Dame Judi up close and personal

Judi Dench and her biographer John Miller share some of the personal photographs that draw back the curtain on her remarkable life at work...and play
I first saw Judi Dench onstage in 1961 as a touchingly vulnerable Anya in the RSC production of The Cherry Orchard; the first time I worked with her was in 1994, when I interviewed her for my BBC Radio 90th birthday tribute to John Gielgud. He had played Gaev opposite her in that Chekhov play, and she was forever grateful to him for restoring her self-confidence when the director Michel Saint-Denis had nearly destroyed it by treating her dismissively.

Judi-Nov21-02-590Left: Judi’s husband, Michael Williams, who died in 2001, with their grandson, Sammy. ‘We had a lovely christening party for Sammy, but we needed a rest after it!’ Right: ‘This is me with my daughter Finty Williams and my grandson, Sammy. Three generations of Williamses when Sammy was just two weeks old’

Our shared admiration of the great actor paved the way for my biography of Judi in 1998 and other work together since.

Since the publication of my biography in 1998 I have been privileged to share a stage with her on several occasions to discuss her career, at the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford, and various literary festivals, all of which sold out well beforehand. This confirmed Peter Sallis’s remark to me: ‘Judi Dench is the number one box-office draw in this country, male or female.’

Judi-Nov21-03-590‘In this picture (Judi is in the centre) I am not conforming to anybody, I’m afraid, and if you look very closely you can see that I have extremely scabby knees where I was always falling down. When I was a child, going to bed early in the summer was agony for me. I didn’t want to miss a lot of larks. On my right is my friend Ursula Gayler, who was later my dresser at the National Theatre’

The most challenging request she made was to create a comic recital for her on the theme of Great Eccentrics, which we performed as a three-hander twice at the Winchester Festival, once with Michael Pennington, and once with Charles Dance.

As we came off stage on the second occasion she handed me her script, saying: ‘That’s the last recital I’m ever going to do, I can’t now read the script properly, even blown up in size as you’ve done.’

Judi-Nov21-04-590Above: ‘Our extended family at Charlecote, near Stratfordupon- Avon, when our daughter Finty was three. It is a terrible picture of my ma. Michael’s father is standing next to her. The very lifelike doll we gave Finty was called Daisy.’ Below: ‘This is me at Buckingham Palace with Finty and Michael the day I received my DBE in 1988’

That was the first inkling I had of her macular degeneration of the retina, a development which we managed to keep to ourselves for quite a while, until one Saturday morning when the Daily Mirror splashed the story right across its front page. Judi was furious, as the ‘exclusive’ leak was then picked up by the rest of the media, here and abroad. I had several concerned calls from friends in America asking if it was true. Ironically, she was filming a Bond movie at the time, but ‘M’ never caught the culprit. We worked out that someone on the film crew must have overheard her discussing her sight problem with a friend in the cast, and sold the story to the paper.

Judi-Nov21-05-590‘I won the Tony (the Antoinette Perry Award) for Amy’s View on Broadway in 1999. Finty came over and we all got ready in my dressing room at the Barrymore Theatre’

She hasn’t let this change get her down. Neither has the problem stopped her from working. She has changed her method of learning a part, by listening to it on tape instead of reading it off the page. In the theatre that means she has to know her lines on the first day of rehearsal, which Ben Whishaw, her young costar in Peter And Alice, told me was a touch embarrassing for the rest of the cast still holding their scripts in their hands.
It is hard to credit now that Judi was told after her first screen test: ‘Miss Dench, you have every single thing wrong with your face.’ She has spared that purblind producer’s blushes over the years since by always refusing to name him, but it rather put her off screen-acting until recent years.

Her Oscar nomination for Mrs Brown opened the floodgates, and leading film-makers now queue up to seek her services.

Judi has always expressed her determination never to retire, so I look forward to collaborating with her on another book of reminiscences in another decade or so. Until then, I hope you will enjoy turning the pages of this one as much as I have enjoyed helping my dear friend Judi to put it together.

Extracted from Judi: Behind The Scenes, by Judi Dench, with an introduction by John Miller, published in hardback by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced £20.