was named by readers of The Stage in 2010 as ‘the greatest [British] stage actor of all time’. Her characteristic response was ‘It’s one hell of a thing to live up to.’
Mark Oakley found her at home online on 7 March 2022.
Photography: Huw Spanner
Do you enjoy giving interviews?
It depends. I don’t mind it like this, because we’re relaxed.
I’m full of cold at the moment – which is very rare for me, because Daddy was a family doctor and the boys and I never had colds when we were children because we were kind of immune. And now suddenly this has hit me.
You were brought up in York. What was your childhood like?
Unbelievably happy. Unbelievably happy. I spent my time sewing, and my brothers and I were always on roller skates or bikes or swimming.
My mother was Irish, from Dublin; my father had spent most of his life in Ireland. I used to go out with him sometimes in the car, visiting [his patients], and he’d just knock at the door and walk in – and he’d always come away with something, a pheasant or eggs or something like that, which during the war years was absolutely wonderful.
Your mother was involved with the theatre, I believe.
She made costumes for the Mystery Plays when they came round. Daddy was very interested in the theatre, and they both were members of [York Settlement Community Players].1yscp.co.uk I saw my brothers [acting in school plays] when I was very little and we were taken to the theatre all the time. My only dream was to go to the [Old] Vic.
I remember going to see [the Ben Travers farce A] Cuckoo in the Nest at the York Theatre Royal, and a man jumping out of the cupboard at the end of the double bed these two people were in – in their combinations! – and I laughed so much that I made myself sick and my ma had to take me home. But she did take me back to see the end of the play another night.
I’ve been asked a couple of times to do a one-woman show and I’ve said: I couldn’t do that. I don’t even want to contemplate it. I wouldn’t know who to get dressed for
The family was full of people reciting things – my pa could recite the whole of the Morte d’Arthur – and [we were] always very keen on singing and… So, it was very, very creative.
Looking back, what was it that led you into acting?
I always wanted to be a theatre designer, and went to York Art School with that in mind. But Jeff, the second of my two brothers, only ever wanted to be an actor…
Can you remember a moment when you thought: That is what I want to do?
Yes, I absolutely know the moment. Mummy and Daddy and I went to Stratford to see Michael Redgrave in [King] Lear.2theatricalia.com/king-lear/production/ It was the most incredible set, like an enormous poppadom, and it blew my mind. I thought: ‘That’s the kind of designer I would like to be – and I don’t have that in my imagination.’
I mean, that just did it for me.
What was the appeal of acting?
It’s that wonderful feeling of a community of people [working] together, wanting to do something, and then – this is what’s wonderful about the theatre – wanting to do it better the next night. And the next night, better than that.
In Antony and Cleopatra,3theatricalia.com/antony-and-cleopatra/production I knew that there was a line of Cleopatra’s that should get a laugh. We did a hundred performances and on the hundredth I got my laugh. I don’t know that I would have got it on the 101st, but I did that night.
I’ve been asked a couple of times to do a one-woman show and I’ve said: I couldn’t do that. I don’t even want to contemplate it. I wouldn’t know who to get dressed for.
Is acting something you feel you have to do?
Well, it’s something that I’ve chosen to do, and I’m lucky enough to be able to do – and hopefully I might be lucky enough to go on being able to do, but now I can’t read at all any more I have to find a different way of doing it.
It’s a calling. You’re very lucky if you have one, because there are people who don’t have that passionate urge to do something, you know? A lot of people are in things they don’t ever feel that they were cut out for or they enjoy.
Looking back to your earliest roles, what advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t fall in love so much!
What would I tell her? I used to read the critics; I don’t any more. John Neville, who played Hamlet when I went to the Vic [in 1957], told me very early on. You nearly always know when something is not right and you don’t need to open a paper and see a wonderful notice and then open another paper and see a crappy one.
As an actor, you’re asked to portray things you’ve never experienced and you have to draw on something you have witnessed or heard or been told about. You must always be recording things in your head
You know, you have to be honest, you have to be true to your director, you have to be true to the other actors, and you have to get it better yourself.
Are you sensitive to criticism?
Well, because I can’t read any more, it doesn’t affect me any more. I think it would always hurt, but if it was reasonable criticism – not just saying, ‘Oh, I don’t like her!’ There’s nothing you can do about that.
Do you find as an actor that you are constantly an observer?
