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DENCH, JUDI: Mrs Brown, Tomorrow Never Dies

Australians can see her as Victoria, the reigning monarch of 19
th century England one day, and as M, the reigning head of the British Secret Service the next. Talking about it all, Dame Judi Dench told ANDREW L. URBAN how she shared Billy Connolly’s blue sense of humour.

Only eight o’clock in the morning in England, and Judi Dench is already on the phone - to Australia. Her voice, soft and unhurried, belies a formidable schedule, making the BBC TV sitcom, ‘As Time Goes By’ by day, and appearing in David Hare’s ‘Amy’s View’ on the West End stage by night. And now, interviews around the world’s time zones for Her Majesty Mrs Brown, the film in which she plays Queen Victoria.

"Working with him was heaven. We share the same sense of humour – very blue!" on working with Billy Connolly

The film canvasses her extraordinary relationship with John Brown, the forthright Highlander, the hunting guide employed at Balmoral, whose loyalty and devotion helped get her through the deep grief in which Albert’s death left her. Brown is played by Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, in a piece of casting that had the British thespians in uproar: not with disdain, says Dench, "with enormous envy. I got a huge amount of envy over that, that I got such a lovely thing to do. When they said to me would you like to play Queen Victoria opposite Billy Connolly, he was the bait for me, to be honest with you. I’m a huge fan and have been for a long, long time. Working with him was heaven….just heaven. If they’d asked me to walk across the park in one of his shows, I’d have said yes. We share the same sense of humour – very blue!"

The fact that they cried together from laughter after the 17th take of her being lifted off her horse by Connolly was a bonus. "The trouble was I had to sit side saddle and every time he lifted me off, some part of me would remain on the horse. We just cried with laughter, and luckily this time I wasn’t wearing make up, so I didn’t have to have touch ups for every take. My face just got pudgier and pudgier, which was appropriate for Victoria at that time, anyway," she says, laughing softly.

For us in Australia, it is a treat to see her as the reigning monarch of 19th century England one day, and as M, the reigning head of the British Secret Service the next – depending on the order in which we see the two films, of course, because Tomorrow Never Dies, the latest Bond film, opened on December 18, a week before Her Majesty Mrs Brown. (She first played M in Goldeneye, fondly telling Bond he was a "sexist dinosaur of the Cold War.")

"She was extremely passionate - and yet she had to repress so much." on Queen Victoria

The treat will not be simply because of the contrasts in character, but in what she does with her portrait of Queen Victoria. "For once, I did a huge amount of research for this, and I learnt so much about her: she was not at all like the stereotypical image we have of a stiff, impassionate woman who never smiled or never laughed. She was extremely passionate, had a vile temper, she was passionate about Albert and she was a person of extremes of emotion - and yet she had to repress so much."

She was, then, very British, in that there was a great deal going on beneath the surface? "Absolutely right. Things she wasn’t able to show."

Dench displays all the nuances of the anguished monarch in her twighlight years, whose world is defined by her sorrow, her loneliness and her tempestuous feelings, in a court which plays for power and whose feelings are mere attitudes in search of ambition satisfied.

"I’ve always tried to do the most different roles that come up, to try and stretch myself as much as possible."

Playing M and then playing Queen Victoria was "just like my whole career," she says with a short giggle, "because I never wanted to be called that Shakespearean actress, or that film actress, or that television actress who does sitcoms…I’ve always tried to do the most different roles that come up, to try and stretch myself as much as possible. People tend to want to cast you in the same thing they’ve just seen you in, unless you’re lucky enough to be able to choose."

"You could very easily be caught out."

Dench has played more roles than this writer has had hot breakfasts, yet she "always finds something to challenge . . . always, always. That’s why you never can get complacent. The thing about Victoria is that she’s very much still in people’s minds, there’s so much written about her, and you could very easily be caught out."

One thing Dench found out in the nick of time, for example, is that Victoria was left handed. There are only a couple of moment in the film where she is seen writing, but for Dench it would have been mortifying to learn from one of the many keen observers of Victoria’s life that she had got it wrong – with her right hand.

"Thank goodness I found out about that, because there are so many aficionados and I could have been caught out."

The film brings out a story of Victoria’s reliance on Brown to such an extent that, as the title suggests, she was referred to behind her back for some time – critically – as Her Majesty Mrs Brown. The English, renown for their razor sharp put downs when it comes to ‘society’ and proper behaviour, found her slavishness to Brown totally disturbing.

"It’s a revelation of a story" on Mrs Brown

Brown was originally summoned from Balmoral in 1864 to walk the Queen’s pony, in the hope that a little exercise will help her regain some energy and enthusiasm for life, when her profound grief threatened to make her a virtual recluse. The self assured Highlander, with no time for the niceties of the court, soon became her most trusted servant, her most loyal friend and her most dedicated guardian, protecting her from a hostile court and public. A unique intimacy ensued - the sort of secret English passion that Anthony Hopkins displayed in Remains of the Day - and lasted until Brown’s death more than 15 years later.

It’s a revelation of a story, and filmed with disciplined care by John Madden, a stage and screen director, and television writer Jeremy Brock, who makes the transition to the big screen with consummate ease. They are superbly aided by cinematographer Richard Greatrex (who also shot For Queen and Country, starring Denzel Washington, among many other things). His landscapes are breathtaking, and his interiors are lit with subtlety and magic.

The film is replete with the sort of characterisations that only the Brits can pull off at any depth. Even the chamber maids are full-blown characters.

"Being married to a fellow actor is 'something you work out as you go along.'"

This is what makes the film satisfying, the depth of acting talent. As Dench says, acting is an intangible thing, but she believes there is only good acting and bad acting. Good acting is when you can tell a whole character without them saying a line, or even if they are speaking a foreign language.

To many, Dench does just that, and they are whispering Oscars. Yes, an Oscar may well be deserved, but it would only add late confirmation to a reputation already bulging with awards and accolades. Married to fellow actor Michael Williams, with whom she has a 25 year old daughter, and with whom she co-stars in the tv series, A Fine Romance, Dench says that being married to a fellow actor is "something you work out as you go along." The main thing is to respect each other’s acting.

She celebrated her 63rd birthday earlier this month, yet she is busier than many of her younger female colleagues. No amount of doorstopper statuettes can attest to acting talent more than constant work.

"The story is about a relationship between two people who were the antithesis of each other."

Dench originally wanted to be a set designer, only to be put off when she saw a Stratford on Avon production of King Lear. She was put off not by the poverty of the designs, but their brilliance and sparseness. Daunted, she went to London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, and won the school’s Dux medal as a student actress. The celebrated Peter Hall quickly engaged her as a founding member of his Royal Shakespeare Company in the role of Juliet, for her combination of wit and refinement – and her blatant sexiness, he once said.

She is an instinctive actress, she takes risks and she thrives on versatility. Work like this, as Queen Victoria, in which she gets to stretch her talents even now, is the ultimate satisfaction; and she readily identifies the core of what the film all about. "It’s not about whether or not they had an affair, the story is about a relationship between two people who were the antithesis of each other. That’s why people so deeply disapproved of it."

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This article also appeared in The Weekend Australian, December 27, 1997

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