Miriam Margolyes interview by Lucinda Hawksley

This December, I have the great pleasure of returning to the Malton Dickens Festival alongside ardent Dickens-lover Miriam Margolyes, so I caught up with her to find out what she’s been up to since last year’s festival.

At the start of this year, the whole country was entranced when Miriam stepped out of her famous role as Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films to become herself on screen. The BBC’s hit series, The Real Marigold Hotel, saw a stellar cast from the UK travelling to India to see how older people are treated and what it would be like to live there. The group of travellers, will be back on our TV screens this Christmas for The Real Marigold Hotel Christmas Special. Filming it involved seeing how older people live in Japan and in Florida, and I asked Miriam which of the three destinations she enjoyed the most: “India would be my favourite and Florida my least favourite. This was my first time in Japan and I absolutely loved it, I think it’s completely wonderful: the politeness, the beauty, the charm of the people, the food, the differentness of the culture, it’s just so different. I would adore to go back to Japan, I really thought it was a discovery for me. We all did, it was ravishing.” Miriam also loved their Japanese accommodation, a quiet little guest house in Kyoto “run by twin sisters of 73, they were completely adorable, I never worked out what their names were but they were just lovely lovely people.”

She has also just spent time this year in Cornwall, filming a documentary about Alfred Wallis, one of the St Ives artists, for Sky Arts. “It was for Augustus Casely Hayford’s series of Tate Britain Walks. They take a painting from the Tate Britain to the landscape where it was painted. I’ve loved Alfred Wallis since I was a student at Cambridge, where I rented one of his paintings for my rooms.”

I tried to entice Miriam to let me into the secret of what Dickensian performance she is preparing for this year’s Malton festival, but she delighted in keeping it a secret. All she was prepared to say was that her performance will be based around Charles Dickens’s letters, which she has been reading avidly. She added, tantalisingly, “I know which letters I’m going to do, but I’m not going to tell you! I will say, though, that any adulterers will have food for thought!”

Miriam’s love of Charles Dickens’ works is something that has defined her life since reading Oliver Twist for the first time at the age of 11, and she never tires of him. “The thing about Charles Dickens is that you can read him again and again, People often say ‘I’ve read that’, but I say, ‘you haven’t!’ You have to read Dickens again and again. You never stop discovering Dickens. I go through my lines when I’m swimming and the other day I was going through the Bumbles [from Oliver Twist] and I suddenly remembered the line about Mr Bumble squeezing “Mrs Corney’s little finger as he took it”. The specification of it being her little finger and the flirting is just such a lovely image. I’ve read it so many times, but suddenly I really focused on it differently; if and when I perform the Bumbles scene again I will make sure that moment doesn’t go for nothing.”

One might think that, after a career spanning Blackadder, the hit Australian show Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and the Harry Potter films, through to her critically acclaimed one-woman show Dickens’ Women, there would be few acting challenges left for Miriam to conquer, but that’s not the case. I asked if she had any burning acting desires she’d like to fulfil in the coming year, to which she promptly replied “What I’d really like is to be Joanna Lumley!” Then she added, “I would like to be in a serious play at the National Theatre and I would like to do some Shakespeare – but I don’t want to play Falstaff, which I’ve been offered, I want to play a woman’s role. I’d like to have another go at the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, and I’d like to play Queen Margaret and Doll Tearsheet.” To my surprise, Miriam commented “I don’t think I’m taken seriously as an actress, I think people see me as a funny little character. They like seeing me talk dirty on Graham Norton, and they forget that I actually care about literature. That’s what’s so wonderful about Malton, because it is a festival that focuses on literature and I think, for a little town, that is a wonderful thing. They have got, through Selina [Scott]’s generosity, access to a first-edition copy of one of the greatest books ever written.” So, this is a shout-out to all casting directors: please can we see Miriam in a serious play. Thank you.

When the festival is over, Miriam will be getting ready to film a new TV comedy series, for BBC 4. “It’s called Bucket and is about a ‘bucket list’. It’s written by Frog Stone and we play mother and daughter.” After that, in March 2017, Miriam will be back in her new home country of Australia, where she will be narrating Peter and the Wolf at the Adelaide Festival.

To know Miriam, is to know how passionately she cares about things, and this came across in the interview when we talked about Malton: “One thing that I find terribly sad is that Malton is this sweet little town, so perfectly preserved, and yet the go-ahead has been given for fracking to happen nearby. I feel very strongly about this, there should be more huge protests. We spoil the most treasured parts of our landscape. It is tragic.”