[I learnt] when I was a young actor that you must, without knowing it, have a little camera here, in your forehead. That’s not to say that when somebody you love very much is dying, say, you’re looking and thinking, ‘Oh, that’s how…’ You know, you’re not doing that, but [the ‘camera’] will record it in your mind, for recall.
As an actor, you’re asked to [portray] things that you’ve never experienced at all and you have to draw on something you have witnessed or heard or been told about… Sometimes, of course, you have to depend entirely on your imagination; but you must always be recording things in your head.
Do your performances come from deep within or are they, as it were, ‘put on’? If acting is about artifice rather than authenticity, I wonder whether it can sometimes injure your sense of self.
No, no, I don’t agree. It’s not about you at all. You are trying to be another person, in another situation – nothing to do with you. You’re the channel for telling Ibsen’s story or…
I’m only saying ‘Ibsen’ because, having just done what I call ‘Who the Hell Do You Think You Are?’,4bbc.co.uk/who-do-you-think-you-are-series-18-2-dame-judi-dench/ I know that the mother of my sixth cousin in Copenhagen was related to Henrik Ibsen, so that’s why I’m giving him a good notice. But, you know, if you’re trying to portray a character, in Ibsen or Chekhov or Alan Ayckbourn or David Hare, you’re a channel for it, but it’s not to do with you.
It’s like: Don’t fall in love with the leading man – unless it’s part of the play.
So, you’ve got your little camera in your forehead. When you play someone bitter and manipulative like Barbara Covett, say, in Notes on a Scandal5Directed by Richard Eyre in 2006 –
Oh, God! I loved every minute of it!
– are you expressing something in your own nature through that character or are you simply reproducing something you’ve observed?
I don’t know. You have to put all the ingredients into the pot of the person that you can think of and then, with your director, you have to know how little or how much of each ingredient to use. Does that make sense? And you work towards that moment when Richard [Eyre] or Peter [Hall] or whoever says, ‘Yes, that’s spot on! That’s exactly it.’
Peter Hall has said that the irony of theatre is that ‘the mask’ brings out the authentic…
I wonder whether actors can find the mask reassuring somehow, in a way that diverts them from attending to their own selves.
I think that’s very true.
When I was at the Vic, I got Asian flu and I went on and played Ophelia and kind of cried the whole way through it. And when I came off, John Neville said to me: Never, ever do that again!
You know, it’s a balance, isn’t it? There are things that you have to take [on stage] with you and there are things that you have to leave in the dressing room for later.
It’s often said that tragedy is cathartic for the audience. Can it be cathartic for the actor?
Sometimes. Sometimes. If you have something to deal with in your own private life – especially if you’re grieving for somebody – the energy of giving a performance, of being another person in another situation and telling their story, can be cathartic, I think.
You can feel quite spent at the end of a performance.
Soon after your husband, Michael [Williams], died, you went to Canada to make The Shipping News6Directed by Lasse Hallström in 2001 and your friends told you: ‘You’re not facing up to your loss.’
I mean, it was a tremendous [challenge], to do it. [My co-star] Kevin Spacey couldn’t have been kinder, more thoughtful… And perhaps just having the energy to do it was quite good for me, actually.
I did three films very quickly, one after another. I did The Importance [of Being Earnest]7Directed by Oliver Parker in 2002 straight after it, within a week or two; and then I think I did something else – I can’t remember.8She completed work on Iris (directed by Richard Eyre) during the making of The Shipping News. Later in 2002, she starred in Die Another Day, directed by Lee Tamahori. It was using up that great well of – not that the well felt any less, or the pain was any less, but at least the grief that it engendered, which becomes a kind of despair, was kind of used up.
And also you were back in a community of people, rather than sitting at home with your grief.
Yes, that’s right.
[The critic] Benedict Nightingale once described theatre as ‘a sort of gymnasium for the imagination’.9thetimes.co.uk/article/ It isn’t just entertainment that you’re offering as an actor, is it?
It’s a diversion, maybe, for people who want to get away from reality – God, don’t we all now? – and just forget themselves for a few hours and be immersed in something else.
Sometimes it can be an illumination – if you’re very lucky – for one person in that audience…
Acting was once a rather disreputable profession, but today some actors are looked to as moral guides, as seers, as political movers and shakers. How do you feel about that side of celebrity? Is it a good thing, or a distraction from your true vocation?
I loathe that word. I absolutely loathe it.
