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'M' is for Marigold
7:00am Saturday 3rd March 2012 in Celebrity Interviews
Dame Judi Dench may currently be shooting the new Bond film in chilly England, but her previous role took her, and a bunch of veteran British actors, to India where they filmed The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, released in cinemas on Friday, February 24. The actress describes how she fell in love with India and why she's loving working with Sam Mendes on Skyfall.
By Kate Whiting Waiting to speak to Judi Dench is a bit like anticipating an audience with the Queen. So when I'm finally ushered into the presence of acting royalty, I'm immediately concerned to hear the great Dame coughing.
"No, I haven't at all. I don't know what it is," she says, dismissing my fears she's suffering from a cold.
"We were filming [Skyfall] yesterday and it was very, very cold. I think I've just a bit of a cough. It'll only last today and then it will be away," she adds, smiling sweetly.
Suitably relieved, we begin the business of discussing her latest film role in John Madden's comedy drama The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
The director managed to gather together a dream team of venerable British stars, including Dame Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie and Tom Wilkinson, for the ensemble comedy drama about a disparate group of retired Brits heading for a new life in India.
As Evelyn, a recent widow whose husband has left her with mountains of debt, Dench has perhaps the greatest 'journey' to contend with, as she learns to become both financially and emotionally independent.
Embracing the internet, Evelyn finds details online of a hotel for the "elderly and beautiful" in colourful Jaipur, run by ambitious manager Sonny (Dev Patel), and throughout the film, blogs about her adventure serve as a narrative for the story.
For Dench, the opportunity to work with director John Madden again (after her Oscar-winning turn in Shakespeare In Love and the Oscar-nominated Mrs Brown) had immediate appeal, not to mention the chance to visit India for the first time.
"Have you got half an hour?" she asks, giggling, before listing all the things she loved about the country.
"I can't wait to go back. Like my character, I became completely infatuated by it. Incredibly charming people, the crew couldn't have been more colourful, wonderful, welcoming and funny. And we got to see so many things: the traffic, the birds, the colour, the light..."
She even attended a royal wedding that was being held in the hotel where the cast were staying, and her eyes light up at the memory.
"We weren't invited, but there were rehearsals, with elephants and white horses, so we stood on a balcony to watch. Everybody started to arrive and all the women came up to the balcony with us, and the men were in this great procession.
Smiling, she remembers how the cast were invited to join the wedding party for a cup of tea: "We said, 'We're not dressed properly' but they said it didn't matter at all. So we did," she finishes, beaming.
She's clearly passionate about India and it's easy to see how a young Dench was similarly gripped by a love of acting. Born in York, her Irish mother, who'd met her doctor father while he was studying medicine in Dublin, was a wardrobe assistant at the Theatre Royal and actors often came to stay at their house.
She followed her brother Jeff to the Central School of Speech and Drama and joined the Old Vic Company, touring as Shakespeare's great heroines, Ophelia, Juliet and Henry V's Katherine, a role that was also her New York stage debut.
In 1971, she married fellow actor Michael Williams, her co-star in early Eighties sitcom A Fine Romance, and had a daughter Tara Frances Cressida, known as Finty, who's also an actress.
When Williams died of lung cancer in 2001, aged just 65, Dench threw herself into work, and says she was able to draw on her experience of being widowed to play Evelyn: "Everything that happens to you is fed into a kind of computer, I suppose. It sounds rather... what's the right word?... Cold, rather calculating. But nevertheless, every experience you have, you sometimes draw on if you're an actor."
In the film, Dame Judi plays a women quite unused to negotiating the nitty-gritty of daily life, who is suddenly forced to rise to the challenge: "It's the whole thing of somebody suddenly dying and you thinking, 'Gosh, I'm the person who has to change the plugs now, I'm the person who has to do the bills'. I'd had that experience already, so I suppose I used that."
She admits it's unusual for so many older actors to be on screen together at once, but thinks it's something there ought to be more of - and would only change one thing about the film: "Maybe the acting, but then I'm hyper critical about myself."
For someone with so many iconic roles and award nominations to her name, it seems strange to think she's so self-critical.
"It's better for me as time goes by. I watch [my performance] after I've forgotten all about it, because otherwise I get fixated and my judgement goes too."
But despite her self-doubt, one role she'll always say yes to is M in the Bond films.
With Skyfall currently shooting at Pinewood Studios, it's too tempting not to ask what M is up to in the 23rd film in the franchise (her seventh), but sadly her lips are sealed.
Still, it must be nice to return to the Pinewood family?
"Yes," she says, brightening. "It's very nice indeed to go back. There are some brilliant sets and it's being directed by Sam Mendes, who I worked with, oh, when he was a little baby boy really," she says, laughing.
"It was about the second or third thing he did. He directed me in The Cherry Orchard on stage, so now he's doing this."
At 77, and still in so much demand, is she at all tempted to run away to India and retire like Evelyn?
"No, I'm not tempted to retire, but I'm very tempted to go back. I hope the film is a very strong advert for India, because it should be."
And with that, my audience with the queen of stage and screen is over.
Extra time - Dame Judi's golden roles :: Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown (1997): At her regal best as the bereaved Queen Victoria who gets close to Scottish servant John Brown.
:: Iris Murdoch in Iris (2001): In this biopic of novelist Iris Murdoch, Dench portrays the older Iris who is afflicted with Alzheimer's disease.
:: Miss Matty Jenkyns in Cranford (2007-2009): In BBC One's classic Sunday night period heart-warmer, Miss Matty was at the centre of village life.
:: Shakespeare In Love (1998): Dench held court and won an Oscar as Queen Elizabeth I in this fictional account of the Bard's love life.
:: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is released in cinemas on Friday, February 24