Shocking people seems to be one of Miriam Margolyes' special skills. She swears frequently and is a master of uttering the unutterable — in interviews, on live TV shows and, most recently, on the BBC's Graham Norton Show. Only Miriam could give such a vivid account of becoming so sexually excited at meeting her childhood hero Laurence Olivier that, well, I couldn't possibly share it here for fear of putting you off your next meal. And only someone with Miriam's exquisite comedic timing, fabulous voice and brilliantly cocked eyebrow could get away with it. 'I was told it caused a huge stir, which surprised me,' she says. 'I've told the story of meeting Olivier loads of times to friends and no one's ever keeled over in shock before.' A few weeks ago though, even she was shocked when on a busy platform at Edinburgh's Waverley station, she politely asked a young man if she could have his seat. He was chatting on the phone, she was a 4ft 11in, 74-year-old — her bosom alone is the size of small hay bale — with a knapsack on her back, a wheelie case in one hand and hobbling in pain from an arthritic knee (she's having a knee operation in May). He refused and pointed out a seat at the far end of the station. Nobody else stood up. 'I was really p****d off. It's really hard being old — it's horrible. I was in pain. I was really hurting,' she says today. 'So I just thought, 'F*** you!' and I took my bottle of water out, took off the lid and poured it over his head.' A woman shouted: 'I saw what you did! Who are you to sit down? You assaulted that man,' and called the police — who did nothing. At the time, Miriam had just returned from a month filming the BBC's Real Marigold Hotel in Jaipur, India, with seven fellow pensioners including dancer Wayne Sleep, Doctor Who actor Sylvester McCoy, chef Rosemary Shrager and ex-newsreader Jan Leeming. Inspired by the 2012 film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the idea was to sample life as a pensioner in India, compared to in Britain. 'It's quite different in India — they respect old people and care for them. They give up their seats for them. It's a much gentler environment for old people. And I'm old!' Suddenly, she's almost shouting. 'Can you believe I'm nearly 75?' she roars. 'I can't f***ing believe it. Seventy-five. It's pretty much dead!' She's the least dead person you could imagine. As she bustles about her holiday house on the coast near Dover, she fizzes with life and energy. And talks and talks and talks. We cover everything from Dignitas ('It's important to be able to kill yourself') to why she will never stop campaigning to stop Israeli aggression towards Palestine ('People say I'm a self-hating Jew, but there is no defence for what Israel is doing') and her pal the Duchess of Cornwall ('Bright as a button, funny, warm, intelligent and tells wonderful jokes!'). And despite her early stirrings for Olivier ('Joan Plowright [his actress wife] described him to me as 'animal', and he was!') and a brief boyfriend when she was 17, she's been gay ever since. For the past 40 years she's been in a relationship with a very private Australian academic, who hates having her name mentioned in public. It's an unusual set-up. Her partner lives in Holland and Miriam lives mostly in a big house in Clapham Common (she also has a house in Tuscany and two in Australia) which she shares with various rent-free lodgers — 'It enables them to save up for their own space'. Miriam spent one month in India filming the BBC's Real Marigold Hotel with seven fellow pensioners 'I've been told [Downton writer] Julian Fellowes finds me revolting', Says Margolyes, who once greeted stick-thin actress Michelle Pfeiffer with a roar of 'Hello fatty!' The delightfully dotty actress has also revealed that she finds the hugely popular Downton Abbey series 'vulgar' The couple speak each day, but don't seem to see each other much. 'Six times a year, or something like that. And holidays. She came over when I had a gall bladder operation last week,' she says. 'But she's writing books and needs to be focused. It's difficult being focused with me around. I can be quite distracting.' Would they ever live together? 'We often ask ourselves, but I truly don't know. I love her very much and I know she loves me. I can't imagine life without her. She's two years younger than me. Supposing she died? I just can't imagine the void.' She goes quiet and small, only perking up when talk turns to work. She adores working and is rarely idle. 