[To call someone] a ‘celebrity’ [makes them] sound so much better than anybody else – or so much grander, or tinsellier, or… You know, you think: Oh my God, you’ve got to shine and be all red nails and red lipstick. And I don’t want that. I don’t want it.
I really don’t think of myself as a celebrity. I think of myself as an actor who has been fortunate to have done a lot of things. I’m really quite a private person, actually.
I could wake in the middle of the night and recall reams of Shakespeare. I could do the whole of the Dream for you now, or Twelfth Night. Not so much of The Merchant of Venice – I don’t like the play much
You don’t feel obliged to use your fame to help some cause?
I don’t know… If there are ways that I can help practically in any situation, then yes – and of course I’ll do The Graham Norton Show, because he’s a great friend of mine. But I don’t want to just be ‘out there’. It sounds so pious, doesn’t it, to say [that] unless you can actually do something…
I don’t want to just be there to be a ‘name’.
Can we talk about Shakespeare?
We certainly can! [As I learnt from Who Do You Think You Are?,] I am related to Tycho Brahe, the famous Danish astronomer, and in his family tree are two people named Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
I used to live in Denmark and you certainly look Danish.
Well, that’s what we found out: I’ve got a lot of Danish relations.
You’ve played many of Shakespeare’s greatest female roles.10Notably, Juliet in 1960, Lady Macbeth in 1963 and 1976, Viola in 1963, Titania in 1968 and 2010, Portia in 1971, Beatrice in 1976 and Cleopatra in 1987. Do you feel that you know him? Do you think that’s possible?
During lockdown, I [could] wake up in the middle of the night and recall reams of Shakespeare. I could do the whole of the Dream for you now, or Twelfth Night. I can remember reams of Hamlet, of Measure for Measure. Not so much of The Merchant of Venice – I don’t like the play much. It’s strange, isn’t it? I don’t remember A Winter’s Tale, but the ones I did earlier I do remember. And the sonnets…
Many people today say they have no time for Shakespeare.
I heard a young person the other day say: ‘I’d like to see that play, but is it in that Shakespeare language?’
How do you react to that?
Well, they only need to see one thing that absolutely fires their imagination. That Shakespeare language can completely change your mind, if it’s done well. It has to be spoken well, I think.
I mean, there’s every reference you would ever need in Shakespeare, to everything that either has occurred or is about to occur or… You suddenly realise that Shakespeare summed it up in one line, you know?
You have a new partner now, the conservationist David Mills…
I don’t say ‘partner’, because I loathe that word. I just say ‘chap’.
Is love in later life different from before?
Oh, it’s always different, isn’t it? Always, always, always. With everybody. It’s never, ever the same. Never.
But it makes you happy?
Yes, it does make me happy. I feel very fortunate to have, you know, somebody to have a good laugh with. We don’t live together or anything, but it’s just very, very nice to have somebody who is such a good friend.
It’s the quietness inside of Quakerism that I love. It’s like having a completely quiet core, where everything can somehow be considered and retained. Somewhere that’s completely private…
I think that a friend is where your loose ends find a home.
Yes. Because you put up with [each other’s] loose ends.
I have a lot of good friends. A lot of really good friends. I’m very, very lucky.
It’s interesting that ever since your school days you’ve been drawn to a spiritual tradition where people call each other ‘Friend’.
Yes. That’s essential.
You’ve said in the past that Quakerism is for you something indispensable.
I tried to go to Meeting yesterday for the first time in God knows how long, but because of my cold I didn’t go, which was very upsetting but there we are. I will go when I can.
Actually, the last time I was in Meeting was last July. We were in Cornwall and there’s a wonderful place called Come-to-Good near Truro, where we’d been before. David rang [the Friends there] and said, ‘I don’t suppose you’re going to be there on Sunday?’ and they said, ‘Come along just before half past 10’ and we went and three of them turned up and we had a meeting together, the five of us, sitting very dispersed in this glorious old Meeting House. And it was… well, it was wonderful.
What is it you value so much?
It’s the sharing with other people without stating something. It’s knowing that that group of people have come into the room with the intention just to be together and to be aware of what is created by being together.
It’s the quietness inside that I love. It’s like having a little completely quiet core, where somehow things that you observe, things that you hear about, things that people tell you, everything, can be considered and retained. Somewhere that’s completely quiet and private, like a Meeting that you have in your innermost being.
