‘I loathe Christmas,’ says Miriam Margolyes. ‘Loathe it. I pretend it’s not happening. I ignore it completely. Not interested.’
Oh dear. For an interview to promote a film called The Man Who Invented Christmas, this isn’t quite going to script. But then, anyone who expects Miriam Margolyes to stay obediently on-message clearly doesn’t know Miriam Margolyes.
Fortunately, the actress has no such reservations when it comes to the festive visionary in question, one Charles Dickens. A lifelong fan and Dickens scholar, she’s toured the world with her long-running one-woman show, Dickens’ Women, co-written a book of the same name and presented a 10-part BBC documentary about the author’s time in America. Though even here, she’s not afraid to call her hero out for being a deeply flawed individual – and she doesn’t think they’d exactly have been bosom buddies.
‘He didn’t like fat women, and I’m a fat woman,’ she says. ‘He didn’t like speaky women either, and I’m a speaky woman. So on two counts he’d have disliked me intensely. Also I’m very nosy, and he really didn’t like that. He was keen to keep his life as private as possible. He burned all the letters he had in a great bonfire shortly before he died. He just wanted people not to know what was going on. And I want to know what’s going on.’
There is, it has to be said, something a touch Dickensian about Margolyes herself – maybe he’d have written her into one of his novels?
‘In some ways he already had,’ she says. ‘There are two characters in Bleak House, Mrs Pardiggle and Mrs Jellyby, who I’m very like. I’m a lesbian, and he did write a lesbian character, Miss Wade, but I’m nothing like her. She’s very slim and serious. I’m not at all.’
By her own admission, Margolyes’ role as housekeeper Mrs Fisk in The Man Who Invented Christmas is ‘absolutely minute – it hardly exists’. But she was eager to do it because ‘as soon as I see something’s about Charles Dickens, I want to be involved’.
Set in 1843, Bharat Nalluri’s whimsical fantasy finds Dickens – played as a dashing literary rock star by Downton’s Dan Stevens – racing to finish A Christmas Carol, aided and abetted by frequent visitations from his own creations, most notably Christopher Plummer’s Ebenezer Scrooge.
‘It was wonderful to be a part of, and I think people will enjoy it,’ says Margolyes. ‘I was very impressed with Dan Stevens, I thought he was adorable, as was Christopher Plummer. I only met him briefly, but like everyone else in the cast, I fell in love with him. It’s absolutely thrilling to be even a minnow in those waters. It’s just gorgeous.’
While she might be allergic to Christmas herself (and, being Jewish, has no reason to pretend otherwise), Margolyes thinks the message of Dickens’ festive classic still resonates, which is why she’ll be donating her time to give readings at four carol services this month. ‘For me, Christmas is about charity,’ she says.
These days, the actress divides her time between homes in England, Tuscany and New South Wales (her partner, Heather Sutherland, is Australian, and Margolyes has held dual British-Australian citizenship since 2013). But she likes to keep busy.
‘I’m 76, and like Andrew Marvel, at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near,’ she reflects. ‘As you get older you get nearer to death. That is the fact of the matter. You don’t know when it’s coming, so you might as well get on with life, and do as much as you can. That’s my attitude.
‘I’ve got all kinds of things going on,’ she adds. ‘Arthritis, osteoporosis, too much cholesterol, I’m overweight… But I’m still talented and enthusiastic and enjoying life. I think that’s the lesson of getting older: that you do want to go on, and you want to make it meaningful.’
Margolyes is adamant that she wishes to be known as an actress, as opposed to the more modish actor. ‘Last time I checked I was a woman, and that’s what we call female actors,’ she insists. ‘I see no reason why that should be a subject of discussion. Actress is what I put on my passport. I’d feel very peculiar if it said actor on it.’
A generation of upcoming performers might disagree. ‘They can do what they like,’ she shrugs. ‘But I don’t pay any attention to that.’
Born in Oxford during the war, the only child of a property developer and a physician, Margolyes began acting in the Cambridge Footlights while reading English at Newnham College. She never went to drama school (‘I have never trained at all for anything,’ she says firmly. ‘I was just good at it’), and initially found success as a voice artist, including recording the soft-porn audio Sexy Sonia: Leaves from my Schoolgirl Notebook, and causing confusion for a generation of adolescents as the seductive Cadbury’s Caramel bunny. ‘Vocally, I’ve never been typecast or had any limitations,’ she says. ‘I even played Cleopatra.’
