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Mrs Tiggy-Winkle or tour de farce? The mystery of the eternally naughty Miriam Margolyes

Sweary, bitchy and paint-strippingly candid, Miriam Margolyes has written a second memoir to follow her bestselling ‘This Much Is True’. But even after two books, the actor remains a conundrum, writes Robert McCrum

Monday 11 September 2023 06:34 BST
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<p>Next to her habitual four-letter vocabulary, ‘naughty’ is a word Miriam Margolyes wears on her sleeve</p>

Next to her habitual four-letter vocabulary, ‘naughty’ is a word Miriam Margolyes wears on her sleeve

When she appeared on The Graham Norton Show in 2021 to promote her autobiography This Much Is True, Miriam Margolyes claimed to have written it because she had been “paid an enormous amount of money”. True or not (hers is a world of fairground mirrors in which everything gets distorted), after two years of the Covid pandemic, and a long showbiz career spent just below the radar, her frank, fearless, and “hilarious” (Daily Mail) memoir caught a national nerve, became a bestseller and, yes, dumped a double hit of money and fame on this self-styled “fat old disabled lesbian Jew” and “national trinket”.

Miriam Margolyes’s shtick was paint-stripping candour (memoir’s golden rule: take no prisoners – yourself, or your enemies), a breezy command of good old English obscenity, a crowd-pleasing inventory of pop cultural walk-ons from her career as an actor (Little Dorrit, The Killing of Sister George) and a lifetime of voice-overs, from the Cadbury’s Caramel Rabbit to the “voice of Anusol”. Margolyes has also played myriad unforgettable characters from Lady Whiteadder with Rowan Atkinson to Professor Sprout in Harry Potter. Now 82, she’s still on a mission to entertain. No one ever went broke in the national service of cheering us all up.

This Much Is True possessed the virtue of telling a whacky life story in the naughtiest possible tones: how she was conceived in an air-raid shelter; was raised by her Scots-Russian parents as an irrepressible Jew; posed in the nude for Augustus John; and was told to pipe down by the late Queen. Next to her habitual four-letter vocabulary, “naughty” is a word she wears on her sleeve: the naughtiest girl at Oxford High; her naughty frown when Warren Beatty asked, “Do you f***?” (a story she repeats again here). And now here she is – having “thought my career was over” – at it again. Forget “weary recycling”, Margolyes still goads herself with, “what took you so long?”

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