I can’t do without that. I couldn’t be without it.
How does that ‘completely quiet core’ relate to your work? Is it where you keep in touch with yourself?
I don’t know. I don’t know. I just know that it’s there – and that by going to Meeting it gets restored.
Michael was a practising Catholic, wasn’t he?
We kind of complemented each other.
Did you find that contrast easy to live with?
Oh yes, yes, yes, of course!
One of the attractions of the Quaker tradition is that it’s not so institutionalised. We’re all aware of the negatives of institutionalised religion, but can you see positives, too?
Of course I can! Of course.
I think everybody needs assurance – or they need to hear something which perhaps they have heard many times before but they need to be reassured. I just love going into a church and hearing a choir and the organ playing and that kind of resonance. I adore going to evensong. We were in Winchester not long ago and we walked [into the cathedral] and it was absolutely wonderful!
And, there again, I remember every prayer I ever learnt in the church. And that’s so useful.
Do you pray? Or meditate?
Yes, both those things – because it gives me a quietness of soul.
Meditating is, I think, just stopping for a minute and taking stock of oneself when there’s a lot of other things [going on].
That’s why Meeting is so wonderful. You know, sometimes it is an hour without anybody getting up to say anything. The silence drops. You feel it drop. People don’t understand that, I don’t think, until they go… But it just descends. It’s wonderful!
Is ‘God’ a word you use?
Some Quakers prefer other words, don’t they? ‘
God’ is the [term] that I’ve kind of grown up to use, but of course I would be open to using others.
What does the word ‘God’ mean for you?
Have you got a couple of days? What does it mean? What does it mean?
It means something that is entirely essential. That’s what it means. Something that I can’t do without.
If God is essential, does that mean that God is a reality?
A reality? A reality would somehow be embodied as something and I don’t see God… Embodied in symbols, yes, but not… I mean, I just feel it as… I keep saying, ‘an essential’… an essential piece of… an essential… Oh, this is very hard. Mark, honestly! A sense. An essential sense, and assurance…
I don’t know. I’m hopeless.
How is the Quaker tradition of pacifism shaping your response to what’s going on at the moment in Ukraine?
Well… You try, don’t you, to be open to both sides of an argument. You try to see the other person’s point of view.
Lockdown has made me very anxious. I know a lot of other people who feel the same, because the rhythm has gone. And now the whole world is shifting and – well, it is very, very unnerving
It’s not a good week to ask me this.
Why is that?
Lockdown has made me very anxious and I feel that my rhythm has gone a bit – well, a lot. And then we have Russia and Ukraine and there’s so much to – well, not even come to terms with. I now can’t watch the News at 10 at all. Of course you feel impotent – there’s nothing you can do, except send money to charities.
But I don’t know. I don’t know. I just don’t know.
How has lockdown made you anxious?
I don’t know. I find it very anxious-making to go to London – where my daughter and grandson are, for goodness’ sake! I know a lot of other people who feel the same – not about going to London, but they feel a kind of anxiety, you know, because the rhythm has gone.
You know, things were arranged to do, jobs were arranged, and they’ve got pushed [aside] and… So, there’s not a centre. You know, it’s all shifting.
And now the whole world is shifting and I think – well, it is very, very unnerving.
You need to go to Meeting…
That is unbelievably important to me. That may be why I’ve gone a bit wobbly during lockdown, because we haven’t been. The needle has gone off-centre a bit.
Your Quakerism is your compass?
Yes, it is!
There’s a great sense that things are falling apart, I think. Things we had thought were fairly secure we’re discovering are not.
It’s true. It’s absolutely true.
Do you think that the arts can help to put things back together again?
I do believe that. For some people. There are some who don’t have access to [the arts] in any way, but yes, I do believe that. If you can make people perhaps not be so aware of what’s happening for two-and-a-half hours or whatever, that is some help. Not much, but some.
You’ve referred to your failing eyesight…
I go up to people in the street and say, ‘Hello! How lovely to see you!’ and I’ve never met them before in my life!
But I’ve read that you hate the very thought of retirement.
You can cut that out. You can cut that right out.
Laughing has got me into a lot of trouble, one way and another, but it’s essential. Just being with people who you can say anything to and they can say anything to you – we’re so lucky if any of us have that
So, retirement’s out of the question?
No, you’ve said it again, Mark. Come on!
Do you think about death?
I can’t talk about it.
But you think about it.
