It sometimes seems that whenever Dame Judi Dench appears on stage, big screen or TV she is automatically, and rightly, showered with accolades and awards. That being so, I asked her if she ever had a “Fig jam” moment – Fig jam, the name Australian cricketers gave to Kevin Pietersen, being an acronym for “F***, I’m good! Just ask me.”
She was amused and, I think, slightly appalled that anyone might imagine such an immodest thought even crossing her mind. “No,” she said, very firmly. “I’ve never, ever had that. Never, ever.”
Well, OK. But look at her record: a Companion of Honour; a DBE; a woman named by The Stage magazine as the greatest actor not just of her time, but ever; nominated for 203 acting awards and the winner of 55 of them, including an Oscar, a Tony, two Golden Globes, six Oliviers and almost countless Baftas.
If any actor is entitled to go around shouting “Figjam”, it’s Dame Judi. But when I suggested that she must realise how good she is, that she didn’t get all those awards just for being competent, she said, “No, no, no. I think that if you’re going to believe you’re God’s gift to something, you might as well stop anyway. What will you go on working towards? Sometimes I think I’m given an award for being that word we don’t say.” The word is “old”, which she hates when applied to her.
Besides, she added, “When you start thinking you’re somebody, there’s a man with a bucket of ice cold water just around the corner who’s going to throw it at you and say, ‘Menopausal dwarf!’”
The reason for our chat was Esio Trot, the BBC’s big Christmas offering based on a charming tale by Roald Dahl, in which she co-stars with Dustin Hoffman and James Corden. Hoffman plays Mr Hoppy, she Mrs Silver. Although they live in the same apartment block and he is in love with her, he is too shy to tell her so, while her affections are devoted to her small pet tortoise, Alfie. So Mr Hoppy’s problem, ingeniously solved, is how to attract her undivided attention.
Why had she agreed to do it – because she was a Dahl fan? “Well,” she said, “I certainly am a fan. And then the magical words ‘Dustin Hoffman’, of course. How could you resist it?”
And that brings us to another curious aspect of her personality. Along with being extremely and genuinely modest, she is starstruck. I discovered this when I interviewed her before she went to Hollywood for the 1997 Oscars, where she was nominated as best actress for playing Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown. (She lost, unjustly, to Helen Hunt for As Good As It Gets.)
She was excited, she said. About possibly winning? “No, no – about meeting people like Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford and Tom Hanks and…” She was in awe of such people, she said, “because of the work they do”. The fact that they might well be equally in awe of her and that she could act them all off the screen without breaking sweat didn’t occur to her.
One Oscar (for Shakespeare in Love) and six nominations later, she is still starstruck. “I’m starstruck about Dustin,” she said, “but fortunately we immediately got on well – fantastically well. And also he’s the only man I’ve never had to stretch up to kiss.” But then as somebody said, Hoffman is the only actor who is smaller than his Oscar.
The odd thing is that she’s apprehensive about playing opposite any big movie star. And it isn’t just Hoffman. She would be equally nervous about appearing with Al Pacino, for instance, because… “I’m afraid of him. I’m afraid of all those people. I get very, very apprehensive. No American actors, only Kevin.”
That’s Kevin Spacey. For some time she thought of herself as an interloper in movies, but doesn’t feel that now. She still regrets that in a film, as opposed to a theatre play, once her performance is over there is nothing she can do to improve it, and she always wants to improve what she has just done.
But she is more confined about movies now because, “I’ve worked with some people who really know the business, like Kevin. I learnt a huge amount from him. It was just after Mikey [her husband, the actor Michael Williams] died and I did three films on the trot. I did The Shipping News, Iris and two days later The Importance of Being Earnest. I had nothing else to kind of… focus on, and it did take up my time. Really took up my time. In a wonderful way. I made lots of new friends, and it was… you know, it was very cathartic.
“It’s a wonderful thing to have a happy marriage, but when that person goes, it’s a ghastly thing. Because half of you is just gone. But fortunately, you have a wonderful family pattern. I see Michael in my grandson tremendously, and my daughter Finty talks about him so much, and, you know… That way, I suppose it does get easier…” She trailed off with tears in her eyes.
It was Mikey who persuaded her to take the role of M in the James Bond films – she was killed off, alas, in Skyfall.
“He wanted to live with a Bond woman. ‘Oh God, oh crikey,’ he said, ‘you’ve got to do it. I’m living with a Bond woman!’” Then she added with a sigh: “But that’s all over now.”
