Four pairs of largish knickers are drying in the early morning heat, draped on the balcony of a luxury home in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. They belong, like the house, to Miriam Margolyes and, if you must know, are navy blue; dyed that colour by Professor Heather Sutherland, her Australian partner of 52 years. “She dyes all my knickers,” says Margolyes, in the voice-over for Almost Australian, just one of several surprising revelations in the new three-part series from the actor, activist and documentary-maker.
Perhaps you weren’t aware, for instance, that Alice Springs, at the red centre of the country, is the lesbian capital of the world? “I didn’t know, and what a surprise!” says Margolyes, still delighted. Or that Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast is an over-developed hellhole, notable for its brutality, greed and ugly buildings that “people should be ashamed to live in”?
She got grief from Sydney tabloids for that remark when the series aired recently in Australia but is more than happy to meet the flack. “I’m a cantankerous old bird,” she says on the phone from her south London UK HQ. “Just because I love Australia doesn’t mean I don’t want it to be better.”
The 79-year-old, born in Oxford, first went to Australia in the 1960s and met Sutherland in 1968. “I was intoxicated by it,” she says. “It was so exciting and interesting. But it was also the light, the space, the heat, the optimism. I just found it all gorgeous.”
After decades of back and forth, Margolyes became a citizen in 2013. Her certificate was handed over by the then Australian PM Julia Gillard in a televised ceremony. Margolyes blew Gillard a kiss and, for viewers’ benefit, made her sexuality clear, “In case anyone didn’t know I was a dyke.” Now, like the Grey Nomads, the hard-up seniors who wander Australia’s unending highways in retirement, she has set out to see her adopted country by camper van and mobility scooter, travelling 10,000 kilometres in just over two months.
Always happy to send herself up, she has much fun with the business of getting her bum in the van’s tiny loo – “I have to go in backwards” – but this is also serious, occasionally profound, film-making, with some important things to say about modern Australia. “It’s a much more open and friendly society than the British one but it has that big elephant in the room. The treatment of the Aboriginal people is a disgrace. They all know it, and they can’t deal with it.”
After gaining her citizenship, Margolyes declared her intention to meet aboriginal Australians, often called First Nation peoples, but it’s only now that her wish has been fulfilled. She was taken aback by the poverty but also delighted by a culture that has survived for thousands of years. “It was one of the richest, most meaningful parts of that whole challenging trip.”
On the coast near Darwin she meets a group of indigenous transgender people from the nearby Tiwi Islands, and asks them some very intimate questions. “I am on the fringes, I suppose, of being rather too direct in some quarters. I always thought that somebody who wanted to become a woman would have chopped their d**k off.”
The islanders are not offended and take her to a drag show at a nightclub that evening. “I didn’t want to offend people. That’s the crucial thing, isn’t it, about transgender? I know I’m a lesbian and I know I’m a woman, so I’ve sorted it out. But if you are on the way between one sex and another, how do you decide when you’ve arrived? It’s hugely complicated. Look at poor JK Rowling. She’s dived into the pool and got very wet.”
Unlike other Harry Potter actors, Margolyes, who played Professor Sprout, hasn’t criticised Rowling’s views on transgender issues. “I was asked to make a public statement and I didn’t want to. I just thought I’ve made enough public statements.”
Margolyes’s down under is not the traditional beer-swigging, sunburned Ocker Australia. She does meet those men, and they have their own moving stories to tell, but this is also the country of Moj, a young Afghan man who arrived there as an orphaned child, a refugee from war. Now in his 20s, he still doesn’t know how old he is or if he will be allowed to stay in the country.
Ask what holds these different people together as Australians and Margolyes suggests “mateship”, the extreme value put on friendship that grew out of Australian troops’ experience in the First World War. It has become a national code of good behaviour, written into the preamble of the citizenship test. “They really believe in it. They’re proud of it.”
And yet the arm-around-the-shoulder decency of mateship doesn’t extend to the country’s original inhabitants. “One First Nation man told me, ‘Australia is the most racist country in the world,’ and he believes that. Who am I to gainsay it? He’s a black man in a white world, and it’s a cruel world.”
All the more reason, concludes Margolyes, for people like her to speak out. “I’m a bit of a heavy footer,” she says. “I plod about in these disputed areas, but unless we talk about it, we’re never going to get anywhere. We have to be brave.”
Meanwhile she fights on, knickers flapping in the southern breeze, an indomitable, questioning presence, wherever she might turn up. “I’m just me,” Margolyes says. “And the surroundings have to cope with that.”
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This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.