When the time came for me to interview the great Miriam Margoyles, I almost unwittingly caused it to get off to a bad start. “I can’t abide people being late,” she chirps at the other end of the phone (I was a few minutes behind schedule for our chat). But all is soon forgotten and the 80-year-old is in high spirits as we begin to delve into her remarkable career. We’re here to talk about her new autobiography, a collection of chapters each written almost as if it is its own short story, but end up talking about almost everything else instead. England — “I fucking loathe it at the moment” — how she fears disappointing people, her love of Charles Dickens even though, he was in her words, “a shit!” and that JK Rowling controversy.
Her memoir is beautifully written, I tell her. “It’s lovely to be praised as an actor, but that’s what I’m supposed to be good at! I’m not a writer, and I feel way out of my depth. So every word of praise I could squeeze out of you makes me very happy because it was hard to do,” she says of putting it together. “And it was scary as well because, first of all I’m 80 and I forget things, and I’m terrified that I will forget people who will be very hurt if they’re not in the book — it worries me.”
And there’s so much in the book; each chapter offering a tidbit of information both interesting and hilarious. From the time she told the Queen she was “the best reader of stories in the whole world — an absurd remark!” to the time when one particular co-star, the late Richard Harris ensured they never got off to a great start — years later she said she didn’t quite warm to the “one who died” much either. It’s full of life and vigour, as if you’re conversing with a friend you’ve known for a long time.
But we have known her for quite a stretch. It’s her voice that is so synonymous for me and so many others, well before she reached new heights in Harry Potter and later on Graham Norton. The Cadbury’s Caramel Rabbit? That’s her. The nurse in Romeo + Juliet? Aunt Sponge in James and the Giant Peach? Fly the dog in Babe? She’s a true chameleon; you never know quite what you’re going to get in the best of ways.
A thread right through the book is from the first chapter about Miriam’s parents. The book isn’t a total retrospective based on the work alone, but of her life, the actor looking inwards and going from there.
“What I was interested in was trying to work out how I evolved into the person that I am, beginning with my upbringing. And I was very, very interested in my parents. I mean, to me, they are absolutely present in my life. Because my parents were Jews, they were very conscious of not belonging. And I think that has been a big part of my development. I’ve always felt that I didn’t fit in. To be honest, I don’t think I wanted to fit in — I wanted to be who I was. My observations about class come from those days when I learnt how hurt they were by the slights they experienced. Because there’s a very nasty streak in the English people,” she says.
Her love of travelling will see her favour particular projects and as we move into talking about the work, her absolute confidence doing voiceover to preferring three-person plays to the bigger blockbusters. “I don’t really enjoy big blockbusters. I mean, I like the money. I like going on nice locations, but the most rewarding professional time is in a small group, a small play, a two or three hander in a theatre. That’s really exciting and rewarding.”
It seems natural when we talk of the blockbuster that is Harry Potter to talk about J.K Rowling and her comments on the anti-transgender discourse that was so divisive last year. To give some background: “People who menstruate. I’m sure there used to be a word for those people,” Rowling tweeted. People immediately called Rowling’s comments transphobic as transgender people, non-binary people and gender-nonconforming people can also menstruate. Trending with Rowling’s name was the word “TERF,” an acronym for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. These are gender critical feminists, who generally do not believe that transgender women should be considered women for the purposes of shared spaces and political discussion.
Margolyes has frequently spoken publicly of her support for the transgender community and said at the time of the controversy it should be about “personal happiness for people”, and has her own thoughts on certain elements of the whole thing. “I don’t feel any different about Harry Potter because I’ve never met JK Rowling and I’ve never had any sort of a direct link with her,” she continues.
“And I don’t quite know what the fuss is about, because my feeling about transgender and transsexuals, and I’ve met a lot — she references a story in the book with a former tutor of hers named Tom — “is until you’ve cut off your cock, you’re a man. Once you’ve cut off your cock, I’ll let you in the loo! I don’t quite know JK Rowling’s feelings, but I think she feels that people who are in the process of changing sex have no right to call themselves a woman. But I don’t think I agree with that. I think that people can call themselves whatever they like, but I don’t call them a woman until they’ve cut off their cock. That’s my position.”
Rediscovery is what Margolyes has to thank Graham Norton for, thanks to her now infamous appearances on his red couch. She too has a love for the Irish presenter. “Oh, I owe my life to him, there’s no question about it,” she laughs.
“I love him and owe my life to him and I’ve told him hundreds of times. I don’t quite know how it happened that he asked me to go on the programme, but I’ve been on it really, a lot, I think maybe seven or eight times now. I was very, very nervous. And I never know what I’m going to say. They asked you to talk to a researcher before the show to find out what you’ve been doing and so on. But I find that when I get to the sofa everything that I said before goes out of my head and I just talk about whatever we’re going to talk about! And he allows that. He’s very good, very quick witted, and very generous, genuinely interested in the people that he invites. He wants them to have a good time. He’s not interested in exposing them or making them feel anything other than happy. He’s a sweetheart and I’m forever in his debt. My career was reborn in the arms of Graham Norton. He’s the best there’s ever been — he’s sublime.”
It isn’t always easy mixing with the guests, she says, but even when it can be tricky, she says it’s all down to Norton’s gift for the gab, as we’d say. “Sometimes, I have to say, I haven’t gotten along well with people. I didn’t get on with Lily Allen. I could tell she didn’t like me and I didn’t like her. And it didn’t matter. We managed to make a programme.”
New work has come as a result in the form of a lot of documentaries and she’s about to dash to Scotland to film another pretty much straight after our chat. She’s busier than ever. “It’s amazing that I’m still being asked to do things. I can’t quite believe it. When you’re 80, you think ‘Well, that’s the end. I should now subside into obscurity,’ but it hasn’t happened.” “I’m not elegant,” she adds (I’d wholly disagree). “But what I think I do have is fun talking to other people and asking people questions. I’m immensely, genuinely curious about other people. And I love the opportunities I get to talk to people and ask questions. And I’m very, very lucky. So I feel that this is a blessed time of my life, which I never expected to have so late in life.”