CINEMA; The queen of all she surveys

It has taken Judi Dench a long time to appear in a lead role on film. But Billy Connolly made it worth the wait. Theatre's grande dame talks highland flings with Sarah Gristwood

The Trouble with Judi Dench, her late agent Julian Belfrage used to complain, is that offered the choice between a feature film and four weeks' rep in John O'Groats she'd take John O'Groats any day. "It's true," she says.

With Mrs Brown, the story of Queen Victoria's relationship with the High- land gillie John Brown, she got both - the movie and John O'Groats (or at least locations across Scotland). This might explain something because, extraordinarily, this is her first feature-film lead. There have been supporting roles - A Room with a View, Henry V, A Handful of Dust - but generally she has shied away from cinema.

"With film I don't feel on sure ground," she says. "When it's done it can't be improved - with theatre you go on till you get it better. It is a work in progress." She doesn't mention that, more than 30 years ago, when she emerged as an instant star of theatre, having gone straight from drama college to be John Neville's Ophelia at the Old Vic, she was dismissed as unsuitable for the big screen. "Miss Dench, you have every single thing wrong with your face," she was told apparently.

But now, Mrs Brown, a small-budget British feature - pounds l.5m, 33 locations in 30 days - has been hailed in Cannes and, more importantly, in the America. When it opens here next month, she will be busy even by her own prolific standards, starring at the National Theatre in David Hare's new play Amy's View, repeating her unlikely role as M in the new Bond movie, and preparing another series of As Time Goes By for BBC1 television.

On screen in Mrs Brown, the face that journalists liken to that of a Persian kitten fits Queen Victoria's widow's cap to a T. This is not a role for a vain woman, says Dench, rather grimly. The rasp in her Tallulah Bankhead voice heightens the "tremendous waywardness" she was pleased to find in Victoria. In the flesh, giving interviews in a London hotel, she's prettier, dressed in floating white and heavily be-ringed. Twice burgled, she now wears all her jewellery.

Mrs Brown explores the relationship, unlikely enough to be intriguing, that pulled Victoria out of the depression into which she had slumped after her husband's death. It was, Dench says, "a passionate, cerebral relationship of the sort it's difficult for us now to understand. Difficult then, too, it seems. In the 1860s, cartoons showing John Brown on the throne or describing the Queen as "Mrs Brown" circulated in pamphlets and magazines. "She must have known, mustn't she?" says Dench.

Relevance to our own royals was not, Dench says, much discussed on set. True, the Royal Family successfully protested against an earlier script on the same subject, but times change and the moral high ground becomes increasingly untenable. And Mrs Brown is not, in any case, a story of adultery.

"I never believed there was a sexual relationship between them, but we'll never know," says Dench. "That's not what the film sets out to show - much though I'd like to have flayed about in a bed with Billy."

Billy Connolly, with hair and exuberance toned down, is an unexpectedly convincing John Brown. He raves about Dench's raunchy sense of humour, and she talks of him ("a hero of mine for his comedy") with real enthusiasm. Does she draw a lot from her fellow performers?

"Absolutely. I suck them dry. To me it's the difference between being a director and an actor. My husband is about to do an adaptation of Aubrey's Brief Lives - all on his own!" She says it incredulously.

Dench has been married to Michael Williams, the actor, for 25 years. "I said to Michael, 'Do you see a vestige of Billy Connolly in his performance?' In parts you almost hold your breath. He's such a good actor. Unflappable." (This last is a serious accolade from the unsentimenatal Dench.) "He's a deeply serious man. People fall into the trap, when they meet him, of expecting he's going to be funny all the time. Maybe they feel the same about me."

She doesn't mean that they think she should be funny but that she should conform to the image that they have of her - "cosy", as she describes it. Ten years ago, I interviewed her in the pretty, painting-filled Hampstead home that so famously burned down. She complained then about people's expectations. "There is something of every part you play within you. A whole kaleidoscope - fierce emotions - so why do people just take the colour you play on top and label it homely?"

I remind her of this, and she says she doesn't think the problem has disappeared. It seems perverse for the public to isolate the quality of cosiness from a woman who has played Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra and Mother Courage but the trouble is Dench's famous and genuine niceness. It's something from which you can never get away. Ten years a Dame this winter and you can't even accuse her of feeling smugly secure.

"You take each job and it brings a whole new set of nerves. I think I get more nervous as time goes on. You find a way of sublimating it, of channelling it into the performance. I think I'd be worried if the nerves went away."

Suddenly I get a display of them. Mrs Brown is already tipped for next next year's Academy Awards ... "Don't!" she interrupts dramatically. She has had enough of that in the States, where she has been publicising Mrs Brown among the same people who made her see "the whole of 40 years' work sliding straight down the plughole" when they asked her what she had done in her career before playing M in Goldeneye.

The gulf between high and popular culture (along with "the theatre, what is real and what isn't, and the different turns that love takes") is a theme of Amy's View. But Dench seems to straddle it effortlessly. A line from the play comes to mind: "No roles for women!" cries her actress heroine, Esme. There's not much evidence of that in Dench's career, which has been one of infinite variety. She was 61 when last year she won the Olivier Awards for best actress in a play (Absolute Hell) and best actress in a musical (A Little Night Music).

A week after the interview I follow Dench's dresser through the blue rabbit warren that is backstage at the National Theatre. She is generous with invitations to her dressing room. There have been four visitors already today - it has been as many as 18, her dresser tells me - even though, minutes before, her performance in Amy's View was powerful enough to draw "Bravos!" at a weekday matinee. There is a paper lobster on the wall, and a card to a doting granny. Bond's M seems miles away.

It was Michael and their daughter Finty who insisted she should play M, she says. "I'm not good at choosing. It's better for someone else to see you in their mind's eye."

The role made her a name in Middle America, the transatlantic equivalent of what happened long ago when she did Z Cars after a run of triumphs at the Old Vic and workmen in the street started spotting her. "Yes..." she says, remembering, and making it sound like an admission. "I do like that, really."

'Mrs Brown' (PG) goes on general release on 5 September.

Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence