Stages in an acting life

And Furthermore

Dench ascended to the level of national treasure in Britain so long ago that it’s a surprise to read details of her childhood and school days. You wouldn’t have been stunned to hear she had sprung fully-formed, a theatrical grande dame trailing acting awards and garlands.

One of the more enlightening discoveries in the book is that this icon of Englishness has strong Irish roots — her mother was from Dublin, and her father was brought up there. A GP, he was a keen amateur actor, while her mother made theatrical costumes. The acting bug was catching, as she followed her brother, Peter, to the Central School of Speech and Drama.

The young Dench was a phenomenon — no amount of her modest dissembling can hide that. Fresh from college, she bagged the plum role of Ophelia, at the Old Vic, and this was the beginning of what has proved a charmed professional life.

What follows in the book is a mainly chronological account of her theatrical and screen roles, leavened by the occasional interesting anecdote. Although I’ve never heard Dench sing, she must have been able to hold a tune, because, as well as making a splash as Sally Bowles, in Cabaret, she was also originally slated to play in Cats, before snapping her Achilles tendon ruled her out. The career-defining role went to Elaine Paige, instead, but how different would theatrical and musical history have been if the original star had been fit to play the role?

It wasn’t a significant blow to her advance — at one time, , she had two top directors, Peter Hall and Terry Hands, fighting for her to play the role of Cleopatra, which gives an idea of how highly she was regarded.

With any such book, the reader has to brace for a certain amount of theatrical luvviedom, and Dench doesn’t disappoint. The wondrous talents of her co-stars are endlessly stressed, but it is also obvious how she was, and is, held in great affection and has the esteem of many, including the late great John Gielgud, who comes across here as an entertaining thesp of the highest order.

Her enthusiasm and passion for acting is clear and she makes being part of a theatre company sound like great fun. It almost leaves you feeling envious of how much she loves her job and her life. While it’s obvious Dench has a well-developed sense of humour, the endless retelling of the numerous practical jokes she played on colleagues, and vice-versa definitely begins to wear, a bit thin, after a while.

Dench comes across as relatively humble and refreshingly ego-free, but there is the occasional flash of steel, especially in her dealings with difficult directors, which, perhaps, indicates how she has managed to remain in the top tier of her profession for almost six decades.

She also takes the opportunity to get in a few digs at the critics and journalists who have crossed her, or given her less than favourable reviews over the years, which shows that, despite the regal image, she has the same insecurities as other actors.

When it comes to the more intimate aspects of her life, Dench is, one senses, purposely sketchy. One could say her personal life was as charmed as her professional life, until the untimely death of her beloved husband, Michael, in 2001. Fittingly, their family home was in Stratford-upon-Avon, where they lived with their daughter, his parents and her mother. Dench writes how she can’t understand how elderly people are left like ‘zombies’ in nursing homes, perhaps an unconscious indication of how privileged a life she has led.

The illness and death of her husband, with whom she starred in the sitcom, A Fine Romance, is dealt with in just a few pages, and Dench’s emotional resilience shines through, as she returned to work quickly afterwards, working on The Shipping News, The Importance of Being Earnest and Iris, in quick succession. For her, the show must go on and one really senses how acting is more like oxygen than a career.

Dench should also serve as an inspiration to all those Botoxed actresses who complain of screen roles drying up once they hit 40 — her film career only really took off in the second half of her life. The effortless, regal air perfected for Mrs Brown and Shakespeare in Love, in which she played Queens Victoria and Elizabeth (the first), respectively, has been strengthened by her recurring role as M in the James Bond films (of course, she got on equally well with Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig). Her real acting ability is more in evidence in less showy roles, such as her turn in Notes On A Scandal, in which she was superb in the role of an unhinged teacher fixated on her colleague (Cate Blanchett).

Her first outing at the Oscars (when she was nominated for Mrs Brown), passes by in a blur, and is disappointingly lacking in detail. However, she admits to being so overwhelmed and starstruck that the passage is oddly disarming.

This book certainly doesn’t rank with the likes of Carrie Fisher, when it comes to writing talent and raw honesty and the dissection of the problems, as well as the advantages, of success.

That said, if you’d like to read a chronicle of real achievement, as opposed to the vapid thoughts of a reality-show bore or the regurgitated 12-step thoughts of a minor celebrity, you could do a lot worse. There’s no misery in this memoir, and, although, Dench isn’t exactly toiling away in a warzone or preventing malnutrition in the Third World, you can’t help but admire her old-school charm and stiff upper lip.

And while a bit light on personal revelations, it is an entertaining enough read and consistent with Dench’s persona, demonstrating a modicum of restraint in a hyper-confessional culture.

As for the future, the 76-year-old is insistent that she has no intentions of giving up any time soon. One can’t help but envy her verve and vigour — and the fact that one of her upcoming roles is a cameo in the next instalment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, where she will be reunited with Chocolat co-star, Johnny Depp.

Picture: LIFE ON DAME STREET: Dame Judi Dench, pictured in September, 1988. Picture: David Montgomery / Getty Images

More in this section

Click and connect: 100 places in Munster to shop locally this Christmas


We want to help you to connect with the people you love, but may not see, this Christmas.  Every Saturday, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, we will publish your messages in print and online, starting November 28.

Say it here, in the Irish Examiner.