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Judi Dench - Biography

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Judi Dench

Personal details

Name: Judi Dench
Born: 9 December 1934 (Age: 80)
Where: York, England
Height: 5' 3"
Awards: 1 Oscar, 9 BAFTAs, 1 Golden Globe

All about this star


As if singlehandedly setting out to prove that actresses aren't necessarily finished when they reach A Certain Age, Dame Judi Dench achieved her greatest fame and loudest plaudits while in her mid-sixties. Formerly known as one of the UK's finest Shakespearians, once she'd taken to screen acting in earnest she was continually Oscar-nominated, for her roles in Mrs Brown, Shakespeare In Love, Chocolat, Iris and Mrs Henderson Presents, and this despite a general aversion to film-making. Dench has stated that, in films, people are cast primarily because they LOOK like a character, whereas on stage, in an hour and a half, she has the opportunity and ability to convince the audience she is whatever she chooses to be. THAT's acting.

Judith Olivia Dench was born on December 9th, 1934, in York, England. Her mother, Olave, hailed from Dublin, while her father, Reginald, studied medicine at Trinity College and then worked as a doctor in York. Inadvertently, it was he who introduced Judi to the world of theatre, as she would accompany him backstage at York's Theatre Royal when he was busy as the company's GP. Touring performers would often be guests in the Dench household.

As a child, as she is now, Judi was very vivacious, hot-tempered and loquacious, one teacher noting that she should learn to be quiet. These qualities she surely gained from her parents. Reginald was an extremely amusing fellow and a fine raconteur. This made him hugely popular, especially with children. Judi recalls how kids would run after the car, grabbing at the handles, whenever he arrived or left. That temper came from Olave, who once threw a vacuum cleaner down the stairs, aiming at a sales rep who'd called to inquire about it. Olave also made a point of often criticising her daughter, though she quietly worshipped her.

Home was a sprawling Victorian house which Judi shared with her parents and two older brothers (Michael would follow his father into medicine, while Jeffrey would lead Judi into the theatre). Judi had possession of the attic room and, as daddy's favourite, was allowed to draw on the walls. Judi would later describe her young life as being "like Swallows And Amazons", playing with bikes and rollerskates, making phone systems out of string and tin cans. She'd always be dressing up and singing along with the family as her mother played piano. There'd be no TV in the house until the Coronation in 1953.

Judi would later claim that she first became enthused by acting when taken to see Jeff perform Shakespeare at his boys' school, where he was Katherine in The Taming Of The Shrew, and then Cassius. She also recalls her first contact with professional theatre, an adaptation of Ben Travers' A Cuckoo In The Nest that had her laughing till she was ill. Quickly, she'd join in herself when the family became involved in the York Mystery Plays where her mother was wardrobe mistress. For the first year the kids would merely be angels and citizens, but Judi would be eternally chuffed to play Mary alongside her dad's Joseph.

From 1947 to 1953, she'd be a boarder at York's Mount School (she was in the same year as novelist AS Byatt, author of Possession). Here, Dench really took to the Quaker faith (she still attends meetings, and claims it's the only time she's "still"). This religion eschews both formal doctrine and ordained priests, and encourages followers to work hard and try to find the light in others as well as in themselves. This may explain Dench's tough work ethic, a love for communal theatre life that has often seen her turn down film parts, and a desire to play to the audience that's marked by a disdain for showiness.

Having as a child wanted to be a dancer or a painter, Judi later came to believe her way into theatre would be as a designer and began training at art school. Here she stayed for just one year as, demoralised by the quality of set she saw at Stratford and enthused by brother Jeffrey's tales of life at London's Central School of Speech and Drama, she decided to try acting. In truth, she wasn't sure what she wanted to be and hadn't really enjoyed stage work at Mount School, even when starring as Ariel in The Tempest (she'd made her debut as a snail in a play put on at her Quaker junior school). Indeed, AS Byatt later recalled having a conversation about Dench with English mistress Katharine MacDonald, the teacher saying "You know, Judi will probably be content to dabble her pretty feet in amateur dramatics".

