Pat has this icy hauteur, but she loves filthy jokes; Miriam can't be deceptive, and some find her shocking er
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The Independent Culture
Miriam Margolyes, 53, grew up in Oxford. After reading English at Cambridge, she joined the BBC Radio Drama Repertory Company. In 1991, she won the Los Angeles Critics Circle Award for her performance in Little Dorrit. She lives alone in Clapham, and has five other homes around the world.

Patricia Hodge, 48, grew up in Cleethorpes and trained at LAMDA. She starred in BBC TV's Life and Loves of a She-Devil; her recent appearances on stage include The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Separate Tables. She is married to the music publisher Peter Owen; they live in London with their two sons.

MIRIAM MARGOLYES: I usually pick up someone on a production, which is why my Filofax contains a list of 3,000 names. In 1974, Pat and I were both in The Girls of Slender Means for the BBC. We'd never met before, but working together was the start of a very close friendship. Together with the producer, Moira Armstrong, we became a sort of trio. We'd all meet in each other's houses and go to the theatre, for a meal or to see a film. Pat and I behaved like schoolgirls from St Trinian's. She loves pranks, so we often used to leave a bottle of whisky on Moira's doorstop and run away.

People who don't know Pat probably wouldn't believe what a funny, larky woman she is. Laughter with Pat is on a grand scale. She can be absolutely hysterical and she's a wonderful giggler. She's got much better over the years, but when we first became friends, Pat used to be the number one "corpser", which, in the business, means laughing so much that you can't speak your lines.

Pat has this icy, aristocratic hauteur about her, but that's not the real Pat. For a start, she loves filthy jokes. I'm sure Peter, her husband, thinks I'm a most unsuitable friend for her. Peter's been in Pat's life ever since I've known her. I once completely forgot that I'd invited them round for supper. They arrived on my doorstep and I was completely baffled as to why they'd come: Peter was determined to pay me back. So the last time I was invited to their house I called to say I'd be a bit late. He was incredibly cross and accused me of ruining their evening. I'd no idea he was just teasing and turned up absolutely quaking.

Pat has this incredible English pride in her appearance which my mother always told me I should have, but I never did. With Pat, it's nothing to do with vanity. I think she's quite embarrassed about how everyone perceives her face. She and I both know what she looks like first thing in the morning. I describe her as a bit Minnie Mouse-ish, but she knows exactly how do her make-up, and, with surprisingly little she becomes heart-stoppingly beautiful. The thing about Pat's beauty is that her face has imperfections - she has a large chin and is a woman of a certain age - but because of who she is the beauty comes from inside. Pat's known great sadness and great joy and I think it's that, and nothing to do with make-up, which makes her at times quite achingly beautiful.

I know of no one who longed for children like Pat did. I can't bear children and have always made it clear that although I love her and am happy for her, I don't want to have to love her children as well. Consequently, I've hardly seen them, but I expect as they get older that might change. I think that when they were babies she spoiled them terribly because they really were the jewels in her life. They made everything complete for her.

There's no question that Pat is a major international star. Profession- ally, she's far outstripped me, but because she has so many family res- ponsibilities, working in America is very difficult for her. It's not that she hasn't the stamina - Pat looks frail but is full of energy - it's just that being a mother is incredibly important to her. So she has to make time for everything.

All the years we've been friends, Pat's been there when I've needed her, particularly when I've got into various scrapes - sexual and otherwise. When I had a disastrous emotional experience in America, she suggested I should have therapy which, fortunately, was enormously successful. Whenever we haven't seen each other for a while, our first words on the phone are: "Are you busy?" Invariably, we have to make an appointment to phone back so we can have a proper conversation.

As Pat is one of about three people I know in the world who has real glamour, she was the first person I thought of when I needed help with clothes to take to America. She saw to it that I had a proper wardrobe, and knows I appreciate it when she says I look nice.

I can no longer go out to eat after a performance. A bowl of soup is about all I can manage, but Pat is a real night person. On the other hand, I'm probably better at business than she is. A confidence shared with Pat would never go any further. She's a much more private person than I am.

Both of us are very nervous before an opening night, but to say Pat shrinks in terror would be an understatement. I do too, but there's no reason for an audience to know, and why should they?

