Review: Vivien Horler
This Much is True, by Miriam Margolyes (John Murray/ Jonathan Ball)
The cover picture on Miriam Margolyes’s autobiography is arresting – those eyes follow you everywhere.
As a British TV, theatre and film actor and voice artist, she had never come up on my radar, but I think that’s because I wasn’t paying attention.
She is self evidently no longer young – she’s in her 80s – is short and stout, and was never a conventional starlet or ingenue. Yet she’s properly famous for a variety of things including acting roles stretching back to the late 1960s, an extraordinary ability to do voices and accents (she voiced Fly, the border collie’s mother in Babe), has been in a host of things you’ve probably seen, modelled nude for the artist Augustus John – and claims to have been the first person to use the f-word live on British television.
You may have seen her in the film Ladies in Lavender, as Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films, in an episode of Doc Martin, as bossy Mother Mildred in Call the Midwife, and various episodes of Blackadder. She has been a regular on the Graham Norton Show.
She is gay, Jewish, rude, feisty and potty-mouthed (swearing is a bad habit she got into early she says, adding: “But saying ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ and ‘c*** face’ isn’t as bad as racism or selling drugs. Get real!”)
She finds sex to be a good conversational topic and thinks penises and breasts are hilarious. She has never had a penis inside her, she says, but has been known to give blowjobs and handjobs.
She recounts a story – which she told on the Norton show – about walking home after a performance one night in Edinburgh when she came across a young soldier in uniform up a tree, vigorously masturbating. She told him to get down at once, which he did, and scolded he was likely to ruin his military career if he was caught in a public display like that.
She said: “ ‘Now look, I will help you out with this one, but you must go home after, and remember you are a soldier.’ … I then gave him a helping hand, so to speak, and off he went. He was charming and, I must also say, grateful.”
In the book she adds a postscript to this story, which she did not repeat on the Graham Norton show because she feared people might think she was a sex maniac, “which I’m not”.
After the soldier had said goodbye, she heard someone saying: “Miriam, do you remember me?” He turned out to be a “sweet boy” she’d known at Oxford, a Nigerian called Winston, who was sitting on a nearby bench and had watched the whole episode. “What about me?” Winston wanted to know.
Not wanting to be accused of discrimination, and because she liked Winston, she reports that she killed two birds that night for the price of one. “I felt good, they felt good; truly, what’s the harm? No animals were hurt in the process.”
The index of This Much is True is a list of fame: Rowan Atkinson, David Bailey, Warren Beatty, Alan Bennet, Kenneth Branagh, Prince Charles, John Cleese (she really doesn’t like him) – and that’s just a handful of the As, Bs and Cs.
She has been a remarkable success in her career and can be assumed to be a member of Britain’s Great and Good. She has won a Bafta and been made a member of the Order of the British Empire.
She has her serious moments too. She has been an activist, in her youth joining the Workers Revolutionary Party with Vanessa Redgrave. She was brought up in a traditional Jewish family who always voted Conservative, but at university in Oxford she began to question what her parents believed. She is a signatory of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, which has got her into trouble with Zionists.
She believes Jews “fell down” when it came to Palestinians, asking where were they supposed to go when Zionists claimed Israel? “The tragedy of the Palestinians is just as much the tragedy of the Jews.”
And she fights for the rights of gay women too. “I enjoy a chat, and if I can pop a bit of sex into it, I don’t think there’s any harm. Not a lot of gay women front up on TV, so I hope I give courage to young dykes to be proud and confident. If you tell the truth – and I always do – you shame the devil.”
She’s brave, plain spoken and often hilarious – and so is this autobiography.