Miriam Margolyes on success, sexuality – and meeting will.i.am

"I’m surprised I haven’t been more successful," says the Trollied star

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Meeting Miriam Margolyes is always a joyous, outspoken occasion and now she’s 73 she says she has nothing to lose. “I’m here to answer any questions. I’ve burnt my boats and there they are – smouldering in public view.”

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We’re in the kitchen of her home in Clapham, south London, which she bought for £21,500 in 1973, and is now worth more than a million. It’s a patriotic road with plaques commemorating street parties for the birth of Prince George and a royal wedding.

“I have the good fortune to get Christmas cards from Prince Charles and the organisers asked if they could exhibit one of them on a table. Certainly not! I do not put my Christmas cards out for public viewing.”

She pours me a glass of tap water, rustles in the fridge for ice and lemon. “My cleaning lady has gone to Lourdes, so everything is a bit of a mess.” Like many voluble extroverts, Margolyes cowers under self-doubt, desperately wants to be liked, but is scared a lot of the time. She says she’s “appallingly selfish” and likes to shock, but is deeply sensitive. A mass of contradictions. “You’re not expecting consistency?” she chides, laughing.

She’s a virtuoso of voices and her conversation is punctuated with accents. “I don’t practise them. It’s a gift.” Once the Queen asked her what she did and she replied, “I’m the best reader of stories in the world.” After the Queen had moved on, Margolyes kept talking. “Be quiet,” said the Queen, who’s possibly the only person who’s been able to silence her.

Margolyes also owns a flat next door, a clifftop house on St Margaret’s Bay, Kent, two houses in Australia, one in Italy – “That’s five and a half,” she says, adding on her fingers. “I have to keep working because, although I have land, I’m not cash rich and don’t have the wealth of high- profile actresses – don’t say I’m an ‘actor’. That’s a bit too modern. I wish I had a million in the bank. I like round figures. I am a round figure. But I’m not eating my heart out.

“I’m grateful to be working at my age, genuinely humble I’m still someone people want to watch, although I’m surprised I haven’t been more successful. I’d have thought my particular brand of quirkiness, combined with sharp intelligence and a fine voice, would have yielded more. But it hasn’t. Yet! Maybe it’s because I’m fat. It’s jolly hard to lose weight. I’m peeved, but it would be stupid to feel bitter. I don’t know why they don’t ask me to do things, but since they don’t, I’m not waiting, darling. Haven’t got time for that. Tick, tick, tick.”

She was Professor Sprout in a couple of Harry Potter films (above), and has done many stage and TV plays in Australia, of which she became a citizen in 2013.

She pauses, takes off her sunglasses, blinks. “Gosh, I didn’t realise I was wearing them. Now,” she jokes, “you can see the beauty of my eyes. I had the supreme horror of seeing myself on television recently. Now I could never watch again. Far too upsetting.” 

Before becoming an actress she sold encyclopaedias door to door, voiced the role of “Sexy Sonia” in a porn film, and wrote to the then 80-year-old artist Augustus John asking if he wanted a fat girl to pose naked for him, which she did.

She’s never been shy of showing her 44EE breasts, exposing them to the cast of the 1993 Daniel Day-Lewis/Michelle Pfeiffer film The Age of Innocence “to cheer them up”, and was a life model at an art school. At 17 she had a relationship with a man called Anton (“I suspect he was a real s***, but young women are vulnerable to that”) and nearly married another man, with whom she stayed in contact.

Twenty years ago, when we met for lunch at a nearby Indian restaurant, she asked me not to reveal she lived with an Australian woman. This now retired academic has been her partner for 45 years, and today her only request is not to mention her name. Margolyes was initially embarrassed about being gay, and regrets coming out to her mother, which she believes caused her to have a stroke three days later.

“I really loved my parents [father a GP, mother a property developer]. But Mummy never wanted to have me. She asked her doctor for an abortion and he said, ‘I don’t do that’, so she was forced to carry me to term. But then I fulfilled her life, as she fulfilled mine. I was loved, and that is the basis of my success. I still lead my life according to what I think they would like. It was a major disappointment to them that I never married and had children because that’s what every Jewish parent wants.”