We both care tremendously about good acting and with each new role will talk to each other endlessly and offer advice. You think you know someone so well that you could never be surprised, but whenever I see Pat in something new I'm always surprised. When she did Gertie Lawrence and sang those songs, my heart skipped a beat and I was completely entranced. I can't imagine anyone not loving Pat as much as I do. I'd trust her with my life.

PATRICIA HODGE: I've known Miriam for more than 20 years. We met in the rehearsal room doing The Girls of Slender Means for the BBC. I knew her name, and as soon as we started talking I imagined we must have met before, but of course we hadn't. Each of us recognised an impish spark of mischief in the other. Lark-iness apart, I realised that Miriam is also one of the most intelligent women I'd met, which was an added delight.

Friends couldn't understand how I could bear to be in something which had six potential leading ladies. They said we'd all be at each others' throats, but the reverse was true. It was an absolute hoot - like being back at school. Miriam, who is one of the funniest people I know, naturally took over as Head Girl. There was terrific camaraderie between us. At lunch, we caused havoc in the canteen by putting our tables together, like you do for best friends. In those days, she used to eat raw onions for breakfast. I never believed her until she took me to her flat in Ladbroke Grove and there, on the floor, was a half-eaten onion. The entire flat smelt of onions.

About a year after The Girls of Slender Means, work wasn't exactly buzzing for either of us, so Miriam took me to Television Centre, where we drew up a list of every single production the BBC was doing. We took the list to our agents. It didn't do much good but we felt better.

Most of us in this profession wait to grow into our skins. Miriam has always been a brilliant, burning talent, but for years there seemed to be no outlet for a talent like hers, so she became the most sought-after voiceover in the business. Her voice is extraordinary - I hope the younger generation listen to her because Miriam probably has the best received pronunciation of any actress I know. Casting directors were frightened of her because she's such a one-off. She was always the maiden aunt or the misfit character. It hurt her a great deal, not getting the work, and she's had to fight like a terrier for everything she's achieved in her career. She's used sheer grit and determination. Jealousy isn't a word you would ever associate with Miriam, who's never minded other people's success, unless it was unfairly gained. The only thing that matters to her is whether someone has a talent she can respect. In America, to be different is something they celebrate, so she has become a star. She's always had the courage to do things off her own bat. With Gertrude Stein and Dickens' Women, she took on the project herself and found her own directors. I wait for things to come my way.

Although we are such close friends, she can't understand why I wanted to have children, but she has total respect for me, saying, with genuine tenderness, "They make you happy, don't they? That's what matters." When Alexander was six weeks old, she came to see me, bearing a brown velvet Hush Puppy for him, announcing, "It's perfectly safe, non-toxic and the eyes won't come out." It's still one of the children's most important toys.

I have absolute respect for the way Miriam lives her life because she does it with complete honesty. All of us withhold truths, but she can't be deceptive and therefore some people find her shocking. It's their problem, not Miriam's, if they can't accept her for what she is. She's a true free spirit and I admire the way she has managed to sustain a relationship for 27 years without having to live with the person to whom she is deeply committed.

Without make-up, my complexion is almost albino and I look terrible, so you could say I have to live a sort of lie. Miriam wouldn't dream of trying to pretend she was anything other than who she is. We have to accept her looking shambolic and as though she's dressed by Oxfam, because other things matter more to her.

Miriam started to worry about how she looked when she became successful in America. She asked me to help, so I took her to Wardrobe in Chiltern Street and put her in touch with a make-up artist and hairdresser. Now she's developed a style which is her own. She enjoys dressing up and wearing big earrings, but not all the time.

Where work is concerned, we help each other. Miriam came to see me do Jean Brodie early on in the run. After-wards, I went through her notes about what she felt I should change. I've done the same with The Killing of Sister George, her West End play . Neither of us minds what we might criticise in the other because we know it's done constructively. One day we would love to do something together, but it would have to be much more than just another "buddy" TV comedy series.

Her generosity is well known. A few weeks ago her father, who was in his nineties, died. The care and love which Miriam gave her father in the flat that she made for him in her house was done with the greatest generosity of spirit. What she did was nothing to do with being a dutiful daughter. It was about doing your best for someone for for whom you care deeply. She told me that the last time she saw her father, he said "Hello my angel". That's exactly what she would have been to him. 8