Miriam Margolyes, her irrepressibility covering up for shyness, doesn’t allow political correctness, career prospects or tact to inhibit her. She’s an overweight, rip-roaring blast of good humour, sense, and explicit language, which sounds innocent coming from her girlish voice, who spent three weeks in Jaipur, India, with seven other over-60s, for a three-part series to test the opportunities for retirement there.
She arrives for lunch at a fashionable London restaurant hugging a two-litre bottle of sparkling water, and orders smoked salmon and fish of the day from waiters who are instantly attentive to her. “We all worried about how we’ll come over because we work in television, but I didn’t modify my behaviour. Now...” she says, clipping a napkin holder round her neck, “so I don’t spill food on my breasts. They’re 44G. Or even F. Huge.” She has no inhibitions, was once a life model at an art school, and the voice of Sexy Sonia in a soft-core audio production. But we digress, as is often the case with her.
“Please don’t call us celebrities,” she continues. “I detest the word. I worried because all except me have been in some ‘celebrity’ programme. I’d never do that, even though I’ve been offered a very great deal of money [she earned £10,000 for this show]. I don’t like the title. It’s stupid to be associated with the Marigold films [The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and last year’s sequel, about a group of ageing expatriates in India] because it leads to false expectations. I wanted ‘Eight Old Farts in India’. We might get a pasting from the critics. They’ll say, ‘Who do these people think they are?’ I won’t watch because it will annoy me and I can’t deal with looking at myself on television. It’s a supreme horror.”
She loved the experience, however.
“I accepted because I wanted to visit India again. We all ended up with a profound admiration for the country, its wonderful people, and felt privileged. Of course we were apprehensive in the beginning. The group are not who I’d normally mix with, and at our age you don’t want to be bunged up with a lot of people you don’t know. I worried I wouldn’t find a toilet when I needed one. I had to warn the others that I fart. That’s only polite.”
They lodged in a 150-year-old haveli, the ancestral home of a brigadier and his wife, built around a courtyard, which cost the celebrities £20 each a day. At first they had to fend for themselves, shopping, cooking and housework. “I don’t do any of that,” she admits. “On the second day we decided it would be sensible to pay the servants who were already there [another £20 each per week]. That’s one reason India is an attractive proposition for retiring. Servants are much more reasonable than in England. It’s not exploitation so long as you pay a proper salary.”
She became an Australian citizen in 2013, like her partner of 46 years, Heather, an academic who works in Amsterdam. “I feel lonely when she’s not with me. I love to have a nice talk when I wake up, so I looked forward to breakfast with everyone.”
Her fellow travellers didn’t realise she had a stash of Vegemite with her, which she declined to share. “Patti [Boulaye] looked gorgeous every morning and amazed us with her costumes. She wanted us to say grace, but I refused.” She initated more earthy communication over the naan. “What’s the difference between herpes and love?” she asked. “Herpes is forever…
“I think the production company hoped I’d make people laugh and defuse any difficulties – but there weren’t any. They wanted conflicts, or a couple falling in love. They knew I wouldn’t have a romance, but they hoped it could be Jan [Leeming] and Roy [Walker], but that wasn’t going to happen.”
Leeming visits a “psychic guru” and marvels at his accuracy when he tells her she’s been in love with six men but hasn’t found peace of mind. She’s lived for the past 20 years with a cat, and says, “My life has been messed up with men.”
Margolyes adds, “Jan is lovely, but fragile, so I was careful what I said. She packed my suitcase when we left because I’m no good at that. She’d brought her own tissue paper to wrap clothes in. The only time that’s happened to me before was when I was invited to Sandringham.”
The group made trips to the Taj Mahal in Agra and the Ganges, practiced hog — although Margolyes managed one session — and went shopping for clothes. She bought a couple of pairs of prescription glasses. “Much cheaper than in England. The optician recognised me as Professor Sprout [from the Harry Potter films] – wherever you go it has an impact.”
They also had comprehensive check-ups at the local hospital [£130 compared to £1,600 privately in the UK]. “It was clinically excellent and I wouldn’t worry about being ill in India. I have to go into hospital soon, but I’d prefer to be at home with friends and family.”
The hospital was the scene of a rare contretemps. “I refused to be filmed getting off a bus twice. The director said, ‘I’m an award-winning director. Please do it’, and I said, ‘I never thought I’d say this, but I’m an award- winning actress with a bad leg and if your film depends on seeing me get in and out of a bus we’re in trouble.’
“You must have some mashed potato,” she admonishes, before emptying the dish on to her plate. Any regrets? I ask. “I should have got thin, but I eat too much. I hate the word ‘moderation’. I’d like to have done the RSC.”
Last time we met she said she was disappointed she hadn’t been more successful. In 2014 she toured Australia with I’ll Eat You Last about American talent agent Sue Mengers, a role played on Broadway by Bette Midler. She wanted to bring it to London, “but I couldn’t find a theatre. I’m just not important enough.
“I feel I’ve been rumbled if I’m not working. I was terribly upset not to be in Dickensian, so I pretend to look down on it. The part I should have played, Mrs Gamp, is done brilliantly by Pauline Collins, but I entered this world for no other reason than to play that part. Maybe it’s for the best, though. As Wilde says: ‘When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.’
“I wouldn’t consider retiring to India: there are too many people and it’s difficult walking along the pavements. I’d love to spend two or three months a year there. I want a comfortable old age, and to be looked after – I have arthritis – and money is a factor. You could live well with pots of it, but you’d be with others who were the same and I don’t like that. I have a class prejudice – against the upper class, which is foolish.
“We met the local maharajah and his family – I put on lipstick specially – and they were wonderful, with the same grace and dignity as those in the slums who we saw making puppets. They were real artists and not bitter – you don’t see that in India, unlike in England.”
She orders chocolate truffles infused with cognac. “Do I come out of the documentary all right? You can tell me the truth.” I’d heard the others called her Führer. “I don’t remember that, but I am very bossy so it would be fitting. In fact we’ve all become friends and meet up. People become more their true selves as they age. I’d like to be a nicer person but I’ve become less tolerant because I don’t have much time left. I’m lucky to have lasted this long – I didn’t expect to.
“Old people have a much better time in India because they’re respected. Here we can’t bear them. But, tough, I demand it. I was waiting for a train at Waverley Station in Edinburgh. My knee was hurting so I asked a young man for his seat. He replied, ‘There’s one over there.’ I said, ‘Please,’ and when he refused I poured my water over him. He swore and another lady said, ‘You assaulted him. I’m reporting you to the police.’ She did. Nothing happened.”
She finishes her truffles. The waiters fuss around her, and give us an Equity discount. “I love it here, but I’m aching to return to India.”
The Real Marigold Hotel begins tonight at 9pm on BBC2