Wrapped up in a cosy woollen scarf, Dame Judi Dench reclines in a spotless cream armchair. Silver-haired, blue eyes sparkling, she looks like she’s about to read me a story, not talk to me over Zoom about her latest film, Allelujah. I feel like saying, “Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin”, like that classic British show, Jackanory, when famous people read out fairytales to the nation’s children.
Dame Judi has, of course, been on it – just one of the many things that’s helped her to become a bona fide global treasure.
She’s speaking from her home in Outwood, Surrey, where she’s lived for the past two decades. Outside the window is her pride and joy, her garden. “I’m absolutely mad about trees, mad about them,” she confides. “All my friends who are no longer with us, they’ve got trees in the garden. I plant them, and there’s a little sign on them.” It’s a way of remembrance, and a marker for her friends who have lost someone. “It’s lovely for me, but I think it can be a comfort for somebody, perhaps.”
She’s 88 years old now, with a needle-sharp wit still very much intact. In person, she speaks in sweet, sing-song tones. But you only have to look at her on screen to see just how chilly she can be, making the blood run cold. Think of her squaring up to Daniel Craig in the recent James Bond films, in which she played 007’s MI6 boss, M. Or, further back, her powerful portrait of Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare In Love, the film that won her an Oscar for just eight minutes of screen time.
Modesty still preserved, she’s grateful to still be working after a career that stems all the way back to 1957, when she joined The Old Vic Theatre Company. Last year, she gave a touching (and Oscar-nominated) turn in Kenneth Branagh’s Oscar-winning Belfast. “I just … I love working,” she says. “I’ve always had the thing [where you] think, ‘Oh, I’ll never be asked to do anything else again. This will be the last time’, and then been very, very glad when something else has come along. And the more different it is, of course, the more challenging it is.”
Her new film comes adapted from the 2018 play by the brilliant Alan Bennett, the playwright behind The Madness of King George and The History Boys.
“I have never done an Alan Bennett play before. I’ve been the most huge fan of his for years and years,” she remarks. Better still, the film was being directed by her old friend, Richard Eyre, who she’s worked with repeatedly both on screen and stage. “So, it was like a heaven sent part for me to play. And I seized it with both hands. And I’m very glad I did so.”
A typically waspish comedy from Bennett, Allelujah is all set around a fictional West Yorkshire hospital affectionately known as ‘The Beth’. It’s about to close, due to government cutbacks, despite protests from the patients, relatives, supporters and staff. Comedienne Jennifer Saunders plays the no-nonsense Sister Gilpin, who is obsessed about cleanliness on her ward (heaven forbid if you accidentally wet the bed). She is joined by resident physician Dr Valentine, played by upcoming actor Bally Gill (Slow Horses).
Judi plays Mary, a former librarian who is now on the geriatric ward. When I ask how convivial the shoot was – she also shares scenes with Sir Derek Jacobi, her co-star from the 2017 Agatha Christie adaptation Murder on the Orient Express – she blushes. “Well, not in my area … not in my corner of the room, because I was just sitting there with Bally Gill … having to fancy Bally Gill a lot! And do The Times crossword. Well, The Times crossword is not easy. Fancying Bally Gill is very, very easy indeed!”
This is typical of Judi, who has a naughty sense of humour. I tell her that I’ve heard she has a terrible habit of giggling on set. “Excuse me!” she says, mock outrage on her face. “Who is spreading these rumours? Certainly not! Certainly not! It’s never true! I’ve got one of those rather high levels – maybe it’s nerves.
I don’t know. But I can find a lot of humour in a lot of things, sometimes [things] that are very serious. And I’ve got myself into severe trouble for it. I don’t do it intentionally. But thank goodness I have a rather extensive sense of humour, and I find some quite serious things quite funny!”
For all its amusing one-liners, Allelujah is also a battle cry for the embattled British medical profession. During COVID, when the public stood on their doorsteps weekly to clap the workers in the National Health Service, Judi joined in. She feels we should still be applauding these first responders.
“If anything good came out of COVID it was people being made aware of the fact that we have that situation and that we are blessed with having places where people are looked after and long may it last. We now appreciate much more the work that they do. And quite right that we should do.”
It’s no surprise she feels this way. Judi’s father, Reginald, who came from Dorset but grew up in southern Ireland, worked as a doctor. He met her mother, Eleanora, while he was studying medicine at Trinity College, Dublin. After they married, they moved to York, not far from where Allelujah was partly filmed, and it was here where Judi was born and raised.
As well as being a local physician, her father was also a GP, or General Practitioner, for the York Theatre group. The arts and compassion seemed to go hand-in-hand for Judi, who also grew up a Quaker.
This religion has guided her throughout her life. “That’s something I can’t do without and that was a personal decision for me a long, long time ago, and it was very important to me,” she says. Her late actor-husband, Michael Williams, was a Catholic. Shortly before they married in 1971, someone told her to convert to Catholicism. But a close friend of theirs, Oxford University lecturer Thomas Corbishley, told them otherwise. “He said, ‘No, no, no – you mustn’t convert. On the page you may not meet, but off the page, you do.’ And that was a wonderfully quiet, sensitive, loving thing to say.”