Her strong personality triumphed and she joined “Gay Yids”, lecturing about her sexuality in synagogues. During last year’s Australian citizenship ceremony, she told the country’s then Prime Minister Julia Gillard, “I’m a dyke.” When her partner’s family gave a party for her – “very middle-class, conservative, decent, and I love them” – she said, “I can imagine the very last thing you want is a fat lesbian Jew.”

But she believes now that “Things have changed enormously for the better over the years. People won’t judge me on being a lesbian, it’s whether I can do the work. But there’s still prejudice, so young actors should protect themselves by refusing to discuss who they go to bed with. Everyone should be able to do what they damned well like – find God, and love, wherever they want to, so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.”

I wonder if she’d like to have had children. She glares beadily, then shouts, “No! I have never liked children, even when I was one. It’s probably a dislike of people in competition with me. My partner says actors are talented toddlers and that’s true.”

This week she joins the fourth series of Sky 1 sitcom Trollied (above), which is set in a Warrington supermarket and previously starred Stephanie Beacham as the store manager and Jane Horrocks as her deputy. “I loved the scripts because they made me laugh, which a lot of stuff doesn’t. I could identify with these people. It isn’t pretentious, and I don’t think anyone wouldn’t be able to understand it.”

Too true, I say, and she booms, “You think it’s beneath me, do you? On the contrary, I’m rising to it.”

Because of her outspokenness she is chat show gold. “Actually I don’t like chat shows,” she says. “I only go on them when I have something to sell. They’re so trivial: too much chat and not enough thought. But I enjoy Graham Norton – he’s quick, funny.”

She was particularly amusing when she appeared on his show with The Voice UK coach Will.i.am (below). “I was told he was a rapper, but had no idea what that was. I explained it was nice to meet a black man, and people said I was racist – but I’m contrite I don’t know more black people. I ticked him off because he kept saying ‘like’, as in ‘I was talking, like, and…’ I’m incensed when people don’t use our language properly. It’s the greatest gift we’ve given to the world.”

She worries she’s not clever enough, merely seen as a figure of fun, but has strong views, particularly about Israel. “I loathe Hamas, but they were democratically elected and Israel’s behaviour is not acceptable. There’s been a troubling backlash. I don’t think people like Jews. They never have. English literature, my great love, is full of greasy and treacherous Jews. I’m lucky they like me, and one always needs a Jewish accountant. Anti-semitism is horrible and can’t be defended, but Israel is stupidfor allowing people to vent it.”

At Cambridge, she was in Newnham College’s team on University Challenge, losing in the second round. She smoked a pipe: “I wanted to make an impression. I hate to be unnoticed.” As the only woman in Footlights, with John Cleese, Eric Idle and Graham Chapman, she wasn’t happy. “I don’t like comedy.” 

On Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 2008 she claimed she’d never had sex when she was at Cambridge, but in fact she was promiscuous, which led later to several years in therapy.

“I was an ugly, fat little woman, needing to prove myself. I suppose [on Desert Island Discs] I was using the President Clinton meaning – ‘I did not have sex with that woman’. You’ll have to use your judgement, but I didn’t have penetrative sex or sleep with anyone in the fullest sense of the word, though I had oral sex, often and splendidly, and with a boyfriend. I became renowned for it. Can you deal with that? Or will the editor take it out, as the actress ordered the bishop?” She collapses in giggles.

Up next is a one-woman show, called The Importance of Being Miriam, which will tour Australia next spring. “It’s not my title, because it sounds conceited. I’m scared, because I always am, but there’s a lot to be sad about and all I want to do is bring a smile to the face. I don’t mind laughing at myself. Bloody good job because I can’t believe what I do or say at times.”

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Trollied is on Sky1 tonight (Monday 3rd November) at 8:30pm