The Bond producers broke the news of M’s demise over a meal in London’s West End. “They told me gently and I laughed through my tears. Seven [Bond] films is a long time. But MI6 would have given her the push by now, don’t you think?” In life, maybe but, come on, it’s only a movie. “Yes,” she said, “but I take it very, very seriously, and they’d have given her the push.”
When she was young, some idiot told her that her face was wrongly arranged for films, which possibly explains why she was 62 before she starred in one, Mrs Brown. And even that was intended for TV until the American producer Harvey Weinstein acquired it for the cinema. In gratitude, she once said, she had his name tattooed on her bottom. When I said I hoped that was a joke she replied, “That’s a secret between Harvey and me and my bottom.”
But being told she was no good for films surely must have hurt? “Yes, it did. But as I didn’t want to do films – I only ever wanted to be on stage – the hurt was much lessened. I think my pride was hurt, and anybody told that would feel a bit… you know? So I’m always rather self-conscious about how I look.”
She still doesn’t like watching herself in films. “I’ve never seen A Room with a View. I just haven’t got round to it. I’ve never seen The Shipping News all the way through. “When you think you’re 6ft tall, figure like Venus and you’re 49, you don’t want to see the other side of the page, do you?”
Which brings us – tricky moment, this – to the question of age. She will be 80 this month, but when I mentioned it she got quite upset. “No, steady! The moment you say an age, people think bath chairs and sitting with your feet up. They say, ‘Take it easy.’ Why do they say that?
“The worst thing you can possibly do is stick somebody in a room in front of the television and not speak to them. No stimulus at all – not a jigsaw, not a game of cards, not a nice dog to cuddle. People immediately associate old age with infirmity. They say, ‘Oh, you must take it easy,’ and I think, ‘Get off!’ I don’t mind people being helpful, because I can’t see very well [she has macular degeneration] but I don’t want them to help me.”
Except, perhaps, in one way. She’s an avid crossword fan but these days she can’t see them very well, and for that reason doesn’t do them any more. But… “I’m going to write to the papers. I’m going to see Joan Bakewell and get her to make a plea that the crosswords should be bigger.” She still worries about where her next job is coming from. Although she may soon be 80, I don’t imagine it will be a problem. “People want to give you the same part again and again. Now, I’ll get a lot of parts like Mrs Silver – I don’t want to do that again. I want to play somebody who’s impossible! I want to play a really tricky woman. Someone like the wife in The Browning Version; I played her – she’s a real bitch.”
She’s a fan of Downton Abbey, so while waiting for a real bitch to play, would she consider returning to television as a sparring partner to Maggie Smith’s acerbic Dowager Countess? Firmly, no. “I don’t think Mags would like that! I’m a huge Downton fan, but I don’t think I could go back to a television series – not week after week after week.”
Then briefly, she reconsidered. “Is Sir George of Cloon [George Clooney] going to be in it? My God, I shall be glued! I’ve met him, but I’ve never acted with him. He won’t remember… at a party of Harvey’s. Absolutely a charmer!”
So there’s another one she’s in awe of, but as much as she admires Hollywood stars, what really interests her are the huge difficulties facing today’s young, aspiring actors. “I don’t know how many letters I get each week, saying, ‘Can you sponsor me through drama school?’ There are no reps anywhere any more. There’s very little work, young actors have to get something and hope that it’s a success. They go to an audition and now nobody ever writes afterwards to say, ‘It was a terrific meeting, I’m so sorry it hasn’t worked out this time.’ There’s a complete silence. What is your encouragement as a young actor? Where do you go to learn? Where do you get to make the mistakes?
“There was a wonderful boy who wrote to me, who has a glorious singing voice, and I sent him some money. I got this wonderful letter back, and I just want to watch him – carefully – to see how he develops.
“I can’t send money to everyone. You have to go instinctively. A lot of them say, ‘I’m working to raise funds,’ and I always think that’s a very good sign, if they’re working and not just sitting back and waiting for work to fall in their laps.”
So there she is – shy, modest, starstruck, a benefactor to the next generation, a Downton fan, our finest actress and – something else she dislikes – a national treasure.
“That’s like being a dusty thing behind a bit of glass,” she said. “You might as well be in the British Museum. I don’t want to be a fossil.”
Fair enough, I suppose, but I’ve known her for more than 40 years and, whether she likes it or not, I believe she is a national treasure.
Esio Trot is on New Year’s Day at 6:30pm on BBC1