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Friday, 6 September, 2002, 14:21 GMT 15:21 UK
The Importance of Dame Judi
Dame Judi Dench: A British institution

Dame Judi Dench's latest role is as the indomitable Lady Bracknell in the new film version of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. It is the first comedy to be made at London's Ealing Studios for nearly half a century, and it is fitting that one British institution should now be graced by another.

She cuts a diminutive figure but packs a voice that can sigh gently and still startle those up in the Gods.

She once hung a notice in a theatre foyer which read "Miss Judi Dench does not have a cold, her voice is always like that". A critic once said that the crack in it could lead either to tears or laughter.

But her voice, like her extraordinary acting skills, has been honed over many decades. Now, Hollywood can't get enough of her.

Receiving a BAFTA for her performance in Iris
Receiving a BAFTA for her performance in Iris
Miramax producer Harvey Weinstein once said that he would have Judi Dench in every one of his films if he could. It has taken 40 years for Dame Judi to become an overnight success.

Her love of the theatre began at a very early age. Her father was the resident doctor for the Theatre Royal in York, the city of her birth in 1934.

She would often accompany him on his visits there. Both he and her Irish mother had walked the amateur boards. They were to watch their daughter play Romeo and Juliet more than 70 times.

The story goes that when, as Juliet, Judi spoke the words "Where is my father and my mother, nurse"?, her father was heard to say, "Here we are, darling, in Row H."


After enrolling at the York School of Art, she found the smell of the greasepaint too intoxicating, and followed her elder brother to London's Central School of Speech and Drama. She never looked back.

She joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1960s and, over a 30-year period, she played all the leading female Shakespearean roles, as well as those of Ibsen, and Chekhov.

She also showed off her gift for comedy in the works of Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde and her versatility was confirmed when she starred as Sally Bowles in the London premiere of Cabaret in 1968.

With Geoffrey Palmer in As Time Goes By
As Time Goes By, a success at home and abroad
Despite having been told that she had a "radio face", in the 1980s Judi Dench ventured into television sitcom. She was a big hit in A Fine Romance with her husband, Michael Williams.

The couple had wed in 1971. It was one of British showbiz's most celebrated marriages that ended last year when he died of cancer.

She called him "my great Irish splodge"; he sent her a red rose every Friday.

The couple's daughter Finty, also an actress, excelled herself by inadvertently burning down the family home in Hampstead in 1993, which solicited a consoling telegram from no less than the Queen.

Finty caused some family discord when she kept it from her mother that she was eight months pregnant.

Another sitcom, As Time Goes By, with Geoffrey Palmer achieved great success at home and abroad, particularly, in America.

Prolific movie career

It was inevitable that a career in films would follow. Her performance in Mrs Brown, opposite Billy Connolly, and her role as the female M in the new James Bond movies caught Hollywood's attention.

As Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love
Her Oscar winning performance was a mere eight minutes long
Such is her commanding presence that Judi Dench, by now in her 60s, could appear for a mere eight minutes as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love and win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Since the death of her husband, she has thrown herself into work, putting off, as she told her friend Kevin Spacey, the process of grieving.

She and Spacey appeared together in The Shipping News, she made The Importance of Being Earnest, then took on the stage play The Royal Family, a new David Hare work is due later this year, and before all this, there was Iris.

This film in which she played the author Iris Murdoch slipping into Alzheimer's Disease she has described as her most difficult challenge, and many regard it as her finest film performance.

The film's director Richard Eyre regards Dench as a genius. "She can turn a whole line on a syllable." Co-writer Chris Wood has said that a common theme between Murdoch and Dench is "a sense of a very, very considerable inner life and a terrific intelligence".

With daughter Finty and husband Michael
With daughter Finty and husband Michael
Despite her age, Dame Judi, as she became in 1988, has never settled into complacency. She accepts parts, not by reading the scripts beforehand, but on the recommendation of those she respects.

"Not reading pushes me to a kind of dangerous edge and there is something in me that needs that."

The 77 British families that lost their loved ones in the 11 September attacks, chose her to read at the memorial service at Westminster Abbey. This was an illustration of the measure of the esteem in which Dame Judi Dench is held.

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05 Sep 02 | Entertainment
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