She had a point. Dench had no confidence in her abilities and was surprised to find herself accepted by Central School. These problems continued until her second term, and one event in particular. The pupils had been told to prepare a mime performance, and Judi had forgotten all about it. As third up, she had no time to invent anything fancy and so mimed a visit to a beautiful garden, picking and smelling flowers, tossing pebbles into a pool and playing on a swing. Her teacher, Walter Hudd, was most impressed, saying she'd looked "like a little Renoir". She was on her way.

Now she had the confidence to go with that bubbling, positivist personality. Fellow pupil Vanessa Redgrave would later admit that everyone was admiring, even jealous of Judi's natural manner, how she'd be continuously skipping and hopping with pleasure and excitement. Also, she had style, wearing a polo-neck sweater and floppy ballet slippers along with the only jeans in the school. At the end of her course, she graduated with a first class degree and four acting prizes, one being the Gold Medal as Outstanding Student. A note on the honours board marked her out as the student most likely to succeed.

And the success was immediate when Judi was snapped up by the Old Vic company and made her debut as an elfin Ophelia in Hamlet in Liverpool. Her rocket-like ascent was hyped heavily, to the fury of Hamlet himself, John Neville, who believed too much pressure was being put on so inexperienced an actress. Nevertheless, the damage was done. The critics' swords were out. Kenneth Tynan called her "a pleasing but terribly sane little thing", while the Sunday Dispatch dismissed her as "a piece of Danish patisserie". Come the end of the season when the production was set to tour the States, the role was taken from her, an action she later described as being like "a dagger to the heart".

As this point, John Neville stepped in again, telling her to examine her heart and decide just why she was on the stage at all. She did, and re-started her career with renewed vigour, gaining vast experience in what was a golden period for British theatre. 1958 saw her Broadway debut as maid Maria in the Old Vic's Twelfth Night, as well as playing Lady Macbeth at a tribal gathering in West Africa. She shared a dressing-room with rising star Maggie Smith, the pair on one occasion having to lock themselves in a bathroom to avoid the amorous advances of comic actor Miles Malleson.

At the same time, British cinema was enjoying a renaissance with the onset of the Angry Young Men and the kitchen-sink drama, but Dench was not permitted entry to this new screen elite. Not only was she turned down for the lead in A Taste Of Honey, directed by Tony Richardson (soon to marry her former classmate Vanessa Redgrave), but she was also told that she did not have "the face for film". Naturally, this rather put her off which was unfortunate as, with her close-cropped hair, strong chin and natural alertness, she would have made a fine embodiment of the new strands of feminism sweeping the western world.

Instead, she concentrated on theatre and, in 1961, along with Redgrave, was asked by Peter Hall to help form the Royal Shakespeare Company. This was another extraordinary experience, and she won great praise as Titania in Hall's A Midsummer Night's Dream and as Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo And Juliet. So pleased and protective were her parents that they attended the latter over 70 times, becoming so involved that once, when Dench delivered the line "Where is my father and my mother, nurse?", Reginald let out a thoroughly inappropriate "Here we are, darling, in Row H". The critics were taken with her, too, one claiming "You weren't quite aware of her feet touching the ground", and lauding her "extraordinary agility of body and mind". 1962 would see her in The Cherry Orchard where she met actor Ian Holm, a great friend to this day, with whom she has co-starred in many films and plays. In 1964, she'd finally make her screen debut in The Third Secret, helmed by the legendary English director Charles Crichton. The next year, she'd follow it with A Study In Terror, where former stage co-star John Neville played a young Sherlock Holmes on the trail of Jack The Ripper. Then there'd be Four In The Morning, for which she won a BAFTA as best film newcomer (she'd win another two years later, in 1968, for the TV series Talking To A Stranger)

