Improper little madam

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The Independent Culture
Ask around a bit about Miriam Margolyes among her friends and theatrical colleagues and a curious verbal tic sets in, revealing the shape she takes up in people's imaginations. 'Hugely talented,' said one; 'Enormous fun and immensely kind,' said another, 'Massively successful, vastly rich,' said a third. Clearly there's nothing, bar her height, that is shrinking about Margolyes. It's as if her cartoon proportions have further expanded an outsized, outrageous personality. But in her own, far from modest, opinion, there is one area in which she is wanting. 'Everyone knows me in Hollywood, but I'm not famous enough here,' she says. 'But at last I seem to be taking off. I'm not resentful. I'm really just surprised because I've always been bloody good.'

Margolyes is often stopped in the street by people who say 'Hello Mirienne - they always called me Mirienne - saw you on the telly.' But she would prefer to be mobbed. 'My idea of horror is to go the local swimming pool and not be recognised.' And she is prepared to work hard for fame. 'You've got to market yourself. I'm not a leading lady like Fiona Shaw; I'm a character lady and why would anyone want to pay money to look at a large middle-aged lady with greying hair, several chins and no neck? I have to persuade them that I can give them a good time.'

Her key marketing strategy is to give good interview, cheerfully baring her soul ('I love talking about myself - it's a thrilling subject actually and I'm naturally open. - You could never say 'the enigmatic Miriam Margolyes' ') and frequently offering to bare her breasts. Breasts always feature, well, largely in her conversation. Admittedly it's impossible to ignore them completely, but it is she who puts them firmly on the agenda. 'The first thing anyone sees when they look at me are these wonderful breasts,' she volunteers, fondling her voluminous sweat-shirt. 'Then they look at my eyes,' and she dimples and flutters like the elderly 12-year-old she is.

In actual fact, Miriam Margolyes' biggest feature is her voice. Mellifluous, bea-ut-iful- ly ar-tic-u-lat-ed, it is a glorious instrument which lends itself to the subtlest character sketches and the smuttiest stories alike. Marilyn Imrie, editor of Radio Four plays, has directed her several times. 'Her talent is in finding not just a voice, an accent, a dialect or an age, but to colour it with brilliantly observed mannerisms which expose what a person has lived through. The first time you heard her as Betsy Trotwood shooing away the donkeys in David Copperfield, you knew she was not just a cantankerous old woman but someone who is bottling up something tragic. She never caricatures - she can transform something that sounds trite on the page into something truly moving. It has everything to do with the quality of her voice, her wonderful rib-cage, the shape that she is.'

As a self-styled 'queen of voice-overs' Margolyes has chattered for a chimp to sell tea-bags, flogged beefburgers, building societies, cigars and, as a rabbit, Cadbury's Caramel bars. One of her earliest roles was talking dirty as Sexy Sonia for a phone-in service. She does it (the ads, that is) for the money. (Her 94-year-old father, who lives in the basement of her Clapham house, costs his dutiful Jewish daughter pounds 700 per week in nursing costs alone.) But she also does it because she delights in experimenting. When the telephone rings she picks up the receiver with an imperious 'Hello. Margolyes.' Switching rapidly into gush and amuse, she reveals how she smacked the bottom of a large British Rail guard, and then salivatingly accepts an invite to lunch ('Mmmmm, let's have the salmon.')

'Now, back to me,' she beams exuberantly as she puts the phone down, tossing her tousled black and grey and frizzing mop-head, swivelling round on her chair, her dumpy legs swinging a foot above floor. Margolyes is 'par-tic-u-lar-ly' delighted with herself and with life at the moment. Her remarkable one-woman-show, a gallery of Dickens' Women, real and fictional, continues to give her ample opportunity to exploit her pathetic strand as well as her humour ('It's terrific theatre - I can die happy having done that and I hope I'll do it till I die'); she is tipped for an Oscar for her mischievous portrayal in Scorsese's The Age of Innocence of a New York society lady so encased in fat she can barely move; next week she opens in the West End, romping alongside Donald Sinden and David Essex as Mrs Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, the latest show off the Peter Hall's star- studded production-line.

Hall calls Mrs Hardcastle 'a huge bullshitter, one of the great English comic characters', which is probably overstating it a tad. But Margolyes treats it as such, bursting the seams of this tiny cameo. She is not merely a comic scene-stealer; she is capable of grand larceny on stage. 'Dickens was wonderful at making all the layers of a character apparent. Goldsmith gives us less to work with but Peter is encouraging me to find them. Mrs Hardcastle loves her son in an absurd way. I've got to find a way of making her ridiculous while making the audience think 'Poor dear, poor soul' '.

Hall rates her as among Britain's finest character actresses. 'She has a great ability to be authentic. There aren't many English actors who can play an American convincingly in America. And she has a huge imagination - she'll be doing 40 things with a part where other actors haven't got started.' He admits, however, that in the past she has been difficult to cast. 'I believe that her time has now come. When she was 30 she was playing middle-aged women; now she is doing the same parts and is much more convincing and rooted.'

Margolyes took the role partly to work with Hall again, partly to remind people that she had a body as well as a voice and is over here. 'I want to keep my professional life alive in both continents; I think I'm big enough to straddle the Atlantic.' But what she really wants is a British TV comedy series, like her friend Patricia Routledge. 'I haven't had one - I don't know why not. I think it's very remiss of everyone. But until that happens I'm going to hone my craft with people like Peter.'

So what does Margolyes ask from a director? For a rare moment she is silent and serious. Then she begins. 'I revere directors. They have a unified vision that I could never have. They create the situation in which work can happen, stimulate my imagination so that I can have an insight. They are there at that moment when I drop the book and it's like diving into the deepest pool - frightening, even when it's a comic character. It's like stripping naked, and I'd far rather take my clothes off in public. Acting is not the mask, it's the taking away of the mask, revealing the unadorned shaven personality.' Then a flash of mischief lights up her eyes. 'You know how people say 'We wish you a warm hand on your opening' when they send a greetings telegram? Well, that's exactly what I want from a director.'

(Photograph omitted)