Jumping for Judy!
This month’s My Favorite Things is a tribute to one of my favorite actresses, the wonderful Dame Judi Dench.
Recently, I watched the BBC adaptations of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford and Return to Cranford. Unlike a lot of classic dramas, heaving bosoms and wet shirts are at a minimum in these gentle stories of a town facing change in the 1840s with the arrival of the railway. But there’s a wonderful, compelling charm about these quiet tales of female life in the Victorian era – Cranford village is full of strong women and most of them are played by English actresses of a certain age and enormous talent.
Judi Dench plays Miss Matty Jenkyns and every time she was on screen, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was just luminous and she glowed with sweetness and benevolence. The lovely performance made me think of how incredibly versatile she is. When she plays M in the Bond films, she’s steely eyed and ruthless. I’ve seen her play nervous women, strong women, passionate women, cruel women, queens and flirts. And whatever role she plays, she turns it into something unforgettable. An amazing gift.
Dame Judi still works actively in theatre as well as television and films. I lived in London for a couple of years in the mid-80s and was lucky enough to see her in a brief role in Harley Granville Barker’s Waste in the West End. And yes, the play was just as grim as it sounds, sadly. But Judi was utterly compelling, playing a woman who seduces an up and coming member of parliament and destroys his career. She dies halfway through and what hadn’t been a promising evening in the theatre turned into absolute sludge afterward.
Even nicer, I saw her in person one day. I used to sell perfume at Covent Garden Market and one morning early she and her late husband Michael Williams walked past my stall. I must have looked surprised and pleased to see her because she gave me one of those magical glowing smiles that so illuminated the screen in Cranford.
I came across one of my favorite Judi Dench stories in a book of theatrical anecdotes. When she had her first leading role as Juliet with the Old Vic company, her parents were in the audience. In the play, she asked, “Where are my mother and father, Nurse?” Her father called out from the stalls, “Here we are, darling, in Row H.” Cute, huh?
The first time I remember seeing Judi Dench in anything, it was a wonderful old BBC romantic comedy series called A Fine Romance. She played an uptight and very insecure unmarried English lady who starts a sweet and often faltering romance with a landscape gardener played by her real-life husband Michael Williams. I can still remember how poignant she made this character, who could have come across as a humorless snob. And I remember being entranced by the famous ‘crack’ in the voice. Later, As Time Goes By was an institution in my family – we all loved it. Again, a sweet, gentle comedy with an unlikely romance at the heart of it, this time with Geoffrey Palmer.
Speaking of the crack in the voice, check out this wonderful rendition of “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music. The emotional truth of this performance always has me wanting to cry.