Judi Dench on stage as Ophelia in Hamlet at the Old Vic in September 1957
When I first met Judi Dench, she was 26, small, chubbily attractive and as nervous as an electric eel.
She was playing Anya in The Cherry Orchard under the awesome director and Chekhov expert, Michel Saint-Denis. ‘I am absolutely terrified,’ she told me. ‘I don’t think he likes me or my work.’
Nowadays, with an Oscar, a damehood and so many hits under her belt, it’s odd to remember that Judi had a bumpy take-off. It was fraught with obstacles — such as her diminutive height, barely 5ft 2in.
She could disguise it amazingly. ‘You looked 6ft on your entrance last night,’ I once remarked, quite sincerely.
‘Go on! Go on! This is music!’ she cried.
There was also a problem with weight. It was so easy for her to put on and at our lunches she rarely did more than toy with lettuce leaves. Yet she loves food.
‘Tell me what you had for lunch,’ she implored one day when I visited her at a health farm in Hampshire.
‘I want to hear every detail. Did you have lobster? Why not? We dream of lobster here. We talk of nothing but the food we long for — much more than sex!’
‘This American said: “Miss Dench, you have every single thing wrong with your face,” ’ she told me.
It was in her first summer at Stratford that her talent came blazing out as Titania, a dazzling firework of a Fairy Queen with streaming wild hair and unrestrained libido.
When her career took off, that of her actor husband Michael Williams, whom she married at the age of 36, was inevitably overshadowed.
One day in a pub at Wasp Green, Surrey, where she’d bought a 17th-century house and small estate, I raised this delicate subject with them. Had her success made their relationship difficult to maintain?
Michael answered by expressing his admiration for acting that was, he said, well out of his league.
From the corner of my eye, I noticed Judi ferociously ironing out the silver paper wrappings that had held our after-lunch mints with the back of a spoon.
She said nothing. But it was clear that she found the disparity in their fame more awkward than he did.
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