What do you imagine Dame Judi Dench to be like in person? Authoritative and slightly capricious (like her Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown)? Stern, perhaps, with a soft spot for a handsome daredevil operative (M in the Bond movies)? A bitter lonely obsessive (Notes on a Scandal)? A sweet, slightly put-upon old lady (Cranford)? Or a brilliant woman descending into the fog of dementia (Iris)?
Well, she is none of these things because she is – duh – an actress, one of our best, utterly convincing in whatever character she inhabits. The character that most suits her – she says – is the one Tracey Ullman has created of her, where “Dame Judi” uses her cover as a genteel national treasure (a term Dench loathes) to allow her to get away with shoplifting, wreaking havoc and generally thugging herself around town with glee.
“It’s so anarchic, I love it,” she says, almost rubbing her hands. “It’s much more like me than anything else.” We have barely started when I ask her whether she swears.
“You are joking, aren’t you? I invented swearing!” It’s a hot afternoon, and we sit at the window of a gracious room in a Covent Garden hotel perched around a slightly too small table.
Her face, close up, is terribly appealing; what you notice are her blue eyes and the upward tilt of her features, not the wrinkles. She is such amusing company – having met everyone in the business, with tales to tell – that I rather resent having to steer her occasionally back on-piste.
When I mention that Elizabeth Taylor, too, disliked being referred to as iconic – pouting “That’s for dead people” – she’s reminded of the time she met Taylor and Richard Burton when they were staying at the Dorchester. “I went with Johnny Neville, who was a great friend of Richard’s [she played Ophelia to Neville’s Hamlet at the Old Vic in 1957], and she came to the door in a kind of violet dressing gown and her eyes were exactly the same colour. Of course I was starstruck. They were terribly funny.” Was Burton sexy? “Very.”
Once we have established that this 82-year-old Dame – her friends call her Jude – would far rather be naughty than nice, there’s no stopping her. I ask her in what ways she has been naughty. Mostly, she says, she has behaved very badly on stage, setting up her fellow actors, putting them off for a laugh.
Diane Keaton recently said how much she enjoyed kissing her male stars, would Dench agree? “Well, it depends who you’re kissing,” she says, stoutly. So who have you liked kissing? “Oh, good grief…”
Unfortunately, I observe, a lot of her parts haven’t a great deal to do with kissing. “No, alas!” Then a delicious long-ago memory surfaces. “I made a film called He Who Rides a Tiger a very long time ago with [the late] Tom Bell who I had never met, and on the first day we had an unbelievably rapturous scene to do… that was quite a day. That was terrific. He was beautiful and sweet…” she says, a little dreamily.
Judi Dench and Tom Bell in He Who Rides a Tiger (1965)
There is more passion, albeit restrained, in her new film, Victoria & Abdul – where she plays Queen Victoria again, 20 years on from her Bafta-winning Mrs Brown, which dwelt on the queen’s close friendship, possibly more, with her manservant John Brown, played by Billy Connolly.
In the new film, the year is 1887, and Abdul Karim – a ledger clerk working in a jail in sight of the Taj Mahal – has been sent to London to present Queen Victoria with a ceremonial coin on the occasion of her Golden Jubilee.
Karim is played by a newcomer to British audiences – Ali Fazal – whom Dench says is a Bollywood actor discovered, she assumes, by director Stephen Frears.
“Have you met him?” she asks. “Oh, you’re in for a treat. He is very, very tall. He is extremely beautiful and he is an utterly delightful, charming man.” Then, rather as an afterthought, “and a good actor.” Did she find herself irresistibly drawn to him? “No acting at all required.”
There’s a moment in the film, after he’s been told repeatedly not to look at Victoria, when he does so for the first time and they seem to have a coup de foudre. “Hmm, and why not,” she smiles.
Dench with Ali Fazal on the red carpet
The film has tremendous brio and switches from hilarity to piercing moments of loss, impending mortality, shrinking horizons. When I say that I wept buckets, Dench responds: “Oh, I hope people are going to laugh quite a lot!”
At its heart is this fascinating friendship, which develops as Karim becomes Victoria’s tutor, teaching her to speak and write Urdu. In the opening scenes, Victoria is depressed and isolated. She eats in a savage, animalistic fashion. Did she enjoy ripping meat apart with her bare hands? “I do it in normal life! Nothing strange about it whatsoever,” she says, with a big, throaty laugh.
You really are Tracey’s “Dame Judi”, aren’t you? “Yes, like throwing dog turds up into trees. You see, people give you a terrible look sometimes…” You actually do that?! “No,” she says (but I do wonder), “I don’t do that, but I like the way she does it.” Another giggle.
The Palace gave permission, for the first time, to allow filming in Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s summer home. What was that like? “I was absolutely riveted by it – being in her writing room and looking out of the window and thinking, ‘The trees may be a bit taller but I’m looking at exactly the same landscape she did.’”
Does she have the sense of knowing Victoria quite well by now? “I feel that she was a very, very remarkable person. Much more than I have ever given her credit for. She was an extraordinary individual and absolutely passionate, authoritative but also very vulnerable. She and Albert had that wonderful marriage and she liked the sex but hated having the children – but then couldn’t do without that kind of closeness [after his death].”