'I want to do more films and telly. I adore theatre, but there's no money in it. I may be a socialist, but I don't want to be poor.' She won a Bafta for her role in Martin Scorsese's 1993 film The Age Of Innocence, and has appeared in everything from Blackadder to the Harry Potter films, plus endless critically acclaimed shows. She's used her distinctive voice for everything from soft porn recordings to the breathy voiceover for the Cadbury's Caramel bunny — and Dolly the PG Tips chimp. Pretty much everywhere she goes in life — Oxford High School, Newnham College Cambridge, films, TV, theatre, her 16 years living in LA and numerous appearances on the Graham Norton Show, on which she claims never to know who any of her fellow guests are — she makes friends. 'I've never watched Friends, so I had no idea who Matthew Perry was — though he seems a little troubled. And I didn't know who [popstar] Lily Allen was.' Inspired by the 2012 film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the idea was to sample life as a pensioner in India, compared to in Britain Or The Voice judge will.i.am, or actors Stanley Tucci ('we bonded') and Gemma Arterton ('gorgeous and natural and open'), though all seem to be bosom buddies now. 'I've always been able to make friends very quickly. They accrue, like capital. I think it's because I'm an only child so I need them.' She once greeted stick-thin actress Michelle Pfeiffer with a roar of 'Hello fatty!', and took Leonardo DiCaprio ('a dear, dear man') shopping when they filmed Romeo And Juliet. However, not everybody likes her. 'I've been told [Downton writer] Julian Fellowes finds me revolting.' And she is still haunted by her time as the only girl in the Cambridge Footlights in 1962 with John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie. 'When I talk about it, I feel I'm being silly.' she says. 'How long ago was it? Over 50 years! It shouldn't matter. But they showed me such cruelty.' They didn't like her and made it obvious, though she was never sure why. 'I think they thought I was a pushy little Jew. They just didn't speak to me. I was only 19 and it was painful. I used to weep. They didn't even ask me to the cast party. It hurt so much,' she says. 'I have forgiven Tim Brooke-Taylor, who is a very decent man and apologised, but not the others. I've never liked Bill Oddie much.' Then she moved into 'legit' acting, where, despite the awards and accolades, she feels she's never reached her full potential. 'I should have been in classical revivals: Shakespeare, Chekhov, but I don't get those roles and I'm sad about it because when I'm good, I'm really good. 'Maybe I'm difficult to cast — I'm not beautiful, maybe that's it. But I'm delightful to work with. You ask anyone and they'll all say I'm nice.' (Even on the Real Marigold Hotel, where she was so bossy her companions nicknamed her the Fuhrer, they clearly all adored her and are still in close contact.) Not being cast in the BBC's recent series Dickensian was the bitterest pill — she couldn't watch it. 'I should have been Mrs Gamp. Look, Pauline Collins [who played Mrs Gamp] is a gifted actress so I can't say she shouldn't be doing it. 'But there should have been a place for me.' She even wrote to writer Tony Jordan, asking to be included in future. One show she has never wanted to be in, though, is Downton Abbey. 'I don't like Downton. I think it's a vulgar programme.' She looks me hard in the eye. 'It's just a soap opera pretending to be a proper drama and it isn't. It has no content really, it's just tinsel thin.' Miriam is a mass of contradictions. She makes no effort with her appearance. Today, like most days, her outfit is a vast shapeless sweatshirt over her gigantic bosom and trainers. But she blushes pink with pleasure when I complement her amazingly youthful skin. She is still haunted by her time in the Cambridge Footlights in 1962 with John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie And she adores being recognised but abhors the notion of celebrity. 'How can I be a celebrity? I'm a fat old lady who can barely walk. I just want to act — that's my job.' Miriam is also incredibly kind. She treasures her friends, gives a tenth of her income to charity and nursed both parents through years of ill health — her mother suffered a stroke three days after Miriam told her she was gay and for years she blamed herself. 'I'm very confident of being a decent person,' she says. 'Occasionally, though, in the shadows of the night, I feel I'm not worth anything.' Still, she seems hellbent on shocking us with rude anecdotes. Why? 'Look, darling — I'll be 75 in May. I really don't bother much with sex any more. I'm not interested. But I remember it, very affectionately. I like talking about it, and it's fun to do that on TV and if people are very shocked, well, I'm sorry but they can always turn it off.' People who don't know her say she's bonkers or crazy. Maybe. But beneath all the vulgarity, Miriam is also warm, brilliant — and determined to become neither silent, invisible nor remotely graceful in old age.
Posted : 17th February 2016