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Dench, Judi (1934-)


Main image of Dench, Judi (1934-)

Is there nothing Judi Dench cannot play? She has not only defied all of the traditional strictures dogging the employment of actresses of a 'certain age', but has done most of her screen work from her sixties onwards. Despite her small stature, she has never had problems playing the 'grande dame'; she can be flighty, flirty, romantic and girlish; steely, determined and terrifying; uproariously funny or quietly droll; witty or bawdy - and often at the same time. However, for a long time she made only the occasional foray into films and television, feeling herself unsuited for the screen after being told that, with her trademark cropped hair and elfin features, she lacked the right look for the cameras.

Born Judith Olivia Dench in York on 9 December 1934, one of her first acting jobs was as Mary in the York Mystery Plays. After a brief interlude studying set design at art school, she followed her older brother Jeffrey to the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, where she won several prizes, including the Gold Medal for Outstanding Student. She made her professional debut in 1957 at the Old Vic Theatre, and spent the next twenty years establishing a significant career in the classics both in London and with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford.

Her first recorded television appearances were in Family on Trial (ITV's Play of the Week, tx. 21/4/1959), as the lead in a dramatisation of Arnold Bennett's novel Hilda Lessways (BBC, 1959) and as the young Estella in an American TV film of Great Expectations (US, 1962). She also played Princess Katherine to Robert Hardy's Henry V in An Age of Kings (BBC, 1960). An appearance in the Z Cars episode 'Made for Each Other' (BBC, tx. 11/9/1963) was scripted by John Hopkins, who wrote a notable part for her three years later in Talking to a Stranger (BBC, 1966). This landmark television drama about a tragic week-end in the life of a deeply unhappy family was told from each family member's point of view and cast Dench as the mocking,self-pitying daughter Terry, masking her fears and vulnerability with cynicism.

Dench's film debut was in The Third Secret (d. Charles Crichton, 1964) and she worked with Crichton again in He Who Rides a Tiger (1965), in which she was a young social worker who falls in love with Tom Bell's cat burglar. The same year she won a BAFTA award for Most Promising Newcomer in Four in the Morning (d. Anthony Simmons) and played a small part in A Study in Terror (d. James Hill), which reunited her with former Old Vic colleague John Neville. For the rest of the decade she returned mainly to the theatre, playing only a handful of small TV roles, but she was coaxed back to the big screen by Peter Hall, who was filming his Stratford stage production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1968). Her near-naked appearance as a sexy and deliriously besotted Titania was sensational, and the cast also boasted two other future Dames of the British Empire, Diana Rigg and Helen Mirren.

Dench's occasional 1970s screen appearances tended to derive from stage successes or with other theatrical connections. The RSC production of The Comedy of Errors in which she played a wonderfully bemused and confused Adriana, was shown on television in 1978 and she appeared in the romantic drama Langrishe, Go Down (BBC Play of the Week, tx., 20/9/1978) adapted by Harold Pinter from a novel by Aidan Higgins, in which Dench co-starred with Jeremy Irons and played one of three unmarried sisters living in faded gentility in Waterford. She also played Lady Macbeth to Ian McKellen's Thane in a renowned RSC production directed by Trevor Nunn in 1976 and later adapted for television (ITV, tx. 4/1/1979). No-one who saw her sleepwalking scene, on stage or screen, will ever forget the way in which she despairingly cried the words "here is the blood still", her voice rising to a piercing scream of uncomprehending horror.

A delightful performance as Aunt Sadie in Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate (BBC, 1980) kick-started the next decade, and she was soon to break through to a huge new audience in the first of her two great TV sitcom roles. In A Fine Romance (ITV, 1981-84), for which she won two BAFTA awards, she starred opposite Michael Williams, a fellow RSC actor whom she had married in 1971. Their playing of the on-off relationship between two lonely, mismatched, people who have been set up by her sister and his friend, and for whom this is probably the last chance of love, was both comic and poignant. Dench also sang the theme song.

