Personal detailsName: Judi Dench
Born: 9 December 1934 (Age: 78)
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.