Miriam Margolyes talks to Maureen Paton about her hunger for success, swimming to stay fit, and her hopes of growing old disgracefully
After two outrageous recent appearances on the Graham Norton Show, she has become a YouTube hit at the age of 71. In an astonishingly productive 50-year career, she has worked with everyone from Barbra Streisand (twice) and Leonardo di Caprio to Martin Scorsese.
For millions of child fans, she’s immortalised as Harry Potter’s eccentric Professor Pomona Sprout; and now, she has hit the road with a marathon UK and world tour of her critically acclaimed one-woman show, Dickens’ Women, to mark the bicentennial of Dickens’ birth. All this has brought her several homes around the world and a jet-setting lifestyle. So where did it all go right for Miriam Margolyes?
To hear the actress talk wistfully of still-unfulfilled ambitions, you’d think she’d only just started out in showbusiness, instead of making her debut in 1962 as the only girl alongside the future Monty Python stars John Cleese and Graham Chapman in the Cambridge Footlights.
“I’m extremely hungry for more success. I want to be invited to the National Theatre and the RSC and do some serious roles in the West End,” says Miriam, spurred on by the feeling that time may be running out. “I think I have got a long way to go and I probably have six or seven years of active professional life if I’m lucky. But I utterly adore performing, it’s my life’s pleasure.”
When, at 51, she first met Michelle Pfeiffer on the set of Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, Miriam famously broke the ice (and provoked a fit of Hollywood giggles) by greeting the slender Pfeiffer with, “Hello, fatty.” Maturity has certainly brought more social confidence to Miriam, once a self-styled “frightened little muffin”, even if it hasn’t yet cured her stage fright.
“But those pre-show nerves are a good sign,” she points out, “it means the adrenaline is flowing.” And four years ago, she felt relaxed enough at 67 to come out publicly as gay on Desert Island Discs. “I am what I am, I’m very happy with myself,” says Miriam, whose partner is a retired Australian academic that she prefers not to name in interviews.
And despite yearning for more serious roles in the classic tradition of the comedian who longs to play Hamlet, the passing years have brought her more status, too.
“After years of being seen as just a funny little character actress, suddenly I seem to have transmogrified into a rather important older actress, which comes back to longevity – because if you’ve been around long enough, people think you’re wonderful,” says Miriam, who received an OBE for services ?to drama in 2001.
Yet she’s well aware of the dangers of overwork and too little exercise. “I’ve always been very frightened of strokes because my mother had one and it’s the most terrible way to end your life,” she says. A keen swimmer, she regularly does 40 lengths of the nearest pool, even on tour.
“When you get to over 70, you have to take care of yourself,” adds Miriam, who considers herself “pretty fit despite being overweight”.
Meanwhile, the offers keep coming in on both sides of the Atlantic. Her first Graham Norton appearance last year was spotted by the director of Barbra Streisand’s forthcoming film The Guilt Trip, Anne Fletcher, which led to Miriam working with the great diva again for the first time since Yentl nearly 30 years ago. And no, she didn’t greet Streisand as Fatty; there is a limit to even Miriam’s lack of inhibition. “Barbra is very friendly and professional but she knows she has to protect herself in a perfectly polite way against exhaustion and people interfering, so you are not expected to have major confidences with her.”
Back in the UK earlier this year, she filmed the role of a haughty grandmother alongside Dame Harriet Walter and Robert Webb in the new British rom-com The Wedding Video, even though Miriam doesn’t consider herself “granny material.” Instead, her main passion – apart from Dickens – is her computer. As one of the first wave of pioneering silver surfers 20 years ago, she now counts genealogy as her favourite hobby after online discoveries of “lots of cousins in Israel, South Africa and America”.
All that clearly helps to keep her young at heart. Yet she’s very comfortable with being 71 and even looks forward to living in a retirement home one day. “I love the idea of retirement villages,” she declares impulsively. “I’ve always preferred the company of people over 70 anyway: one of the first things that attracted me to my partner was that she had prematurely white hair!”
Although the couple of 43 years don’t feel the need for a civil partnership or marriage, Miriam is prudent enough to be considering plans for a living will.
“I think it’s important when you’re not married, because staff in hospitals can be funny about letting your partner make decisions for you,” she says.
So she seems to have everything sorted. One imagines that any retirement home with Miriam in it is going to be such enormous fun that we’ll all be queuing up to get in. “I have always been naughty; my comedy is potty-mouthed,” she says. “So I’m going to grow old disgracefully – I hope.”