Yes. Who doesn’t?
And so much of your work is concerned with it, surely, in one way or another.
It’s about life, too, isn’t it? It’s also about attitude and circumstance and dealing with all sorts of things. H’mm. That’s all I’ve got to say about that.
You must sometimes wonder what you’ll be remembered for. What would you like to be remembered for?
Laughing, I think.
That’s a really important part of your chemistry.
It’s got me into a lot of trouble – a lot of trouble, one way and another – but it’s essential. Just being with people who make you laugh, who you can say anything to and they can say anything to you and – well, you know, we’re so lucky if any of us have that.
And the connection that comes with laughing together.
With laughter comes love, I think. Probably. I’ve never thought of it before, but I suppose it’s true. Unless you’re laughing at someone’s expense, in which case it’s not love!
Do you consider yourself a hopeful person?
I’ve never even thought of it. Am I a hopeful person? Ultimately, I suppose, I am.
Laughter is hopeful.
I know. Well, until we see the news again!
Thank you for talking to me.
I’ve loved it. It’s done me a lot of good. I’ve spoken more than I have the whole weekend and it’s shaken me out of being so coldy.
So, I’ve had a cold now. I’m not going to do that again. Like playing Portia in The Merchant of Venice – I’m not going to do that again, either!
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|⇑5||Directed by Richard Eyre in 2006|
|⇑6||Directed by Lasse Hallström in 2001|
|⇑7||Directed by Oliver Parker in 2002|
|⇑8||She completed work on Iris (directed by Richard Eyre) during the making of The Shipping News. Later in 2002, she starred in Die Another Day, directed by Lee Tamahori.|
|⇑10||Notably, Juliet in 1960, Lady Macbeth in 1963 and 1976, Viola in 1963, Titania in 1968 and 2010, Portia in 1971, Beatrice in 1976 and Cleopatra in 1987.|
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Judi Dench was born in 1934 in York, where she was educated at the Mount School, a Quaker independent secondary school. She played Ariel in a school production of The Tempest.
After a year studying set design at York Art School, she quit in 1954 to follow her brother Jeffrey to the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. She graduated in 1957 with a first-class degree and the gold medal for outstanding student.
She played the Virgin Mary in that year’s production of the York Mystery Plays, before making her professional debut at the Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool with the Old Vic Company. Over the next four seasons with ‘the Vic’ (which included tours in Europe and North America), her roles included Ophelia in Hamlet, Princess Katherine in Henry V, Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.
In 1961, she moved on to the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing Anya in The Cherry Orchard, Isabella in Measure for Measure, Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Dorcas Bellboys in A Penny for a Song.
In 1963, she joined the repertory company at Nottingham Playhouse to play Lady Macbeth and Viola in Twelfth Night (which were both toured in Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone). She also appeared in A Shot in the Dark at the Lyric in London.
In 1964/5, her roles with the Oxford Playhouse Company included Irina in Three Sisters and Dol Common in The Alchemist.
Returning to Nottingham, she played Isabella in Measure for Measure, Amanda in Private Lives, Margery Pinchwife in The Country Wife and, in 1966, the title role in Saint Joan, before going back to Oxford to appear in The Promise and The Rules of the Game.
In 1968, she played Sally Bowles in Cabaret at the Palace Theatre in London.
The following year, she became an associate member of the RSC, with which she played Hermione and Perdita in The Winter’s Tale, Bianca in Women Beware Women, Viola in Twelfth Night (which in 1970 went on tour to Japan and Australia), Grace Harkaway in London Assurance, Barbara Undershaft in Major Barbara, Portia in The Merchant of Venice and, in 1971, the title role in The Duchess of Malfi.
After Content to Whisper in York and The Wolf in Oxford in 1973, she appeared in the West End in The Good Companions at Her Majesty’s (1974) and The Gay Lord Quex at the Albery (1975), before rejoining the RSC for Too True to Be Good at the Aldwych.
She won the first of her eight Laurence Olivier awards for her performance as Lady Macbeth in 1976 opposite Ian McKellen (in a production that was adapted for broadcast by Thames TV in ’79). In the same season, she also played Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing, Adriana in The Comedy of Errors (which was televised by ATV in ’78) and Regan in King Lear.
After Pillars of the Community in 1977 and The Way of the World in ’78, she played Imogen in Cymbeline in ’79. She won another Olivier the following year for her performance as Juno Boyle in Juno and the Paycock, for which she was also named ‘best actress’ by the Evening Standard among others.