But it wasn't all po-faced thespianism. Dench has a highly advanced sense of humour, as proved back in 1965 in a production of Noel Coward's Private Lives. Co-starring with Edward Woodward, the pair were constantly playing pranks on one another, the funniest being when, during one performance, Woodward shoved Dench against a drinks trolley. The trolley was supposed to topple over with a crash, but on this occasion it stayed upright, with Dench stuck in it. Instead of helping his co-star to her feet, Woodward turned and walked away, leaving her to humiliatingly struggle free. At Nottingham Playhouse, she put a notice on the box-office saying "Judi Dench is not ill - she just talks like this" and would also send herself up in 1968, when appearing on the Morecambe & Wise Show. That same year she'd reveal her musical gifts when playing Sally Bowles in the original West End production of Cabaret. Dench is a hugely emotive singer, still devastating audiences 30-odd years later in A Little Night Music, with its classic centrepiece, Send In the Clowns. There would be more stage impropriety here when, on the show's last night, Dench, playing Desiree Armfeldt opposite American co-star Laurence Gittard, opened her dressing-gown to reveal the words "Go home Yank" written on her corset.

The Sixties proved that Dench was one of the country's finest young actresses, and versatile enough to succeed on both the small and silver screens. They also showed that she was no judge of men. Her friends and peers would later say that she was always in love with the wrong guy. One of these was Leonard Rossiter, the comic legend at the time in another relationship. Judi was starring in The Promise with Ian McKellan and emotions were running high, Dench veering wildly between ecstasy and floods of tears.

At the end of the Sixties, though, this all changed when happiness rode in on the back of a black tragedy. During the RSC's 1969 season, Dench was seeing a lot of actor Michael Williams. The pair had first met nearly a decade before, when Judi was Zeffirelli's Juliet and Williams was starring in In Celebration. They became friends and, during the ensuing years, would often go out for drinks. Now, with Williams in Stratford to recuperate from an injured knee, suddenly and strangely something happened. As Dench would later remember, "a small explosion erupted between us". Still they didn't accept it as serious, Dench taking off with her brother Jeff for an RSC tour of Australia with Twelfth Night. Judi was playing Viola, Orsino being Charlie Thomas, a promising young actor with a drink problem. All was fine until Thomas, who'd fallen heavily for Dench, realised his affections were not returned. Distraught, he took his own life, leaving Dench shattered. She needed help badly.

In the wake of this catastrophe, Williams flew to Australia to comfort her. He was supposed to be there for only a week, he even said his goodbyes, but when Judi returned from the theatre to the hotel he was still there. And so it went on. Every week was to be his last but he could not leave her, eventually flying home with her after the show had completed its six week run. He even proposed to her, but was turned down, Dench saying the setting was too romantic for her to make a reasonable decision. "Ask me on a rainy night in Battersea", she told him. He did, and was accepted, to the joy of many. When Trevor Nunn first saw the pair together on their return from Australia he immediately cast them (along with Jeff) in his latest, London Assurance.

In some respects, it was a strange coupling. Williams was severely lacking in confidence and occasionally depressive, a situation not helped by Dench's ever-increasing succcess and her endlessly upbeat mood (a mood once described as "a little Panglossian", while Williams himself was once heard to complain "with Judi it's bloody Christmas morning every day"). Nevertheless, it was a fine romance. Williams would send her a red rose every Friday for the next 30 years, a tradition continued after his death from cancer in January 2001 by the couple's daughter Tara Cressida Frances Williams (known as Finty and also an actress) - though now the rose would be pink.

With Finty born, Dench made a conscious decision to cut down her work-load and care for the child. The Seventies would see her appear just a couple of times on the big screen, in Luther (alongside Stacy Keach and old flame Leonard Rossiter) and Dead Cert. There'd be many a theatrical triumph, including her classic, Olivier award-winning Lady Macbeth, opposite Ian McKellen and directed by Trevor Nunn in 1976. And she'd make a mark in TV with the critical lauded Langrishe, Go Down, directed by David Jones. Jones, who'd dated Judi during her early career, later commented on her need to have a crowd or family of workmates and playmates around her. Often, he said, when he thought they'd planned a cosy evening for two, he'd arrive to discover she'd invited a bunch of friends and acquaintances. For 12 years she and Michael Williams had both sets of in-laws living at their house.