In 1985 she recorded fourteen of Shakespeare's sonnets for The Angelic Conversation (d. Derek Jarman), and went on to play the flamboyant lady novelist Eleanor Lavish in A Room with a View (d.James Ivory, 1985), in which she showed her more mischievous side. For the rest of the decade she had small but telling roles in such films as Wetherby (d. David Hare, 1985), 84 Charing Cross Road (d. David Jones, 1987), in which she played the quiet wife of the future Antony to her stage Cleopatra, Anthony Hopkins, a brittle social-climbing mother in A Handful of Dust (d. Charles Sturridge, 1988) and Mistress Quickly in Henry V (d. Kenneth Branagh, 1989). She ended the decade Behaving Badly (ITV, 1989) as a divorced middle-aged woman who makes trouble for her family while changing her life around, and also as a Dame of the British Empire, having been honoured in 1988.

On screen, two decades of astonishing activity were about to begin. She began with the revival, on stage and screen, of forgotten playwright Rodney Ackland's Absolute Hell (BBC, 1991), a black comedy in which Dench played Christine, the proprietor of a bohemian night club in post-World War II London, full of social misfits and lost souls. The TV sitcom As Time Goes By (BBC, 1992-2005) followed the renewed relationship of former lovers who meet again after 38 years. Her co-star was Geoffrey Palmer, with whom she was also to work in two cinema releases, Mrs. Brown (d. John Madden, 1997), in which she played the newly-widowed Queen Victoria and for which she won a BAFTA award and an Oscar nomination, and Tomorrow Never Dies (d. Roger Spottiswoode, 1997) in which she played 'M', James Bond's Secret Service boss. Her feminist take on the character has continued into the Daniel Craig era. In between these she managed to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for a mere eight minutes on screen in Shakespeare in Love (d. John Madden, 1998) as a sly and witty Elizabeth I. 1998 also saw her work with Franco Zeffirelli in Tea with Mussolini alongside Maggie Smith, with whom she was to star in 2004 in Charles Dance's directorial debut, Ladies in Lavender, playing a sixty-something virgin who falls for a young, foreign, shipwrecked sailor washed up on the beach.

In 2001 her beloved husband died, and she seemed to work harder than ever - the old woman in Chocolat (US, 2001), the Alzheimer's-afflicted novelist Iris Murdoch in Iris (d. Richard Eyre, 2001), the pragmatic theatre owner in Mrs. Henderson Presents (d. Stephen Frears 2005) and a vengeful, lesbian schoolteacher in Notes on a Scandal (d. Richard Eyre, 2006), not forgetting Alan Plater's The Last of the Blonde Bombshells (BBC, 2000), in which her character plays jazz saxophone in an all-girl wartime dance band. She has been Oscar-nominated six times between 1998 and 2007, is as lauded now in Hollywood as she has long been in Britain, and continues to be honoured for her work on television, as in Cranford (BBC, 2007, 2009), as popular with the public as the critics.

Janet Moat

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Angelic Conversation, The (1985)Angelic Conversation, The (1985)

Derek Jarman's very personal take on Shakespeare's sonnets

Thumbnail image of GoldenEye (1995)GoldenEye (1995)

Pierce Brosnan's debut brought the James Bond cycle back from the dead

Thumbnail image of Room with a View, A (1985)Room with a View, A (1985)

Much-loved Merchant Ivory adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel

Thumbnail image of Age of Kings, An (1960)Age of Kings, An (1960)

Ambitious history of medieval British royalty, adapted from Shakespeare

Thumbnail image of Comedy of Errors, The (1978)Comedy of Errors, The (1978)

Trevor Nunn's acclaimed RSC musical production

Thumbnail image of Fine Romance, A (1981-84)Fine Romance, A (1981-84)

Bittersweet sitcom starring real-life couple Judi Dench and Michael Williams

Thumbnail image of Last of the Blonde Bombshells, The (2000)Last of the Blonde Bombshells, The (2000)

Uplifting 3rd age jazz musical starring Judi Dench

Thumbnail image of Macbeth (1979)Macbeth (1979)

Riveting RSC-sourced production starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench

Thumbnail image of Middlemarch (1994)Middlemarch (1994)

Andrew Davies' dramatisation of George Eliot's classic novel

Thumbnail image of Talking to a Stranger (1966)Talking to a Stranger (1966)

Landmark drama of family tragedy featuring a young Judi Dench

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