There are a number of moments in the new film that must echo Dench’s own sense of loss. At one point Victoria looks at a portrait of Albert on the wall of her study with such longing, it’s almost painful to witness. Dench’s husband, the actor Michael Williams, died in 2001. “Mikey and I were together 30 years, less three weeks,” she says, with the precision of a loving spouse. “I miss him but I talk a lot about him.”
Dench with Michael Williams on their wedding day, 1971
She remembers the first time that someone unexpectedly presented her with a photograph of the two of them to sign, after a performance of The Winter’s Tale. It took her breath away, but now she’s prepared for it.
“Little things can still catch you unawares when you least expect it. You can be laughing and quite suddenly it’s as if somebody comes along with a hammer and you get these taps.” She clears her throat. When I ask her if she’s ever moody or bad-tempered, the actor tells me to ask David. David Mills is a conservationist and her… “I don’t know what the word is. I loathe ‘partner’ – I loathe all the words. I just say, ‘This is David,’ and he says, ‘This is Judi’; it’s too complicated otherwise.”
They have been an item for the past seven years, ever since he invited her to open a red squirrel enclosure at his British Wildlife Centre. They live four miles apart from one another on the border of Kent, Surrey and Sussex and she says that the whole thing was totally unexpected: “I think if you were looking for something it might have been different, but I had no intention [of getting involved with another man].”
David Mills and Dame Judi Dench attend the Laurence Olivier Awards, 2014
Dench has a daughter, Finty, also an actress, and a grandson, Sam, who have lived with her, on occasion. She dislikes her own company: “I like it when there are people about and I love it when the family is there. I’m bored by my own company; I get very irritated by it and restless.”
She does have hobbies – embroidery (usually rude and sweary cushions that she gives as gifts) and, encouraged by David, painting landscapes of Scotland, which she loves almost as much as India, a place she now adores from her time on the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films.
I show her a photo of herself when she was in India dressed in a sunset-red dress. “It’s a good get-up,” she says, examining it close up (her eyesight is failing because of macular degeneration). “I haven’t got a red dress – I might have to get one.”
Today, she’s in a slubby-textured cream linen tunic coat over crisp white trousers and top and looks at once chic and relaxed. Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright and Dench all bought the same coat when they were filming Tea with Mussolini in Florence, back in 1999.
When I tell her that she has always been a bit of a style icon for me, she flinches: “Oh, don’t use that word.” Style diva? “Oh yes, I like that.”
Just occasionally, Dench can have the slight aura of the schoolmistress. For instance, when we discuss Daisy Goodwin’s superb TV series Victoria, she mentions her friend Rufus Sewell (who plays Lord Melbourne). Sewell was Dench’s student when she directed what she refers to as “the Scottish play” (ie Macbeth) at Central School of Drama.
“He used to be late all the time. I told him off and then he was never, ever late again. He used to come in early even when he wasn’t needed, which was very endearing.
“Graham Norton was in it, too. He is really totally full of integrity, does all his homework and has an unbelievably kind nature… Whatever he does and however camp he is, that is the bedrock of it.” A school report to cherish.
She doesn’t mind being called old, but she won’t tolerate the “R” word. “I’m not going to say the word retire – that’s rubbish!” she says, quite crossly. “Why would you want to do that? Dan Day-Lewis has just announced his on the radio.”
We talk about the newly former actor’s shoemaking skills. “He hasn’t made me any but I’ve seen a pair he has made – he makes very beautiful shoes.” I interviewed Day-Lewis’s father-in-law, Arthur Miller, at his home in Connecticut, and he pointed out the large, good-looking wooden furniture he built. He had huge hands, I say, to which Dame Judi raises an eyebrow and says, “Oh, really?” in an unmistakably saucy way. The Irish mischief from her mother is quite strong in her.
“That’s very attractive, isn’t it? When somebody has a hobby or something that they do really, really well but keep quiet about. I think that’s very attractive.”
She starred alongside Day-Lewis in Nine, the musical film based on the life of Federico Fellini. She played Liliane La Fleur, a former star of the Folies Bergère, and she belted out a song celebrating its strutting, dancing girls – dressed in a revealing bustier and trailing a long scarlet feather boa. One can’t help but suspect that she isn’t exactly a slippers-and-cocoa octogenarian.
“Well, of course, you still feel desire,” she says. “Does that ever go? To the older reader, I would say, ‘Don’t give up!’”
It’s time to go and she gives me a heads-up about a shop across the road that has a sale on: “But don’t buy up everything because I’m going there. There’s a lovely naughty knicker shop next door…”
She has flashed her bottom in public before. “To Harvey Weinstein and Oprah Winfrey in the Royal Opera House,” she says, pronouncing Winfrey’s name very grandly.
“I was wearing black silk trousers and a top and I came round and said, ‘Yes, I have it still [a faux tattoo of the producer’s name, in gratitude for making her a film star]’. But that’s Harvey – I know him well and I’ve flashed my bum to him so many times.” At which point, the PR – who has just come in – says, firmly, “Now it really is time.”
Victoria & Abdul is in cinemas nationwide from 15 September