When they married, Judi was the darling of British theatre, having given a remarkable performance as Sally Bowles in Cabaret a couple of years earlier. Later, she starred with Michael in marital sitcom A Fine Romance in the 1980s, though it wouldn’t be until a decade later that she started to conquer film. At 63, she won her first Oscar nomination (the first of eight) for playing Queen Victoria in 1997s Mrs Brown. By this point, she’d also given her inaugural turn as M in GoldenEye. “Mikey, my husband, longed to live with a Bond woman! He longed for it!” she chuckles.
Although Michael sadly passed away in 2001, Judi has maintained a strong support network around her. She’s got their daughter, actress Finty Williams, 50, close by. Then there’s her grandson, Sam. “I just love the company of my family and friends,” she says. “I love it. And I find it’s essential. And as the years go on, I find it even more essential and I’m very needy about it.” But she also keeps herself alert and active. “To be able to do something new is for me thrilling … I’ve always been very curious. And just finding out about things you may not know about, that’s very, very good to get you through your days.”
During lockdown, Sam taught her all about social media craze TikTok. A clip of Judi, Finty and Sam, all dancing in perfect harmony, collected well over 1.2 million views. He was a hard taskmaster, she says. “I said, ‘Can’t we film it now?’ He said, ‘No! We’ve got to rehearse it more.’ ‘Have we got it right now?’ He said, ‘Not right enough!'” Recently, Sam has been off doing other things, so Judi has been off the Tok. “He’s not letting me muscle in at all,” she says. “I’ll find a way though. I’ll just find a way of sneaking in there with something.”
Unlike some of the characters in Allelujah, ageing is not something that Judi has let dominate her life. “I don’t think about it. Just keeping well … if you possibly can is [beneficial]. It’s a number. Getting old is a number. If you’re in your eighties, you don’t have to act like you’re in your eighties. You can get up in the morning and think, ‘I’ll fool everybody today and they’ll think I’m in my sixties … or twenties!’ I don’t dwell on it too much.”
She is a shining example of how to stay positive as you get older. Since 2012, Judi has been dealing with macular degeneration, her eyesight worsening. How has she managed? “Well, it’s hard to adapt,” she tells me. “I just cope with it. I cope with it and get by, and I’ve got terribly good friends. And my family, of course. I don’t think about it much. I have to apologise to people in case I go up to the wrong person and say ‘Hello!’ Or say ‘Hello’ to somebody and I have no idea who they are.” She feels doctors will find a cure one day. “There will be an answer to it. But I don’t know when that answer will be … but I think there will be. Roll on, I say.”
WATCH BELOW: Judi Dench’s TikTok dance with her grandson
Determined and resolute, Judi was never going to let an impairment quash her adventurous spirit. Back in 2019 she hosted the documentary series Judi Dench’s Wild Borneo Adventure. “We had a wonderful time in Borneo, we were so lucky,” she sighs. She’s passionate about ecology. David Mills, her “chap” since 2010 (she doesn’t like the term ‘partner’), founded the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey in 1997. A former dairy farmer, David won numerous awards for his pedigree cows before later dedicating his life to wildlife conservation.
I wonder if she feels it’s crucial to use her voice to raise awareness for issues? “Well, I think that’s what our job is, in a way. I think if somebody could come to a play or a film and see a kind of answer to a solution or a problem of theirs … and they may do it subconsciously. Sometimes of course, something you do might make people very angry. But at least it’s a living emotion.” Has she made anyone angry recently? “Well, perhaps they haven’t told me!” she giggles.
She’s championed everything from The Rainforest Foundation to Women Against Lung Cancer, a reminder of the terrible disease that took her husband. Just last week, she lent her “wholehearted support” to a group campaigning to lift a ban on disabled parking in pedestrianised areas in her native York. “As someone living with sight loss, I know only too well how gaining access to places can be exceptionally difficult,” she said.
Ahead of King Charles’ coronation in May, she’s also backing the Coronation Champion Awards, which will reward the work of British volunteers who have contributed to their communities. The Queen Consort, Camilla, is also behind the scheme.
“It’s wonderful,” says Judi. “I mean, what they’re doing [celebrating] the work that young people are doing. It’s wonderful that we should be celebrating at the same time as we have a new king, and it should be a time, I think, for celebration. So many good things are being done. And it’s good to remember.”
Whether she will be further involved in the celebrations she doesn’t say. Her insatiable curiosity has recently seen her go back to the drawing board – literally. “I trained as a designer,” she explains. “And I used to draw a lot. And now I’ve been required to do some drawings for something” – intriguingly, she doesn’t say what – “and I had to find a different way of doing it. Because of my eyesight. I probably have found a way. Whether it’s good enough or whether it’s acceptable, I don’t know. But I’m going to go on trying.”
Could she be any more inspirational?
Allelujah is in cinemas from April 6.
You can read this story and many others in the March issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now.