Monday, 30 November -0001


Dame Judi Dench may take her work seriously, but she can still giggle like a schoolgirl, as she reveals to Keeley Bolger

Written by Keeley Bolger
Dame Judi Dench has a problem with growing older. Now aged 80, the acclaimed actress often finds herself fielding questions about retirement and her advancing years.

‘You’re only as old as you feel, and it makes me go absolutely spare when people go, “Are you going to retire?”’ she says. ‘I don’t want to be told I’m too old for something; I want to try it first.’

The actress, who was born in York to an Irish mother and a Dorset-born doctor, has shown us time and time again that age is no barrier to a brilliant performance. There was her star turn in the Bond films as M, her Oscar-nominated portrayal of a mother searching for the son she was forced to give up for adoption in Philomena, and, of course, her role as sweet-natured widow Evelyn in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. A surprise hit about a motley bunch of British pensioners making new lives for themselves in India, the film achieved an elegant balance of humour and drama – and along with co-stars Dame Maggie Smith and Celia Imrie, Dench returns in the sequel, out now.

‘Evelyn has much more courage than I would have,’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t go off to India if my husband had just died. I wouldn’t have had that courage to go to a foreign country. I might go as far as Scotland or Cornwall. I understand that thing of saying to your children, “I don’t want to be a burden. I don’t want to hang around and for you to have to look after me.” But that wouldn’t be me; I’m not brave like that.’

JudiDench-Feb27-02-590Judi Dench with Maggie Smith and other co-stars in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

In The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Evelyn is considering a new career in fashion – which was a joy for Dench. While she looks as chic as ever, her trademark crop highlighting her enviable bone structure, the actress has a healthy disregard for ‘what people think you should wear’.

‘What you find is that the thing that is most comfortable is the thing that probably suits you most and the thing you’ll move best in. Whereas you could be in something that’s frightfully fashionable and probably looks all right, but you can be in agony in it. And all you’ll remember is the agony. Not worth it.’

Dench, whose husband Michael Williams died in 2001, is now in a ‘lovely’ relationship with conservationist David Mills. It’s hard to avoid drawing a parallel between her experiences and those of Evelyn, who grapples with her feelings for the aff able Douglas, played by Bill Nighy.

While Dench never ‘judges’ the characters she plays, preferring instead to ‘try and understand [them], with all [their] failings, strengths and misgivings’, she did enjoy continuing the will-they-won’t-they love story. ‘Having somebody around to go and do things and have a laugh with is very, very important indeed,’ she says.

Laughing is something she does a lot – as witnessed in the recent BBC One adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot, in which she starred alongside Dustin Hoffman. Whether it’s gossiping with Graham Norton on his chat show about bumping into each other during a Cher concert, posing in a baseball cap saying ‘Dench’ – a word used by rappers to mean ‘cool’ – or mischief-making on set, laughter is never far away.

‘I have a reputation for behaving quite badly,’ admits the actress, who tricked Nighy into believing his laughter at her jokes had ruined a scene. ‘I don’t do it so much now, but I used to. I have played jokes on people, you know, very, very subtly, so the audience can’t see. I find it irresistible.’

JudiDench-Feb27-03-590With Dustin Hoff man, her co-star in BBC One’s Esio Trot

During a miserably wet day while filming the period drama Cranford, Dench started a game where all the cast had to make a boat out of a piece of paper. Except co-star Dame Eileen Atkins, who decided to rebel. ‘Eileen made a car out of it,’ she laughs. ‘I said, “You’re absolutely disqualifi ed!”’

John Madden, who directed her in both Best Exotic Marigold films, and 1997 historical drama Mrs Brown, can attest to her sense of youthful fun. While he praises her for her ‘warmth and humanity’ and a ‘skill set to die for’, he admits she can be impish.

‘She’s funny as hell,’ he says. ‘I mean, she’s totally disrespectful of whatever she’s doing, of everybody around her… [But] she’s loyal and she gives everything to what she’s doing. She’s a force of nature, extraordinary. Everything about her is special.’

Indeed, while in India shooting the first film, Dench says she and Maggie Smith were reduced to ‘giggling girls’ as they passed the time playing the word game Bananagrams (a game she introduced to Smith, who in turn introduced it to her Downton Abbey colleagues).


‘I was swimming in the hotel one day [in a pool which ran outside all the rooms] and Mags was in her room and she said, “Oh, Judi, go and get Bananagrams,”’ smiles Dench. ‘So I swam back, went in and got the Bananagrams, tied [the game] round my head and swam back. And she took a photograph!’

Dench credits the game – along with crosswords and other new activities – with keeping her mind active. ‘I think you’ve got to find wit and humour in things,’ she says. ‘And I think you’ve got to want to learn something all the time. I like being shown. I’m just learning how to carve soapstone, which I’ve never done before. It’s just a new thing to be excited about.’

While she’s clearly passionate about her pastimes, thankfully there’s no sign of Dench giving up her day job. After all, ‘it’s earning a living and enjoying yourself while you do it’, as she says.

‘I wouldn’t do it if I really didn’t think I was going to have a lovely time, meet new people, make new friends and play a few games and a few tricks. That’s the vital thing, isn’t it?’

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is in cinemas now.

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