In 1981, she was cast as Grizabella in Cats but was obliged to pull out by injury. After A Village Wooing in Hampstead, she joined the National Theatre in 1982 for The Importance of Being Earnest and A Kind of Alaska – for both of which she was named ‘best actress’ by the Evening Standard. The next year, she won another Olivier (for ‘actress of the year in a new play’) in Pack of Lies at the Lyric.
She returned to the RSC to play the title role in Mother Courage at the Barbican in 1984 and Amy O’Connell in Waste in 1985.
After a stint as Carrie Pooter in Mr and Mrs Nobody at the Garrick, she won the Olivier and the Evening Standard award for the best actress of 1987 for her performance as Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra (opposite Anthony Hopkins) at the National, where she also appeared in Entertaining Strangers.
She made her debut as a director in 1988 with the Renaissance Theatre Company, staging Much Ado about Nothing, which she followed with Look Back in Anger in ’89 – when she also appeared in Hamlet at the National and the Dubrovnik Festival Theatre and The Cherry Orchard at the Aldwych.
In 1991, she directed The Boys from Syracuse for Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and appeared in The Plough and the Stars at the Young Vic and The Sea at the National.
She played Volumnia in Coriolanus at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 1992, and then appeared in The Gift of the Gorgon with the RSC. In ’93, she directed Romeo and Juliet in Regent’s Park.
In 1994, she returned to the National in The Seagull, followed in ’95 by Absolute Hell and A Little Night Music (for which she won the Oliviers for best actress and best actress in a musical respectively) and in ’97 by Amy’s View, for which she won a Critics’ Circle Drama Award in 1998 and (after it transferred to Broadway) a Tony in ’99. She played the title role in Filumena at the Piccadilly in 1998.
She appeared in The Royal Family (2001) and, in a two-hander with Maggie Smith, The Breath of Life (2002) at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. She then rejoined the RSC in Stratford for All’s Well that Ends Well, which transferred to the Gielgud in 2004.
In 2006, she appeared in Hay Fever at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket and then Merry Wives – the Musical with the RSC in Stratford. This was followed by Madame de Sade at the Wyndham’s in 2009, A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rose in Kingston in 2010 and Peter and Alice at the Noël Coward in 2013. In 2015, she appeared in The Vote at the Donmar Warehouse (which was broadcast live on More4) and The Winter’s Tale at the Garrick, for which she won the Olivier for ‘best actress in a supporting role’ and the Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for ‘best Shakespearean performance’.
She first appeared on television in 1959, in ITV’s ‘play of the week’ Family on Trial and in the title role in the BBC’s six-part drama series Hilda Lessways. She played Princess Katherine to Robert Hardy’s Henry V on the BBC in An Age of Kings (1960).
A role in Z Cars in 1963 led to a notable part in ’66 in BBC2’s four-part series Talking to a Stranger, for which she won the Bafta for best actress.
Among many other parts, she starred in Keep an Eye on Amélie in 1973, Langrishe, Go Down in 1978 and, in the following year, On Giant’s Shoulders, likewise on BBC2, and A Village Wooing on ITV. In 1980, she played Aunt Sadie in the eight-part Thames TV mini-series Love in a Cold Climate.
She became a household name with the LWT sitcom A Fine Romance (1981–84), playing opposite her husband, Michael Williams, and cemented that status with As Time Goes By (1992–2005) on BBC1, opposite Geoffrey Palmer. She won Baftas for the former in 1982 (along with The Cherry Orchard and Going Gently, both on BBC2) and ’85.
She starred in Saigon: Year of the Cat on ITV in 1983, Mr and Mrs Edgehill and The Browning Version on BBC1 in ’85, Make or Break and Ghosts on BBC2 in ’87, the Channel 4 mini-series Behaving Badly in ’89, BBC1’s Can You Hear Me Thinking? in 1990 and Absolute Hell in ’91, and the BBC/HBO film The Last of the Blonde Bombshells (for which she won a Bafta and a Golden Globe) in 2000.
She returned to the small screen in the five-part BBC1 series Cranford, broadcast in 2007, and its two-part Christmas special in 2009. In 2015, she starred in BBC1’s film Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot. She was nominated for an Emmy (among other awards) for all three.
