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.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - EDITOR'S LETTER -

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.

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