Queen Judi

She has a voice that can break hearts and a giggle like a naughty schoolgirl. Michael Coveney pays a 70th birthday tribute to one of Britain's greatest actors

Judi Dench's daugher, Finty, once reckoned that her mother gave out about 450 Christmas presents each year. Today it will be Dame Judi's turn to receive probably as many gifts, if not more, for Dench, unofficially enthroned as "a national treasure", but in reality the naughty girl at the back of the class, today arrives at the improbable milestone of 70 years of age.

Judi Dench's daugher, Finty, once reckoned that her mother gave out about 450 Christmas presents each year. Today it will be Dame Judi's turn to receive probably as many gifts, if not more, for Dench, unofficially enthroned as "a national treasure", but in reality the naughty girl at the back of the class, today arrives at the improbable milestone of 70 years of age.

Three weeks older than her great friend Dame Maggie Smith, and three years older than the other claimant for the "greatest living actress" title, Vanessa Redgrave, Dench is the only one of that illustrious trio whom everyone loves. Ian McKellen has implied that this can be a problem. For when Dench walks on a stage, the audience just falls in love with her; even if she is playing Lady Macbeth, the hostess from hell, which she did in the definitive Royal Shakespeare Company chamber production with McKellen in 1976.

Her Cleopatra at the National in 1987, opposite Anthony Hopkins, she herself described as "a menopausal dwarf". But the Shakespearean scholar Stanley Wells notes in the new birthday collection of appreciative essays ( Darling Judi, edited by John Miller for Weidenfeld and Nicolson) that the role gave her the greatest scope for the full range of her talents. And those talents, apart from the beautiful articulation, the musical catch in her voice - which, said Irving Wardle, may equally lead to a sob or a fit of the giggles - and God-given ability to let you know exactly what she is thinking and feeling on stage at any moment, are all to do with generosity and bountifulness.

The naughty girl side comes out in the essential playfulness of Dench in rehearsal and indeed on stage. She is a terrible giggler. She will not work with anyone who lacks a sense of humour. She will not work with bullies. I once asked her if she ever consorted with critics and she said she'd rather not, though she once had a wonderful lunch with Harold Hobson. She was having a rather less wonderful lunch with me in Hampstead several years ago when she noticed the mess I'd made on the Chinese restaurant table cloth: "Remind me never to cast you as a waiter," she said. "You have the most appalling table manners." She then started giggling, with that full throaty, helpless gurgle that has corpsed so many of her fellow actors.

Some of them get their own back, like the late Michael Bryant as Enobarbus, trying his luck as she moved semi-regally upstage as Cleopatra with, sotto voce: "I suppose a quick fuck's out of the question ..."; and the late Norman Rodway, who exclaimed in the middle of a scene, when told discreetly by Dench that a lip-reading Geoffrey Palmer was in the audience that night: "Is that boring fucker out there?" She tends to march firmly upstage and tug on her handkerchief at such moments, or she would disintegrate entirely.

These stories are legion and you begin to wonder how on earth she has acquired such a serious reputation. But the humour is the gloss on the essential valour of what she does.

Peter Hall, her favourite director, avers that you cannot be a great actor without being a great person. For him, Judi Dench, like Peggy Ashcroft, qualifies on both counts. But Peggy Ashcroft never won the national affection that Dench has done in the long-running television sitcoms A Fine Romance, with her late husband, Michael Williams, in the 1980s, and As Time Goes By, for most of the 1990s, with Geoffrey Palmer. In a radio tribute programme on Tuesday night, Palmer became speechless while trying to define Dench's comic timing and brilliance in their work together. For nine years, apparently, he never stopped being astounded. Or upstaged.

And then of course she has played royalty - Queen Victoria in her break-through film, Mrs Brown (1996) and Queen Elizabeth, her Oscar-winning eight-minute cameo in Shakespeare in Love (1998). The British public would probably vote for her as their queen in an open election with the present incumbent. She was certainly the popular choice of the British relatives of those who died in the twin towers disaster to read at their memorial service at Westminster Abbey. It would be impossible, and a very bad case of bad form, to dislike Judi Dench.

In this same new volume of appreciation, the director Richard Eyre - who elicited one of Dench's most beautiful and heart-breaking performances as Iris Murdoch slipping out of her mind to an entranced oblivion in the film Iris (2002) - recounts how he once speculated with Alan Bennett on what might be the world's worst-taste T-shirt. Bennett said that he had seen a young man wearing a heavy metal T-shirt that read :"Hitler: The European Tour". Eyre countered by describing one he had seen shortly after 39 Turin football fans had been killed in the tragedy at the Heysel stadium in 1985: "Liverpool 39, Turin 0". Bennett topped this by saying the worst-taste T-shirt, the very worst, would be one that read: "I hate Judi Dench".

I first saw her at the Oxford Playhouse in 1967 in an Arbuzov play called The Promise, with Ian McKellen and Ian McShane. I had heard a few great theatre voices by then - notably Ian Richardson and Ian Holm at the RSC - and I had obviously come to the conclusion that all the best actors were called "Ian". But Dench's vocal honey was something quite extraordinary, and then there was a beautiful rasp to it. That rasp came into its own in the following year when she played Sally Bowles in the London premiere of John Kander and Fred Ebb's Cabaret, directed by Hal Prince. She didn't so much sing the role as breathe it musically. And she was a pocket emotional dynamo on the stage of the huge Palace Theatre. "What good is sitting alone in your room ... come hear the music play," was her husky, melodically fractured anthem for all actors and all audiences. She did something far richer than was ever dreamt of in Liza Minnelli's slam-bang philosophy.

