HARRY POTTER STAR
Forty years on, Miriam Margolyes still believes she was responsible for her mother’s death. The Harry Potter star speaks candidly to Samantha Trenoweth about grief and guilt and, now, living the life that she’d always hoped for.
Miriam Margolyes on grief and guilt
Mist hangs between towering eucalypts and a carpet of moss-green derns. Lyrebirds dart across a winding dirt track. The road to Miriam Margolyes’ home in the Southern Highlands of NSW might almost be a track through the Harry Potter books’ Forbidden Forest. Then it opens onto a grassy clearing with views from the escarpment across rolling farmland to the sea.
The queen of British character actors stands on a muddy threshold beaming and ushering us into a kitchen that smells of freshly brewed coffee and ginger snap biscuits. Let us be clear: Miriam did not bake these biscuits. Miriam does not bake – nor does she cook or clean or garden if she can help it. But she does like to share a meal with friends and to chat and entertain (especially to entertain), which is why she has invited The Australian Women’s Weekly to lunch.
Miriam, who became an Australian citizen in 2013, has retreated to the Southern Highlands (as she does for a few months each year) with her partner of more than 50 years, Australian academic Heather Sutherland (who prefers to remain well clear of the limelight). She also has homes in Italy and the UK, and rents this one and the Tuscan farmhouse to holidaymakers when she’s not in residence.
In Australia, the 77-year-old likes to put her feet up, catch up on reading and enjoy a respite from the late-life career renaissance that has been keeping her satisfyingly busy. After years of acclaimed support spots (including a BAFTA Award-winning role in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence), voice parts (in Happy Feet, Babe, Mulan, James and the Giant Peach) and theatre roles (including her one-woman triumph Dickens’ Women), Miriam has become a bona fide multimedia star.
“It does seem so,” she chuckles. “I don’t quite know how that happened. I can hardly believe it but it’s very gratifying. Lots of times, when I’m walking about in the supermarket, people come up to me and say, ‘I love you!’ I think I’ve been in a couple of programmes where people have seen me being a bit of an idiot and they feel that they know me as a result. I do like being recognised. I never mind when people ask me for an autograph. I love it. I feel validated, actually. So I’m not one of those celebrities who runs into an alleyway if I see a fan. If I see a fan, I’ll go towards them.”
She considers her role as Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter franchise at least partly responsible for this fortuitous turn of events. More recently, in the hit BBC series, The Indian Dream Hotel, Miriam joined a cast of British celebrities of a certain age in an insightful and uproarious exploration of international retirement options. But perhaps Miriam’s greatest renown has come through guest spots on The Graham Norton Show. There she has lamented her undisciplined elderly bowel, recounted amorous adventures with servicemen (“that was
before I was a lesbian – I was still sorting myself out”) and confrontations with misogynist workmen (“I took their great big hands and put them on my great big breasts and they were terrified”). Then there was her introduction to American musician will.i.am. “I’m just fascinated by you,” she began, “because unfortunately I don’t know very many black people.” By the end of the programme she and Will were snuggled up together on the couch.
Miriam is a household name and we perhaps know that she is Jewish, that she was an only child and that she believes she was responsible for her mother’s death. But what else should we know about this most erudite, funny, profusely honest woman?
Were you a WWII baby?
I was conceived in an air raid. My parents were in the cellar. Not long after, they were bombed out. A bomb fell directly on their house in London’s West End, so they moved to Oxford because their car was being repaired there. I was my parents’ only child. They had me 11 years after they were married and that was because Mummy was frightened of childbirth – cousins of hers had died in childbirth – but in the end she kept me and I was born in Oxford in 1941... My father was a doctor. My mother left school when she was 14 but she was one of the cleverest people I’ve known.
Did she have to leave school?
Yes. She left to start work. Her family needed the money. Her father was a second-hand furniture salesman and marrying a doctor was a big step up socially. She told me that she didn’t love my father when they married but she grew to love him, and he loved her devotedly.
They wanted me to have a good education, as most Jewish parents do. They put me into Oxford High School, the best school in the world, which they had to pay for because I wasn’t clever enough to win a scholarship... My mother always said, ‘I want you to be able to talk to anybody about anything,’ and I can.