The Eighties would see advances in all areas of her career. The decade would begin with another Olivier for her performances as Juno Boyle in Juno And The Paycock. She'd then hit TV paydirt alongside her husband in the long-running comedy series A Fine Romance, for which she sang the theme song and won another BAFTA. 1982 saw her pick up a London Critics' Circle award for A Kind Of Alaska and The Importance Of Being Earnest. 1983 would bring a third Olivier when, again playing opposite Williams, she appeared in Pack Of Lies. In 1986 there'd be Mr And Mrs Nobody (writer and director Ned Sherrin has said he added a couple of walk-on parts to this 2-person play to satisfy Judi's need for a family of players). And 1987 saw a fourth Olivier, for Antony And Cleopatra. This last performance, as Cleopatra, was years in the coming. Peter Hall had been trying to persuade her to try it since the Sixties, but she'd always refused, saying her queen of Egypt would be no more than "a menopausal dwarf". Once she did take the part, realising now that Cleopatra's attraction lay in her emotional power and extremism, she was a smash, taking everyone aback with her sexual force. She might have brought the same power to the role of Grizabella in the original West End version of Cats, but was forced out by illness, leaving Elaine Paige to lap up the praise for her centrepiece performance of Memories.

She also, for the first time in 11 years, returned to cinema in David Hare's dark debut Wetherby, and quickly followed this with appearances in several of the finest British films of the decade - A Room With A View, 84 Charing Cross Road, A Handful Of Dust and Kenneth Branagh's Henry V.

Though she was one of the country's grandest and most experienced thespians, Dench was always keen to try out something new and exciting, and consequently forged a close working relationship with the theatre's new tyro, Branagh. She was a founder member of his Renaissance Theatre Company and directed him in Much Ado About Nothing and Look Back In Anger. In turn, he would direct her in his film versions of Hamlet and, as mentioned, Henry V. Beyond this, they'd appear together in an adaptation of Ibsen's Ghosts and, in 1992, she'd play Volumnia to his Coriolanus at Chichester.

The Eighties ended in a spectacular blow-out when Judi rejoined director Richard Eyre for Hamlet, a production famous for the breakdown of its star, Daniel Day-Lewis who, under immense stress due to the furore surrounding My Left Foot, had terrifying visions of his own dead father backstage. Beyond this, Dench admits she just could not get to grips with the character of Gertrude, Hamlet's mother. Still, she was soon back on the up, her success in the Nineties being nothing short of astounding. She began with an acclaimed TV version of Rodney Ackland's classic play Absolute Hell, forgotten since the 50s. Then came another television smash with a second comedy series, As Time Goes By. Onstage, she maintained her form in The Plough And The Stars, Edward Bond's The Sea, The Gift Of The Gorgon and The Seagull. She stepped back into cinema with the slight romance Jack And Sarah (alongside her long-time cohort Ian McKellen) - and then came the first stage of the big breakthrough. She was already famed in the UK as a great stage actress and TV comedienne. Now, in 1995, she became world-famous as James Bond's no-nonsense boss M, her sheer authority making her the franchise's first and only strong female character. The Nineties would see her in three Bond films - Goldeneye, Tomorrow Never Dies, and The World Is Not Enough - all of them enormous hits. There was a downside, of course, as there always is. 1994 had seen her Hampstead home burn down, with a lifetime's worth of memorabilia destroyed.

Onstage, she was now unstoppable, unmatchable. 1996 saw her become the first person to win two Oliviers for two different roles in the same year, showing her range once again in A Little Night Music and Absolute Hell. The next year, she won another London Critics' Award as Esme Allen in Richard Eyre's Amy's View, the production moving from the National Theatre to the West End and then, by 1999, on to Broadway. It was Judi's first appearance there in forty years, and a triumphant return indeed. There were advance ticket sales of over $3 million, even surpassing the takings of The Blue Room, a play featuring a controversially nude Nicole Kidman, and Dench deservedly won a Tony.