On-screen, she was everything from prostitute ‘Elephant Ethel’ in the 1977 film Stand Up, Virgin Soldiers to Rowan Atkinson’s terrifying puritanical aunt in Blackadder, but admits she never felt entirely comfortable as a young actress.
‘Now I’m older, it’s more acceptable not to be slim and beautiful’, she says. ‘I was always told I would come into my own, whatever that might mean, when I was older. And in the sense I’ve got more work, that’s true. I now fit more readily into the older character actress mould. But I’m sorry I had to wait so long. With regret,’ she adds, in a typically mischievous reference to the Harvey Weinstein saga, ‘I’ve never been asked to go to bed with anybody to get a part.’
Margolyes is fabulously indiscreet – at one point, she tells Weekend a frankly unprintable anecdote about a Hollywood actor that sends her PR team into panicked frenzy – and clearly relishes her reputation as a lady of misrule. ‘But I don’t just say things to be naughty,’ she insists. ‘Well, occasionally I do. But I don’t find it easy to keep things to myself. If I’ve got an opinion, I can’t help myself.’
Her support for the Palestinians, in particular, has caused upset in the Jewish community. ‘It does lose me friends,’ she admits. ‘Jewish people do not like it, and they show they don’t like it. I don’t blame them at all for their opposition, they’re entitled to express how they feel. But I’m completely sure I’m right. I don’t have any doubt about it at all. And I think in time that Jewish people – who are as compassionate and warm as anybody can be – will come to see that the actions of the government in Israel is not helping. Just the opposite, it’s causing antisemitism to rise.’
David Walliams has cited Margolyes being rude to him as the inspiration for the grotesque title character of his book Awful Auntie. ‘I know David, I like him, and I think it’s quite flattering to be the muse for such an awful character,’ she says. ‘I don’t mind that she’s awful – the point is that she’s vivid and remarkable, and that is what I’d like to be.’
She’s even upset the Queen. ‘I don’t think I upset her,’ she protests. ‘But I was rude, and she was rude back. I didn’t mean to be rude, but I inadvertently was. I was stupid, there was no doubt about that, I was an absolute tw*t. When she said “What do you do?”, instead of saying I’m an actress or I read stories or something, I said, “I’m the best reader of stories in the whole world”. And of course she thought, “What an idiot”. And she was quite right. But I thought what followed [Margolyes kept gabbling, until Her Majesty told her to “be quiet”] was a little bit… harsh. But anyway, I’ve got over it.’
She’s said in the past that doesn’t like children – is that true? ‘Well, I think the thing is, I don’t like noise,’ she says. ‘For me, a noisy child is exactly the same as a pneumatic drill in the street. I would never hurt a child. I just don’t want them round me.’
Is that not a bit awkward for the woman who played Professor Sprout, Hogwarts’ eccentric herbology teacher in the Harry Potter films? ‘No, because the children that I meet can speak,’ she says. ‘They can actually talk, rather than scream and yell. That’s what I like. I like to talk to children. It’s a matter of pleasure to me that children recognise me all over the world. That makes me happy. I just don’t like being near noisy children. If you’re in an aeroplane with some noisy brat… It just infuriates me.’
In recent years, Margolyes has won a new legion of fans thanks to her uproariously no-filter appearances on The Graham Norton Show, where she has cheerfully confessed to not knowing who her fellow guests are, and told Will.i.am she was ‘fascinated’ to meet him because ‘I don’t know many black people’.
‘I mean, you can’t pretend, can you?’ she tells Weekend. ‘My whole business as an actress is to be truthful. People have to believe in you. That’s the only thing that matters. I don’t see the point of going on a chat show and talking a lot of lies. I’ve seen Will.i.am since, and he’s absolutely lovely. But I’d never heard of the Black Eyed Peas. I don’t know anything about popular culture – about pop music, or those films with supermen in them.’
Despite knocking on the door of fully-fledged National Treasure status, Margolyes claims she’s actually a little disappointed with the way things have turned out.
‘I’m surprised I haven’t been more successful,’ she sighs. ‘I’ve been in the papers, but I don’t consider I’ve been really successful as an actress, which is what I wanted to be. I would like to be at the National Theatre, I’d like to have a television series… I would like to have been better known for better work, I suppose.
‘But I’m not grumpy about it. You could say I’m still hoping. You know like they say about virgins – they’re still wondering? Well I’m still wondering.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, November 30, 2017
(c) Waitrose Weekend