At school I was the form wag – I was very popular, very naughty. I made people laugh, I felt confident, and I had friends. It was a very pleasant, easy life with intelligent, nice girls, all of whom are still my friends.
You’ve described your family as a fortress family.
My parents were living and working in a completely foreign environment. It was almost entirely non-Jewish and they had both always lived among Jewish people. They felt, to put it too strongly, as if they were among enemies. They weren’t among enemies but they felt that they had to close ranks. Mummy said, ‘This is a fortress family – you don’t tell anyone what happens,’ and I didn’t. It took a very long time to realise that a fortress family was not a good thing to be... It was possibly quite a damaging thing. I have never lost the feeling that I am under siege in some way; that people are waiting for me to make a mistake or to go under.
Did coming through the war give you that sense as well?
My parents, both of whom were born in the United Kingdom, felt that the Germans were going to win. Everyone did. So that gives a certain feeling to a place.
In what other ways did your mother influence the person you’ve become?
She had charm and knew how to use it and I think I have charm and know how to use it. She was incredibly generous to people but once they did something she didn’t like, they were out, and I’m like that... I didn’t take after my mother in domestic skills. She was a fantastic cook and I’m not.
So you don’t cook at all?
Do you survive on takeaway?
Yes, or I eat cold food, salad. I don’t starve, as you see... And I’m very lazy about housework. I really hate housework.
I think everyone hates housework but some people hate mess more.
I don’t. Heather tells this story. This was in the late 1960s or early 70s. One day, when I was in my flat in London, the ceiling fell down and I just accepted it. About six months later she came to visit and said, ‘What the f**k happened here?’ I’d done nothing. I’d just put a sheet over the rubble and left it.
Your mother wouldn’t have done that.
No, my parents were very conventional people. I think the daughter that they had often surprised and shocked them.
Did you test them from the word go?
Not deliberately, because I adored them, but they were deeply conventional and for them to have a daughter who was a lesbian, and an outspoken lesbian, would have been a nightmare... They didn’t know me in that way. I told my mother and it totally upset her ... She told my father and they were horrified and appalled. It was much worse than saying I was a Nazi. Jewish parents want grandchildren and that they never had. So in being true to myself I desperately wounded them and I’m sorry for that.
You’ve said that you and your mother had an incredibly honest relationship. Had you agonised over telling her?
I don’t know that I agonised over it because my natural way was to tell her everything. That was the way we operated. There were no secrets. So it was the natural thing to do but I regret it. I regret that I told her because she was somebody who couldn’t receive that news.
For that I am very, very sorry. Not long after that – I think it was three days – she had a stroke. I think that’s why she had the stroke and that coloured the whole of our lives until she died sevenand-a-half years later. [Miriam cared for her mother until her death.] That was the worst time of my life. The only good thing about the trauma and misery and sadness
“My parents were very conventional. I think the daughter that they had often surprised and shocked them.”
and grief was that I became someone who understood pain and sadness, whereas before I’d been a very trivial, light-hearted sort of person. Once you see the dark side, it’s always there – it takes your innocence away – but it gave me a dimension that I would otherwise lack. I think that if I am a good actress, and you can never know for sure, it’s because I can see the other side.
You’ve said that you’re an atheist and also Jewish. What does being Jewish mean to you?
I’ve lost my faith but being Jewish is very much part of who I am. I think of it as a religion, of course, but it’s also a cultural inheritance and that’s the baggage that I choose to carry. It’s wonderful baggage because it’s literature, food, jokes, it’s a way of looking at life, it’s a club. I relish it and I love it.
I don’t believe in God. It didn’t happen overnight. It was a long development of disbelief. But I was brought up to it. My parents were believers. They were practising and I’m practising. I still practise but I don’t believe. I do it for my parents. I fast on Yom Kippur and I do it for Mummy and Daddy because they would want me to do it. I don’t do it for God. I keep the dietary laws. I don’t eat pork, I don’t eat shellfish.
That’s quite strict for a non-believer.
