Judi Dench: Golden girl

Oscar nominee, national treasure, but considered too old for American TV. They don't know what they're missing
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The Independent Online

Any septuagenarian who makes the likes of Hollywood hard man Vin Diesel turn up at her stage door with a bouquet to beg her to appear in his new action blockbuster is clearly cooking with gas for several generations of film-goers more youthful than her own. And so it is with the eternally impish Dame Judi on whom acting laurels have been bestowed almost annually since she began in the profession.

The other recently touted notion that there is some kind of deadly battle between her and fellow Oscar-nominee Kiera Knightley is also, I suspect, the fabrication of some industry spin-doctor who noticed that they appear as arch enemies in Pride and Prejudice. Fairly sensible people seem to lose all sense of proportion when Brits look like making a splash at the Academy Awards: witness Radio 4's Eddie Meyer asking Dame Judi what she was going to wear for the ceremony within seconds of being told that she would be starting rehearsals for a new production of Hay Fever at the time and might find it difficult to attend. Duh!

Dame Judi has been nominated for her title role in Mrs Henderson Presents, the producer of which is her long-time friend Norma Heyman. "Judi adds a dimension to Mrs Henderson that makes you adore this woman in spite of the fact that she is an absolute cow," Heyman says. "Her performance also acknowledges that sexual chemistry doesn't diminish with age. The trouble is that we expect her to be great all the time. It's a bit unfair. It isn't easy to give those performances."

It is remarkable that she still pushes the limits of her versatility. She's a tragedienne of great distinction (Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth), a comic actress of renown (A Fine Romance, Shakespeare in Love), can sing the socks off a canary (Cabaret, A Little Night Music) and is a jolly good sport (The Morecambe and Wise Show and 007's M). She can do classical and modern and all points in between. Moreover, she will skip from stage to screens both large and small and back again with the agility and enthusiasm of a young girl. You don't get to survive for 45 years in the business without hard graft. And Dame Judi is one of the hardest grafters around.

Judith Olivia Dench was born in York on 9 December, 1934, to a fearsomely vivacious Irish mother, Olave, and a garrulous GP father Reginald, who was the company doctor at the Theatre Royal in York.

Dame Judi's mercurial personality derives from her parents: her father was legendarily amusing and a fine storyteller. Her mother was more fiery, once throwing a vacuum cleaner down the stairs at a sales rep. At The Mount School in York, where she was in the same year as the novelist AS Byatt, she embraced the Quaker faith, attracted by its lack of dogma and ordained priests.

Having made her acting debut as a snail in a play at junior school, she felt no stirrings towards the dramatic arts as a profession, preferring the more hands-on creativity of art and design. But after a dispiriting year in art school she followed her brother Jeffrey to the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, fulfilling her former English mistress's idle and condescending prophesy later recollected by Antonia Byatt, "You know, Judi will probably be content to dabble her pretty feet in amateur dramatics."

She made her professional debut as Ophelia to John Neville's Hamlet at the Old Vic Company where she got her first bitter taste of criticism from Kenneth Tynan - "a pleasing but terribly sane little thing" - and was subsequently dropped from the US tour of the production. "It was," she said later, "like a dagger to the heart."

Devastated, she nonetheless girded her loins and kick-started her career. Neither conventionally beautiful nor unspeakably plain, Dame Judi's pert and gamine features beneath the trademark short crop have probably contributed to her longevity as a screen actress. Not having the built-in obsolescence of the screen beauties and starlets of her day, she went for character roles from an early age. She is possessed of a wicked sense of humour that can spice up the most mournful role, and a feral sexuality bordering on the reckless that allows her to switch from imperiousness to wanton mischief in the flick of a cat's tail.

It is probably Harvey Weinstein who is responsible for her late-flowering success on the big screen. He acquired a little television movie about Queen Victoria and her Scottish ghillie, called Mrs Brown, promoted it as a big feature film and an international cinema audience - Americans especially - embraced Judi Dench as a movie star. Her portrayal of a lovelorn monarch won her a Golden Globe and an Oscar nod. She followed it up with a screen stealing performance as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love and won the Best Actress Oscar for eight minutes of screen time.

Her personal life has been as fruitful and as colourful as her professional one. Following a series of dalliances with unsuitable men, including Leonard Rossiter, tragedy blighted her love life when in 1969 she fell for a young actor named Charlie Thomas, while touring Australia with the RSC in Twelfth Night. Thomas had a drink problem and one night, quite unexpectedly, died. The actress was shattered. She was comforted by fellow RSC member Michael Williams with whom she had been friendly for years. Their subsequent, 30-year marriage lasted until Williams succumbed to cancer in January 2001.

Given that Dame Judi was only just beaten to the No 1 spot as Britain's Best Loved Person in a 2002 poll by the Queen, any petty rivalries concocted by the media and Hollywood publicists between actresses pale in comparison to the potential of a world class heavyweight contest between the Queen of England and the Queen of Actors.

Never mind the Oscars. That really would be a show worth staying up all night for.