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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Kirsty Blake Knox Twitter Email

Miriam Margolyes: ‘I don’t want to stop just because I’m old — I’m busier and richer than I’ve ever been’

Miriam Margolyes

“I think, if you get the right words, it makes it work. It’s crisper,” Miriam Margo lyes says.

She is sitting in the backstage dressing room at The Late Late Show tucking into a Yorkie chocolate bar and discussing the fine art of swearing. She’s something of an expert; she claims to have been the first woman to say ‘f**k’ live on UK television.

When it comes to profanities, she believes precision is key; you have to be selective about the words you use. And having a cut-glass accent that was honed during years of elocution classes also helps.

“It makes it more piquant, the fact that I have perfect diction when I say ‘c**tface’.”

She cackles and I compliment her on her choice of curse word. “It is my own,” she says, proudly.

At 81, there is a bracing sense of divilment to Margolyes. She is masterful at delivering scandalous anecdotes and one-liners. Which is why she has become a firm favourite on chat shows. Graham Norton previously said the BBC has to ration her appearances out on his Friday-night programme. It’s a symbiotic exchange; she credits him for her career renaissance.

When you’re in the beginning of your eighties, you realise you’re going to die, and you’re going to die probably in the next five or six years. And that’s wow!

In telly land, Margolyes always delivers. The evening we talk is no exception — later, she informs Ryan Tubridy she is prepared to “go down on somebody” in exchange for Irish citizenship.

“We will pass that offer on to the Department of Foreign Affairs,” Tubridy replies.

The Bafta award-winning actress is prolific, with hundreds of eclectic roles under her belt — Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, Call the Midwife, The Age of Innocence, Harry Potter. She has voiced characters in children’s animations (Babe, James and the Giant Peach), and can add acclaimed theatrical stagings, such as her one-woman show Dickens’ Women, and cult franchises to her list. In more recent years, she has presented an array of arts and travel documentaries.

Her second autobiography, Oh Miriam!, is due out later this year, and she will go on tour with her one-woman show of the same title in the coming months.

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She keeps a hectic schedule. The day we talk, she has been up since 3am. And yet she has no desire to hit the brakes and take things easy. “I have energy, and I don’t want to stop just because I’m old… I’m busier and richer than I’ve ever been. Isn’t that weird? Most people at the beginning of their eighties, they’re sort of slowing down a bit. I’m not. I’ve got more and more to do.”

Time and an increasing awareness of her own mortality fuels her from one project to the next. “When you’re younger, you don’t think about death. Death happens to other people. But when you’re in the beginning of your eighties, you realise you’re going to die, and you’re going to die probably in the next five or six years. And that’s wow! That’s really close. So I think, ‘Crikey! I better get on and do whatever I want to do.’ Because I won’t be here forever.”

Margolyes is in Ireland to promote her new RTÉ arts documentary Lady Gregory: Ireland’s First Social Influencer, which sees her team up with Senator Lynn Ruane. The duo set off around the country in a camper van to find out more about the co-founder of the Abbey Theatre.

In a way, it mirrors Margolyes’s first trip to Ireland in 1963 when she hitchhiked all the way to Sherkin Island. Since then, she has retained a deep affection for the country. “Being in Dublin is an aesthetic joy,” she says. “It is a beautiful city. The houses, the doorways, the wide streets, the river… And the literature. The Irish can talk and they can write, they are dazzling and fascinating. I wish I could be Irish.”

Miriam Margolyes and Senator Lynn Ruane in their new RTÉ documentary

Despite this appreciation of the nation, she had little knowledge of Lady Augusta Gregory before she was approached by an Irish production company. “I didn’t know anything about her,” she says. “I really didn’t know what an interesting figure she was, and how crucial she was to the development of the arts in Ireland.”

Despite this, she felt a connection and wanted to find out more about her. Plus, she says, the idea of going around the country “with a lady politician was just intoxicating”.

The format of the documentary is far from innovative; the pair drive around in an RV and meet interesting people along the way. In structure, it is pretty much the same as Margolyes’s travel show with Alan Cumming, Lost in Scotland and Beyond. But Margolyes and Ruane have great on-screen chemistry. “I love her. She is a firebrand,” Margolyes says of her co-host.

Anyone who has read Margolyes’s book This Much is True will know she likes to talk about sex — a lot. The pages of her bestselling book are filled with extremely intimate tales. We learn that she did a great deal of “sucking off” when she was younger; she recounts fellating soldiers, and remembers “tossing off” a Maltese sailor aboard a rowboat to ensure she reached her destination on time. It’s unusual to hear someone in their eighties talk and write so openly and humorously about sex.

“It’s just fun,” she says matter-of-factly. “It makes me laugh, a lot of it. I don’t think anybody thinks they’ve ever had enough sex. I’m quite sure, when I die, I’ll think, ‘Well, I was short-changed!’ It’s something that we all experience. We all have it, need it, want it, enjoy it. And I think it’s a very human thing.”

While the amount of sex she personally is having has diminished, that hasn’t curbed her desire to hear about it. “I don’t want a lot of sex now. I really don’t, I’ve had enough. But I still like talking about it. It’s fascinating. Not so much my sex but what other people do, what they enjoy, how it’s changed, how manners have changed since I was young… If you can’t have it, talk about it.”