I suppose it is, but I believe in my parents and I really loved them. They are ever present with me. In some ways, being Jewish is also a profound burden because you are conscious that many people don’t like Jews, even now. I won’t accept that. I’m very proud that I come from a Jewish background.
I don’t support Israel. That is difficult. It’s heart-rendingly difficult. People who are Jewish who don’t support Israel are considered traitors and as bad as terrorists... But if you go to a Palestinian home and see how their lives are destroyed by Israel – they can’t go to work across the border, they can’t see their people in hospital – it’s shocking and devastating and quite wrong. And the fact that it’s my lot doing it I find even
worse. So I say what I say and have to put up with the nasty remarks and looks, of which there are plenty.
So, I have matured into not being a trivial little person. I still love a laugh and I’m still a potty mouth and all that but I do care about the human condition. I want it to be better. When I’m dead I want people to say, she tried to make things better ...
How formative was your time at Cambridge University?
Cambridge made me who I am. I loved living in hall. I was at Newnham College and it was exciting. Every night we would come home and sit and talk in front of our gas fires about the discovery of being a woman and meeting people and relationships – endless discussions night after night – a wonderful, magic time. I grew up and did my acting there.
It was the Swinging Sixties. Did you swing?
The Swinging Sixties passed me by. I was never one of those people that smoked pot and went to parties and danced and listened to music. I was an unbearable little swat. I would rather read Dickens than go to a Beatles concert. There was no contest in that.
How did Cambridge change you?
I was always a show-off but I was an accomplished show-off at the end of Cambridge. I have a big personality and I didn’t rein it in, so I was one of the stars of Cambridge and it was very pleasant.
There was quite some competition for stardom.
There was. Germaine Greer, whom I like and admire, came along at that time. There were some stars and some very good actors but there was nobody like me. I was the only girl in the Footlights Revue. It was an exceptionally competitive, male-dominated society. Women were not allowed to join the Footlights. You were just there on sufferance. They always had a girl in the reviews but she was secondary to the eminences of the young men. I didn’t even consciously think it but I did believe, ‘I am a member of the Footlights, an equal member, and I will be as funny as they are.’ They weren’t used to that and they didn’t like it.
Who were some of the men who were there at that time?
Bill Oddie, Graham Chapman, Tim Brooke-Taylor [creators of The Goodies]; John Cleese [Monty Python, Fawlty Towers]. It was directed by Sir Trevor Nunn [who has headed up the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre]. It was a star-studded outfit and here was I, this jumped up little Jew. I was not popular with the Footlights. I was not asked to the cast party and they did something rather spiteful – they sent me to Coventry – they wouldn’t talk to me. I would act onstage with them but they would not speak to me off the stage. It rankled for a long time. Then, years later, I wrote to Tim Brooke-Taylor and said to him, ‘Did you know what was happening?’ I feel quite fond of Tim because he said, ‘I had no idea we did that.
I’m so sorry.’ And as soon as he apologised, the hurt went away.
After university, was it difficult to carve out a career?
It was very hard at the beginning. I was never leading woman material. I was always a character actress. I was hard to cast. It was difficult to know where I would fit in. It took a long time and now, as I hurtle into my 80s, I’m having the career that I hoped I would have when I started but I didn’t. Everybody said to me, you will come into your own when you’re old. I didn’t think I’d have to be this old.
Are roles for women changing?
The people who make programmes are realising that audiences want to look at older women and character women, not just at beautiful women. They have realised they can make money out of somebody who’s over 60. We’re commercially viable, and that’s been enjoyable and surprising... Is there anything about me that surprises you?
Not really, not yet.
Perhaps that’s a good thing. I’ve never met anybody who was surprised... What do you think people think I am?
That you’re inquisitive, amusing, intelligent, honest – that you appear to be yourself and speak your mind...
Yes, people think I’m authentic – that what you see is the real person talking to you – and I think that’s true. I am that. I don’t understand the point of being inauthentic. It’s completely absurd.
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE: Miriam (second from left) with Maggie Smith, Richard Harris and Alan Rickman at Hogwarts; with her parents; the Cambridge Footlights.