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Monday, March 22, 1999 Published at 12:50 GMT

Judi Dench: Not just a pantomime Dame

Dame Judi in the role which earned her an Oscar, Elizabeth I

Judi Dench, who has won her first Oscar in a career spanning more than 40 years, must rate as one of Britain's most popular actresses.

Her range of successes, from the most serious Shakespeare roles to television comedy, have helped earn her a reputation as a feisty, versatile actress - but one with a strong sense of humour.

Oscars '99
Dame Judi's tendency to laugh at moments of high drama was described by stage colleagues in a biography published in October last year.

But she is also enormously respected for outstanding performances in more sober roles, from Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, to Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown - until now her most celebrated success.

Shakespeare on stage

A doctor's daughter born in York, she went to a Quaker school, where she first took to the stage, then trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama, and joined the Old Vic in 1957.

Dame Judi Dench: "I'm shocked"
She made her stage debut as Ophelia in the Old Vic's 1957 Liverpool production of Hamlet, following this up with a series of Shakespearean roles with the company.

In 1961 she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, and three years later appeared in her first film, The Third Secret.

[ image: Dame Judi collects her Academy Award]
Dame Judi collects her Academy Award
In 1967, she played Sally Bowles in the London production of Broadway's Cabaret.

Once dubbed the successor to Peggy Ashcroft as the first lady of the British theatre, Dame Judi has won a string of plaudits, including British Film Industry acting awards for her performances in Four in the Morning (1965) and A Handful of Dust (1988).

There was also a BAFTA award for best supporting actress in Merchant Ivory's A Room with a View.

However, it was not until Mrs Brown - which earned her a Golden Globe and her first Oscar nomination last year - that Dame Judi, 64, had taken a starring film role.

She won glory for many of her theatrical portrayals including Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Ernest and Lady Macbeth.

Sitcom successes

In 1987, her portrayal of Cleopatra at the National won her superlatives from the critics, as well as two best actress awards.

That year, she was made a Dame in the New Year's Honours list after a string of Shakespearean triumphs coupled with television success.

She has starred in a number of television plays but it was A Fine Romance, in which she and her husband Michael Williams played a shy, tongue-tied couple, which brought her more widespread fame.

[ image: Starring with Geoffrey Palmer in As Time Goes By]
Starring with Geoffrey Palmer in As Time Goes By
Another sitcom, As Time Goes By, with Geoffrey Palmer, also brought out her natural talent for dry comedy acting.

Dame Judi made her debut as a film director in 1988, when she directed Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance Company in Much Ado About Nothing.

In 1996, she made history by becoming the first person to walk off with two Olivier awards in the same year, Best Actress for Absolute Hell and Best Actress in A Musical for A Little Night Music.

Her other film appearances have included Henry V and A Handful Of Dust.

She also guest-starred as the new M in the last two 007 films, Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies, the perfect no-nonsense foil for Pierce Brosnan's Bond.

The next film

Most recently, she has appeared in the London stage hit Amy's View, now transferred to Broadway, and won more praise for her role in Filumena on stage.

Small in stature - at only 5'1" - but large in character, she is also known by fellow stars for her generosity and modesty. She played down any hopes of success at the Oscar awards.

Dame Judi and her husband married in 1971 and had one daughter. The couple will be seen together on screen again next month when their new film Tea With Mussolini is released.

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