Could it get any better? Incredibly, yes. Dench had made a short gap in her hectic schedule to spend 30 days shooting a TV film called Mrs Brown. This saw her as Queen Victoria, grieving over her deceased Albert and retreating to seclusion at Balmoral. Here she's looked after by tough Scot Billy Connolly who encourages her to embrace life once more. As said, it wasn't supposed to be a big deal, but then Miramax's Harvey Weinstein saw it, decided it would make a great feature film and released it to cinemas. And - bang! - suddenly Judi was a film star, winning a Golden Globe and an Oscar-nomination.

Weinstein wasn't finished yet. He involved both Dench and Mrs Brown's director John Madden in the upcoming Shakespeare In Love and, though she appeared onscreen for only eight minutes as Queen Elizabeth I, Judi this time took the coveted Oscar. Film-wise, she would finish the decade by reuniting with Franco Zeffirelli for Tea With Mussolini, joining a top female cast including Joan Plowright, Cher and her former Old Vic mucker Maggie Smith. She and Smith had not seen much of each other for many years after their initial theatre experiences, but became close when both were cast in A Room With A View. Now they became closer still as Dench helped Smith recover from the loss of her husband, Beverley Cross. Sadly, Smith would be returning the favour all too soon.

The new millennium brought another Oscar nomination for her role as the tetchy oldster seeking reconciliation in Chocolat. She then proceeded to win a Golden Globe and an Emmy nomination for TV's The Last Of The Blonde Bombshells, in which she played sax as a member of an all-girl band (Ian Holm, also appeared, in drag). But there was also much sadness with Michael Williams moving into the final stages of his illness. Daughter Finty would move back to Wasp Green, her parents' 5-acre estate in Surrey, bringing Judi's grandson Sammy to live in their 1680 yeoman's house. Incidentally, one of the other great emotional blows Dench suffered in these latter years was when Finty, fearing the reaction of her Catholic father, kept the news of her pregnancy from Judi till she was eight months gone. This was in 1997 when, in an odd case of life imitating art, Judi was rehearsing the part of Esme Allen in Amy's View.

Once Michael had passed away, Judi threw herself into work. In the West End she played the head of a theatrical dynasty in The Royal Family, provided the voice of the giantess in the Broadway revival of Into The Woods then enjoyed a sell-out run in David Hare's The Breath Of Life, where she and Maggie Smith were two women who discover they've each had an affair with the same man. Hare has another amusing tale to tell about Dench, recalling how, knowing she was good at needlepoint, he'd asked her to make something for him to give his mum on Mother's Day. She did, the embroidery was beautiful, and it was only after he'd presented it to his beloved parent that he noticed the words "F*** off" stitched into the material.

Onscreen, Judi'd earn yet ANOTHER Oscar nomination for her performance as the older, Alzheimer's-suffering version of the controversial, bisexual novelist Iris Murdoch, alongside Jim Broadbent in Richard Eyre's Iris. After this there would be The Shipping News, where Dench played the aunt of troubled Kevin Spacey, who discovers love, trust and his own history when he moves home to Newfoundland. And, of course, there was the role she was born to play - Lady Bracknell, bossing about Rupert Everett and Colin Firth in The Importance Of Being Earnest. Only Dench could match the severity and crushing observations of Edith Evans in the original version. There would be more M too, in the 20th instalment of the James Bond franchise, Die Another Day.

2004 saw her return to the stage as Countess Rossillion in All's Well That End's Well for 10 weeks in Stratford then on to the West End's Gielgud Theatre. It was the first time she'd played Shakespeare in London since that ill-fated Hamlet. One evening, during the intermission, she raced to Cambridge Circus and made a two-minute appearance in Les Miserables, basically getting shot and carried off. At the flicks, she was hand-picked by Vin Diesel for The Chronicles Of Riddick, the follow-up to his barn-storming performance in Pitch Black. Diesel had seen Dench in The Breath Of Life back in 2002 and, though he was not permitted backstage, sent her flowers and chose her to be Aereon, an elemental who pops up to explain the background of the furious action on the planet Crematoria as Diesel's Riddick is chased by bounty hunters and struggles against weird undead cult the Necros. The movie was kept from US Number One only by the third instalment of the Harry Potter series.

