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7 December 2023

Judi Dench’s Q&A: “Shakespeare’s rhythms are the beating of my heart”

The actor on Jennie Lee, Elizabeth Fry and her annoyance at those who throw away food on the sell-by date.

By New Statesman

Judi Dench was born in York in 1934. A celebrated film, theatre and television actor, she is best known for her performances in numerous Shakespeare plays, as well as for her role as M in eight James Bond films.

What’s your earliest memory?

Being wheeled out into the garden in my pram and seeing a chestnut tree. Maybe that’s where my love of trees comes from.

Who are your heroes?

Elizabeth Fry. She was a famous Quaker, who did so much for homelessness and the reform of female prisons.

What book last changed your thinking?

It’s so long since I’ve been able to read because of my eyesight, but I loved AP Wavell’s Other Men’s Flowers. It first made me aware of the thrill of reading verse.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Jennie Lee, who was minister for the arts in the Sixties. A sublime woman who existed in the halcyon days when culture ministers cared about the arts in this country.

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What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

Shakespeare. His rhythms are the beating of my heart. And he provides an answer for every single question we ask in life.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Shakespeare’s London. I’d be cheek by jowl with the crowd going to the Globe Theatre and seeing his plays for the first time.

[See also: Matthew Ball’s cerebral ballet]

What TV show could you not live without?

The Repair Shop. Not just because I adore Jay Blades and the team, but because the programme is about restoration and the celebration of craft – a good antidote to our throwaway society.

Who would paint your portrait?

I was recently painted by several brilliant artists on Portrait Artist of the Decade and I found it almost impossible to choose just one. Because what am I looking for? What other people see in me, or what I imagine I’d like to look like?

What’s your theme tune?

No idea, but I know the tune they’ll play to me in hell: Ravel’s Boléro. It’s interminable, arse-paralysing.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

When I was a child my mother said to me: “You are without doubt the most intolerant person I’ve met.” After looking up “intolerant” in the dictionary I endeavoured not to be like that.

What’s currently bugging you?

People who throw away food on the sell-by date – especially when people are starving in the world or can’t afford to eat. What’s wrong with eating bread a few days old?

What single thing would make your life better?

Eyes. Followed by ears.

When were you happiest?

I’m generally happy. But I’d say I’m happiest when I’m with family and friends having a laugh and playing games – and preferably on a picnic near the sea with an indecent amount of champagne.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A ballet dancer. I was keen to go to Tring Ballet School. When I was in The Good Companions with Christopher Gable I used to run towards him down a long corridor and I’d fly and he’d have to catch me.

Are we all doomed?

Probably, yes, if we carry on the way we’re going – throwing stuff into the seas and decimating forests. That’s why we’re so blessed to have Greta Thunberg, who draws the world’s attention to the damage we’re doing to the planet. And thank God for David Attenborough.

“Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent” by Judi Dench is published by Michael Joseph

[See also: The national treasure recession]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team.
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