She comes across in her book as being exceptionally sexually confident but she says that’s far from the truth. “I don’t think I was ever confident about sex,” she says. “I knew what I wanted, and I knew what I longed for. And I wanted to be loved. I was looking for that... I wasn’t confident. I was mostly just grateful.”

Margolyes met her life partner, Heather Sutherland, in 1967 and instantly knew they were meant to be together forever. They spent the first week of their relationship in bed and have remained a couple since. They live in different countries; Margolyes in England and Sutherland, an academic, lives in Amsterdam. She credits the distance for keeping their relationship in good nick. They are in a civil partnership but Margolyes has never been tempted to walk down the aisle in an ivory wedding gown.

“Oh god, that would be ghastly! It really would,” she says. “Marriage is not for us. It’s a conventional heterosexual union, and ours is an unconventional homosexual union.”

Margolyes grew up in Oxford. She was the adored only child of Joseph, a Scottish GP, and Ruth. In her book, she describes their tight-knit Jewish family as “a fortress, just the three of us. It was passionate, adoring.” She was exceptionally close to her mother, who sounds just as eccentric as she is — she loved to clean the house completely naked. “She was an amazing dynamo, very strong-willed,” she says.

She is proud of her Jewish heritage and also acutely aware of the growing level of antisemitism in the world today. “I think it’s grown because people have never liked Jews,” she says. “The English don’t like Jews. And they never could say it because of the Holocaust. But now, because of Israel behaving so badly, they can. And they do…

“It’s awful. You know, when you’re Jewish, you cannot ever forget that people wanted to kill you because you were Jewish. And many millions of people were killed because they were Jewish. For no other reason. And that is something you can’t not be aware of.”

There is no subject she shies away from and, in recent years, she has been extremely outspoken about her disdain, and that’s putting it politely, for the Tories. She got in trouble with Ofcom when she said on TV that she had “difficulty not wanting Boris Johnson to die” when he was in hospital with Covid, and last year she accidentally told BBC Radio 4 presenters live on-air that she wished she had greeted the show’s previous guest, Jeremy Hunt, with the words “F**k you, b*****d”.

Why are we watching someone’s private life as entertainment? It’s wrong

She maintains that she doesn’t say these things to generate controversy and headlines but because she feels a compulsion to speak out. “I have a very strong sense of morality. I don’t believe in God but I believe in living a moral life. I really do believe in that,” she says. “And I don’t think the people who have been voted in are doing that. I think they’re greedy, incompetent, corrupt, lying b******s.

“And I feel I have to say so. So I do it. I say so. I don’t do it to advance myself or get more famous. I just feel that somebody has got to say, ‘This is wrong.’”

She was completely unimpressed when former MP Matt Hancock entered the I’m A Celebrity jungle. This week, it emerged he has donated just three per cent of his £320,000 earnings to charity. Margolyes did not tune in to the reality show.

“Are you kidding? Good god. I have standards. No, no, no. I think he is absolutely contemptible… his record as a politician is deplorable. I don’t want to see him cavorting about in the jungle and making a huge sum of money. I think it’s utterly distasteful.”

Margolyes was awarded and accepted an OBE in 2002 for her services to drama, despite being a left-leaning socialist. A few hours before we sit down to chat, her aforementioned co-host Cumming announced he was handing back his 2009 OBE, citing the “toxicity of empire”.

“I didn’t know he was going to do it. And I don’t think he really needed to have done that, because it has brought out the most horrible comments in people — really awful,” she says. “I’m not giving back mine. I don’t approve of the British Empire’s excesses and where it did wrong things, but I am not giving back mine.”

In her Lady Gregory documentary, she points out the annual Christmas card she receives from King Charles — who she has become friendly with over the years. I ask what she makes of the fallout from Prince Harry’s book Spare.

“I just see the pain. This is a family in pain. Every single person in it is anxious, sad, and feels betrayed… It’s a very sad story. And I don’t want any part of it.”

She continues, “I don’t watch The Crown… Why are we watching someone’s private life as entertainment? It’s wrong.”

Last year, Oscar winner Judi Dench said the series was “cruelly unjust” and successfully campaigned to have Netflix include an accuracy disclaimer at the start of the series. “People don’t know what they said to each other when they were on their own. I mean, it’s a f**king liberty,” Margolyes says. “These are real people living their lives.”

While Margolyes loves to give people a jolt with delightfully shocking soundbites, there’s a real warmth and kindness to her. In the RTÉ press release for her documentary, the diminutive actress is referred to several times as “a national treasure”. It is a title she has mixed feelings about.

“It’s very flattering, but I think it’s ultimately meaningless. What does it really mean? It means that I’ve been around a long time. That’s all.”

It also suggests that people are fond of her, I say.

“I hope that it does mean that, and that, of course, pleases me. I want to be liked. I want to be popular. It would be madness if I didn’t. But I don’t honestly believe in the concept of a national treasure,” she says.

“Somebody once rather cruelly described me as a national trinket. And I think that is more accurate. I don’t like it, but it is more accurate.”

‘Lady Gregory: Ireland’s First Social Influencer’ airs on RTÉ One on Thursday February 9 & February 16 at 10.15pm

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