She presented Judi Dench: My Passion for Trees on BBC1 in 2017 and the two-part Judi Dench’s Wild Borneo Adventure on ITV in 2019.
She made her big-screen debut in The Third Secret in 1964. The following year, her performance in Four in the Morning won the Bafta for ‘most promising newcomer to leading film roles’. She also had parts in A Study in Terror and He Who Rides a Tiger (both 1965) and in Peter Hall’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968).
She returned to cinemas in 1974 with Luther and Dead Cert. In 1985, she appeared in Wetherby, A Room with a View (for which she won a Bafta for best supporting actress) and The Angelic Conversation. She followed these with 84 Charing Cross Road (1987); A Handful of Dust (1988), for which she won a Bafta for best supporting actress; Henry V (1989); and Jack and Sarah (1995).
She won worldwide fame when she played ‘M’ in GoldenEye in 1995. After a minor part in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996), she had her first starring film role in ’97, as Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown, opposite Billy Connolly. Her performance gained her the first of her eight nominations for an Oscar (among many other awards) and won her a Bafta, a Golden Globe and a London Film Critics’ Circle award.
After Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), her eight-minute performance as Queen Elizabeth 1 in Shakespeare in Love (1998) won her the Oscar (as well as the Bafta, the Screen Actors Guild Award and the National Society of Film Critics Award) for best supporting actress.
This was followed in 1999 by Tea with Mussolini and The World Is Not Enough; in 2000 by Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport and Chocolat, for which she was nominated for an Oscar, among many other awards, and won a Screen Actors Guild award; and in 2001 by The Shipping News and Iris, for which she was nominated for an Oscar and won a Bafta and a London Film Critics’ Circle award.
Then came The Importance of Being Earnest and Die Another Day (both 2002); Home on the Range, The Chronicles of Riddick and Ladies in Lavender (all 2004); Pride and Prejudice and Mrs Henderson Presents, for which she was nominated for an Oscar (both 2005); Doogal, Casino Royale and Notes on a Scandal, for which she was nominated for an Oscar and won a British Independent Film Award and an Evening Standard British Film Award (all 2006); Quantum of Solace (2008); the experimental film Rage and the musical Nine (both 2009); Jane Eyre, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, My Week with Marilyn, Friend Request Pending and J Edgar (all 2011); and Run for Your Wife, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Skyfall (all 2012).
She was nominated for an Oscar for the title role in Philomena (2013), for which the London Film Critics’ Circle named her ‘British actress of the year’. This was followed by The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and the last of her eight Bond films, Spectre (both 2015); Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016); Tulip Fever, Victoria and Abdul and Murder on the Orient Express (all 2017); Red Joan and All is True (both 2018); Cats (2019); Artemis Fowl, Blithe Spirit and Six Minutes to Midnight (all 2020); and, in 2021, Off the Rails and Belfast, for which she was nominated for an Oscar.
She is the author of two memoirs, Scenes from My Life (2005) and And Furthermore (2010).
In 2020, she became the oldest person ever to be featured on the cover of British Vogue.
She was appointed an OBE in 1970 and a DBE in 1988, and was made a Companion of Honour in 2005.
She received both the Patricia Rothermere Award ‘for outstanding services to the theatre’ and the London Film Critics’ Circle’s annual award for services to the arts in 1997; the RSA’s Benjamin Franklin Medal in 2000; a Bafta Fellowship in 2001; the William Shakespeare Award, the Laurence Olivier Special Award and an Evening Standard 50th Anniversary Special Award in 2004; the Dilys Powell Award for Excellence in Film and a lifetime achievement award from the European Film Academy in 2008; a BFI Fellowship, the South Bank Sky Arts award for lifetime achievement and a Praemium Imperiale in 2011; and Screen International’s award for ‘outstanding contribution to UK film’ in 2019.
She has been awarded honorary doctorates by the Open University, the Universities of East Anglia and Surrey as well as by Birmingham, Durham, Harvard, Hull, Leeds, London, Loughborough, Nottingham Trent, Oxford, Queen Margaret, St Andrews, Stirling, Warwick, Winchester and York Universities, the Juillard School and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland). She was given the Freedom of York in 2002, of London in 2011 and of Stratford-upon-Avon this year.
She is a member of the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a fellow of the RSA. She has been the patron, president or vice-president of far too many charities to list here.
She was married to the actor Michael Williams from 1971 until his death in 2001. She has one daughter.
Up-to-date as at 1 May 2022