Judi Dench tells her version of Benedict Cumberbatch’s “shocking” Richard III proposal

The Skyfall actress narrated the tale on Sunday at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, adding "it's a very good way of being asked to do a part"

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Judi Dench is a busy lady, appearing at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on Sunday before being whisked off to Cardiff to continue filming on Richard III, one of three new Hollow Crown films being made by BBC2. 

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But the actress’s role in the Shakespeare adaptation is all thanks to her appearance at another festival earlier this year. Dench, 79, was in conversation with Richard Eyre at Hay Festival last June when Benedict Cumberbatch put her on the spot

“It’s a shocking story,” recalls Dench. “We were doing Hay and I was instructing – I had to do the bits of Shakespeare that I remembered – and so I said to [Richard], ‘You have to say three lines of this.’ I was rehearsing and then Cumberbatch said ‘I’ll do that for you’.

“So he leapt up on stage to enormous applause and did these three lines and then went and sat down again and Richard said, ‘Any questions?’ and there was one question and Ben Cumberbatch turned to my friend David next door to him and said, ‘Shall I ask her?’ David said ‘Yes’ and [Cumberbatch] said, ‘Are you going to play my mother in Richard III?’

“It’s a very good way of being asked to do a part. You don’t mess about, you don’t spend ages dithering about it. When somebody asks you, say yes or no and I said yes.”

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Dench is playing Cecily, Duchess of York, alongside Cumberbatch’s Richard III, with Keeley Hawes, Sophie Okonedo and Ben Daniels also set to appear in the third of three films, all directed by Dominic Cooke and expected to be broadcast on BBC2 next year.