Dench would follow this with the far less explosive but far more engaging Ladies In Lavender, the directorial debut of Charles Dance. Here Judi was reunited once more with Maggie Smith, the pair playing sisters who find shipwrecked young sailor Daniel Bruhl on the seashore. As they cannot communicate with him, the question arises as to whether he's a German spy, this being the late 1930s, and matters are further complicated by virgin spinster Dench falling for him, fooling herself that she's got a chance and suffering quiet anguish as he in turn falls for young painter Natascha McElhone. Dench would now slip back into Lady Bracknell mode for a new adaptation of Pride And Prejudice where she'd play Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the fearsome, bitter and belligerent aunt of D'Arcy who really does not approve of Keira Knightley's vulgar Bennet family.

Pride And Prejudice would be released in 2005, just before Stephen Frears' Mrs Henderson Presents. Here Dench would star as Laura Henderson, the eccentric, flamboyant and headstrong lady who took over a run-down London theatre and legendarily put on London's first nude reviews, even entertaining the crowds during the Blitz and thus earning the famous sign "We Never Closed". For her efforts Dench would gain a fifth Oscar nomination in nine years. On TV there'd be a couple of special editions of As Time Goes By, and she'd also publish a photo-book reaching back to her childhood in York and her stage debut, titled Scenes From My Life. The next year would bring the more contemporary Notes On A Scandal, based on the hit novel by Zoe Heller. Reuniting her with her Iris director Richard Eyre, this would see Dench as a lonely teacher reaching out to new and younger colleague Cate Blanchett and befriending her. But serious problems arise when Blanchett engages in an affair with an underage student and her life begins to unravel, Dench now becoming her defender and witness - though it seems the older woman may have sinister motives for her behaviour.

Both Dench and Blanchett would be Oscar-nominated, Dench for the sixth time. It was noted that pre-Dench only three actors had been nominated three times after their 60th birthday - Paul Newman, Katherine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier. All six of Dench's nominations had come after the Big 6-0. Beyond this glory, of course, there would be more Bond, the franchise rejuvenated by the appointment of Daniel Craig as 007 in Casino Royale.

Still Dench could not keep away from the stage. 2006 would see her as a preening, hilarious Judith Bliss in Noel Coward's Hay Fever, directed by Peter Hall. Then she'd be back with the RSC, playing Mistress Quickly in a musical version of The Merry Wives Of Windsor, alongside Simon Callow and brother Jeff. She'd follow this with a small screen appearance in a BBC take on Elizabeth Gaskell's classic Cranford, starring as Miss Matty Jenkyns, a lady of the early 19th Century who reveals true humanity and decency as she faces a series of setbacks.

Judi has been praised for her "volatility, insecurity, mischief and moral resilience", and for her "extraordinary access to her emotions" - skills honed, of course, over nearly 45 years of hard graft. Amazingly, she never reads the scripts sent to her, preferring someone else to give her the general gist, a job performed for many years by her beloved husband. Whilst on the subject of being loved, Dench has become one of the UK's best-loved performers. Indeed, a Youguv poll in 2002 made her second only to the Queen as Britain's best-loved PERSON. In 2001, it was Dench who was asked by the 77 British families who lost loved ones in the World Trade Centre attack to read at the memorial service in Westminster Abbey.

Dench would not have liked to have beaten the Queen in that poll. A staunch Royalist, she was awarded an OBE in 1970, was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1988 and a Companion Of Honour in 2005. The Queen's respect for her was further evinced by a letter of consolation she sent when Judi's home burned down. Mind you, in keeping with that naughty streak of hers, Judi's respect for royalty did not prevent her and Ian McKellen sneaking away and sitting on the throne when both were invited to Buckingham Palace.

The respect in which Judi Dench is held, and her success, has been hard won. When she was just starting out, an older player once recalled, her voice was so croaky she sounded like she had laryngitis (hence that sign at the Nottingham Playhouse). In the hard world of stage acting, he believed, she had no chance. But, as always, she worked on it, put in the hours, and made it right. She is a genuine great.

Dominic Wills

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