Judi Dench is one of the best-loved actors in the world. She’s a National Treasure in the UK & has had a long career on stage, screen & TV. I’ve just read her autobiography And Furthermore. Actually, in the Preface, Dame Judi says it’s not an autobiography, more a follow-up to the other books John Miller has written about her career. It’s an enjoyable book, full of anecdotes about her career, the actors & directors she’s worked with, the productions she’s enjoyed & the few she hasn’t. There’s very little about her personal life. Her childhood in York; her time at the Quaker school, The Mount; her early desire to be a theatre designer & then the realisation that she wouldn’t have been able to do the job to her own satisfaction; discovering that acting was what she really wanted to do are dealt with in a short first chapter.
Her marriage to Michael Williams & their happy 30 years together are barely mentioned. She talks about the productions they were in together but nothing more personal. She writes about the house she & Michael bought for themselves, their daughter, Finty, & their parents to live in. I would have liked to know more about how that worked. Three generations living together was the norm for hundreds of years but by the late 20th century it was unusual. Judi Dench is reticent about all these more personal areas of her life & I respect that reticence. This is no tell-all book about the awful life she’s had & the horrible people who have made her life a misery.
It’s the story of her professional life & if you’re even mildly interested in the British stage over the last 60 years, you will be enthralled, as I was, in her stories about the great actors of the last century. John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Kenneth Branagh, Ian McKellen are all written about fondly. One of the best chapters is about Dame Judi’s directing debut for Kenneth Branagh’s production of Much Ado About Nothing. I really got a feeling of being in the rehearsal room. I could feel her surprise, terror & delight at being on the other side of the fence for a change. This section of the book really came alive, after a long series of anecdotes about productions of Shakespeare interspersed with her film & television roles.
Movies came late in her career with Oscar-nominated performances as Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown & Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love, when she won the Oscar for “eight quick minutes with bad teeth” as Dame Judi memorably describes her performance! Her role as the first female M in the James Bond movies is her most high-profile role.
The book is “as told to John Miller” & that’s probably why it feels like a series of interviews. I did have a real sense of Dame Judi’s voice telling me the stories but there isn’t a lot of depth. John Miller has written a biography of Dame Judi, With a Crack In Her Voice as well as Darling Judi, a celebration of her career & a book of photos & anecdotes, Scenes From My Life. The “as told to” is probably why the book wasn’t as engaging as I’d hoped, but I did enjoy reading it. I’m interested in the theatre & I’ve seen a lot of Dame Judi’s film & TV work so I was interested to read her stories of working on those productions. The photos are also terrific, mostly from her own collection. So, definitely a book for the fans, but there are a lot of us out there. I have the DVD of her wonderful performance in Macbeth with Ian McKellen & also a new release DVD I borrowed from work called Playing Shakespeare, a series of master classes with RSC actors, including Dame Judi. I’m looking forward to watching both of these even more after reading And Furthermore.