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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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."