Already a veteran of the Old Vic (in its last great pre-National phase, with Maggie Smith, Alec McCowen and Barbara Jefford) and the RSC - she had played Isabella and Titania, as well as Anya in The Cherry Orchard - she broke every rule about what she might or should be doing as an actress. The puritanical directorate at the Royal Court were so horrified by Dench appearing in Cabaret that they posted a Green Room notice forbidding the staff to go and see her. When Trevor Nunn succeeded Hall at the RSC, she discovered a new mentor and embarked on a series of performances, during two periods with the company in the 1970s, that established her pre-eminence. That Lady Macbeth, McKellen said the other night on radio, will never be improved upon; he measures every performance in the role against Dench, and they all fail.

For me, an even greater performance was her Beatrice in the same year, opposite Donald Sinden as Benedick, in John Barton's Indian colonial version of Much Ado About Nothing. Dench and Sinden were slipping with every sign of reluctance into acrimonious middle age, and their exchanges had the urgency of love disappearing in the last-chance saloon. When Dench told a blustery Sinden that she had been sent to command him inside for dinner, the manner in which she combined annoyance and affection was funny, frightening and incredible all at once. The entire relationship was in that moment. There was an echo here of a scene in that same season's The Comedy of Errors, recalled by the director Gregory Doran, "when Judi, as the frustrated wife Adriana, emerged onto the balcony, stabbed her finger at the man she supposed was her tardy husband, pointed back to the house where his supper was waiting, and then flounced back inside, without a word."

Doran was in the stalls for that show, but in the saddle as director when Dench returned last year to the RSC after an absence in Stratford-upon-Avon of 24 years. His All's Well That Ends Well was illuminated by Dench's glorious, autumnal Countess, and the company - still in a crisis of identity and purpose - was transformed by her return. She had not been in Stratford since her time there with her husband, Michael Williams, who died of lung cancer in January 2001. Encouraged by Finty to return, she laid some old ghosts while galvanising new ones. Now a proud grandmother to Finty's six year-old son, Sam, she can take her pick of the many roles that come her way. Like Maggie Smith - whose second husband Beverley Cross died in 1998 - she has become a very busy, and possibly very merry, widow.

She and Smith appeared together for the first time at the Old Vic in 1957. They renewed stage acquaintance in David Hare's The Breath of Life two years ago, and their cinematic companionship blossomed in Franco Zeffirelli's charming Tea With Mussolini (1999) and Charles Dance's directorial debut, Ladies in Lavender.

While Vanessa Redgrave gears up to rejoin the RSC as Hecuba, one can only marvel at the careers of these three actresses - Redgrave, Smith and Dench - who have taken so many audiences on so many rewarding journeys over so many years. Dench, especially, is now unassailable as the paramount actress of our day, and the most refreshing thing of all is that she makes no distinction between the areas in which she works. And she has no sense of self-importance.

David Hare once wrote her a fan letter. She wrote back: "You call me beautiful. You call me brilliant. I notice you don't call me tall." Hare praises fellow director Stephen Frears for offering Dench the chance to leave Stratford "and reinvent herself as the more interesting contemporary actress she's now become". He himself gave her one of the greatest roles of her life in Amy's View (1997) in which she played a disappointed mother preparing for a performance with the savage intensity of a Japanese Noh actor moving in for the kill. But Hare misses the vulgar point about Dench, which is that she operates on different levels with different directors and writers, all of whom she admires, all of whom delude themselves into thinking they own her. She is special to all of them, and special as well to her audience. We all claim ownership.

She was just as amazing in performances of plays by Hugh Whitemore and Keith Waterhouse as she was in the rarefied Hare air of Amy's View. In both Whitemore's Pack of Lies and Waterhouse's Mr and Mrs Nobody (a brilliant dramatic embellishment of Pooterism) she embodied the very spirit of decent suburban respectability that Hare might abominate but which Dench understands with total humanity.

As in a prismatic arrangements of reflecting mirrors, Judi Dench glides buoyantly, between the artefacts designed to reflect and recreate her instinctive genius, ever embroidering cushions for her colleagues with obscenity in the stitching. She is the most available performing enigma we possess, and the incontestable pride of our theatrical culture. Long may she flourish. Happy birthday.

DENCH'S FAN CLUB

Stephen Fry

"A Judi Dench performance is one to treasure. She is talented in her profession but she is also a wicked, laughing pleasure to work with."

Billy Connolly

"Judi would appear to find situation comedy on television and acting in Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon something of a doddle and brings to both an appearance of familiarity and comfort that takes the breath away."

Peter Hall

"Like all great actors she has an ability to be comic - she can make the audience laugh in order to make them understand. But she has more than that - she can become tall, she can become thin, she can become fat. She is truly a character actress."

Geoffrey Palmer

"The wonderful thing about her is that she doesn't trail clouds of glory behind her. When you are working with her you are totally unaware of the fact that this is one of the most distinguished actresses in the English-speaking theatre."

Ian McKellen

"She never abuses the fact that when she walks into a room or onto your television screen or onto the stage then nothing else matters. One of the great joys of being alive in England in the 21st century is being around when Judi Dench is.''

John Miller (biographer)

"She always wants to try something new and different and preferably dangerous."

Some tributes taken from BBC Radio 2's "Judi at 70"

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