as I am now, but it would have been different. I am irritated that I'm still a fat old woman. I am frustrated. I only have myself to blame. You know what they say - you dig your grave with your knife and fork."

In 1967, Margolyes revealed her homosexuality to her mother; three days later, her mother had a stroke and remained in an almost wordless prison for seven years until she died in 1974. She's since come to deeply regret the disclosure. "And that's because I don't think I should ever achieve my own happiness at the expense of someone else's. A lot of gay people want to come out because it's more comfortable for them, but they are not aware of the misery they can cause the parents or whoever. I loved my parents deeply and I didn't mean to cause them the pain that I caused them, but I did cause them pain." She lifts her chin. "So I say, shut up. If it's going to hurt someone, it's better that it hurts you than someone else."

It's a controversial view, but then again, Margolyes has never been a stranger to controversy. Among other things, she's lost friends and angered the Jewish community with her strident support for Palestine. "It's a terrible thing to feel that things are being done in your name which are wicked, and they are. I feel outraged and deeply ashamed, and I'm hoping that sense will prevail. And so I speak. It does make me unpopular, but I do it because I'm very proud of being Jewish. Well, I want to be proud of it, and I can't be at the moment."

Talk turns to lighter things - her passion for doing up houses, food and genealogy. Margolyes is an obsessive hunter of roots and anchors, and has spent years "pushing aside stones" looking for members of her clan around the world. She's been with her partner, Heather, an Australian-born professor of Indonesian studies, for more than 40 years, and in 1999 they bought a home in the Southern Highlands of NSW after falling in love with the area while filming Babe (Margolyes is an Australian resident). Filled with artwork and collectibles, it provides the solitude she craves. She also has a house in Tuscany, so where is home?

"Well, at the moment, home is London. And I hope one day, it will be Australia because I do feel at home here and I love coming here - people are adorable to me. Of course there are some things I'm critical of [she says sternly that 'we drink too much'], but it's a good country."

She shows no signs of slowing down. Among other things she will appear in the Phryne Fisher murder mystery series for ABC1 next year, based on the novels of Kerry Greenwood. Her future work projects and plans? "To continue working in good plays, to travel, to keep speaking out about Palestine, keep meeting rellies I haven't yet found. To lose weight!"

And with that, Miriam Margolyes stands up, smiles and shakes my hand firmly. "Lovely to meet you. Goodbye. I have to go and have a wee-wee now."

Dickens' Women, Sydney until February 12; Adelaide February 15-17; Canberra, February 23-25; Melbourne, February 29-March 3; then an extensive Australian tour ending in Newcastle on April 28.

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