Sunday, March 3, 2024

Miriam Margolyes: “When I Was Sexually Active, I Thoroughly Enjoyed It”

This month, the wonderful Miriam Margolyes appears on the cover of Vogue, where she says she “wouldn’t want to be straight for anything”. To celebrate her debut as a Vogue cover model (aged 82, no less!) we’re returning to our wonderful interview, during the depths of Covid-19

This interview was first published September 26 2020.

It’s hard to know where to begin with Miriam Margolyes.

You’ll know her from such things as Harry Potter, Call the Midwife, Romeo + Juliet and perhaps her most celebrated role ever, as herself on Graham Norton’s couch.

She’s wickedly funny, unabashedly naughty, loves to shock and surprise, and hates it when people say ‘like’ – “It’s not ‘like’, it ‘is’”.

The self-described ‘fat Jewish lesbian’ tells stories that are stuff of absolute legend, mostly on The Graham Norton Show and to the absolute delight of a wonderfully entertained, if not slightly shocked, studio audience.

For example, the time she told a story of “helping out” a masturbating soldier she came across in a field in Scotland. Or how she found out her Dover home was being used as a drop for more than $30m worth of drugs. Or when she described how much she loves colonoscopies and told everyone to please get one, male or female because “arseholes are arseholes”.

Or of all the times she’s very candidly revealed the people she doesn’t like, such as the creators of Friends, Winona Ryder and all of the Mama Mia movies.

[As an aside, if you’re ever feeling a little grim and need a pick me up, go here for a 45-minute compilation of her best moments on Graham Norton, it’s the best thing you’ll ever watch in your life I promise.]

As Stephen Fry once described her, “Miriam is one of the kindest, most generous and lovely people ever born. But not someone to invite to tea with the Archbishop.”

And just because of a little thing called Covid, it doesn’t mean Miriam (79) isn’t making headlines – just in the last month she revealed she’s never watched Harry Potter, angered all of Britain’s Tories by wishing harm to Boris Johnson, and pissed of a lot of Australia when she admitted she thought her adopted country was “brutal and greedy” in her new documentary, Miriam Margolyes: Almost Australian.

The actress, whose partner Heather is Australian, decided to undertake a two-month trip of her adopted country (she gained her citizenship in 2013) to better understand where she now calls home – and she says it wasn’t what she expected at all.

From her home in London, Miriam chats to Capsule about the show, why she thinks New Zealand is the best country in the world, how she’s actually quite prudish, and the one Graham Norton guest she still keeps in touch with.

Miriam Margolyes with Claire Danes in Romeo and Juliet
Miriam with Claire Danes in Romeo+Juliet

Hello, Miriam! It’s so lovely to talk to you. How are you doing?

Well, I’m dressed in my dressing gown and I’m quite glad we’re not in vision!

I agree! Now, I’ve seen the first episode of Almost Australian, and I loved it, but as a New Zealander, I have to ask – why not New Zealand!

It was entirely because of my partner that I wanted to become Australian, and I do really like New Zealand – I have a precious cousin in Remuera actually. I hope I can do a programme about New Zealand, it’s a glorious country. And as everyone knows, it’s everyone’s favourite country at the moment because you’ve got a stunning Prime Minister, and we’ve got a shit Prime Minister. You’re living in a great place, a beautiful place.

Thank you so much, that’s so kind! And it’s always nice to hear that Kiwis are so well regarded in the world.

It’s funny, my cousin Carol, whom I adore, really doesn’t like [Jacinda] at all, she votes the other way, you know. But because I love my cousin so much, we’ve been able to get over these political differences. For example, I’m anti-Zionist, she’s a Zionist, she’s pro Israel – we’re a Jewish family, you see – and it’s a deep divide. But I think it’s very important to be able to talk to people, which is the whole point of my programme. You know, to get over the differences and find the humanity.

I mean, we love Australia in New Zealand, really – but as you point out on the programme, it’s a country with issues.

I had my own opinions. I live in a middle-class showbusiness world, and I only really know showbusiness people because that’s the way my life is. I wanted to get out and see the other side of things. It was incredibly heart-warming and useful and eye-opening and I think we should all try and do that. People should really try and deal with what they don’t know.

It’s a pretty amazing thing to think, especially when you’re almost 80, if you don’t mind me saying so. You do constantly surprise people, don’t you.

I am an actress, and I hope that I still go on to do that, it’s my craft. But I must say that I’ve taken to documentaries in a big way, and it was a wonderful experience with a wonderful crew. One of the things I had to do when I was driving was talk to the camera, which is actually very hard to do. I really did have a smashing group!

Miriam Margolyes in a camper

You are an incredible storyteller – and it’s very clear on the likes of The Graham Norton Show! You really do have the best stories.

Thank you for being so complementary – as you can imagine, not everyone agrees with you, and why should they? I do get a lot of critical and unpleasant mail, because I speak my mind and I don’t trim my words and sometimes I swear and you know, people think I’m incredibly rude.

But I don’t think I’m rude, actually. I think that I’m outspoken, but I don’t think I’m rude. Some people think I’m absolutely vile, and I very often… I don’t actually go on Twitter, but I do go on Facebook and they say, ‘oh, I can’t stand that woman’ and that’s fair enough. I don’t mind that. It’s nice when people are complementary though!

One of the best and most well-known episodes of Graham Norton was the episode when you met Black Eyed Peas rapper Will I Am, and you struck up a real comradery on the couch! Do you keep in touch?

Oh no, I like him and admire him but he’s not in my world. I hope I see him again. The people I stay in touch with from Graham’s show – obviously Graham, and Stanley Tucci. I think he’s heaven. But Graham makes such a pleasant atmosphere, everyone wants to be on his programme. But I find it quite scary because never I never know what I’m going to say! Whether it’s sexual revelations… which are inappropriate from an old lady really because, I don’t really have sex anymore. I just talk about it!

Miriam Margolyes and Will.I.Am on The Graham Norton Show
Miriam with Will.I.Am on the set of The Graham Norton Show

I think that’s great that you’re very sex positive.

When I was sexually active, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think it’s healthy. I don’t really approve – I have to say I’m quite prudish – I don’t really approve of ‘peculiar practices’. I’m very ordinary, I’m not inventive sexually, never was. I just focussed on the person, and that was it. I didn’t need chains and to hang from the chandelier by silk scarves, you know. I was just one on one, literally.

You’ve been with Heather for more than 50 years, right?

Yes, I’ve been very blessed. Relatively early in my life I found the right person to be with, and I think that’s the key to relationships and I really do love her very much. On Friday I’m driving with another friend to Italy, and I’ll meet Heather there and we’ll have a month there in our house in Tuscany.

But it’s an awful time, this. I’m not enjoying life at all. And I don’t think very many people are, it’s grim. New Zealand is possibly the best country in the world, at the moment – actually, without question. You’ve certainly got the best Prime Minister, and we have the second worst, I should think, after Trump. When I think about my life, and I’ll be 80 next year, I think this is the worst political time of my life, and I’ve never known such political despair as I feel at the moment.

I read The Guardian, which is sort of my spiritual home, and I read The Daily Telegraph, which is a good newspaper of a completely different view, and if you read the comments in the Daily Telegraph, you’d almost think you were in Nazi Germany, the level of hatred and lack of understanding is frightful, and the reason that all of this has come to the fore is because of Brexit, which has been incredibly divisive. It’s absolutely horrifying. And I am a very political person, it’s important to me.

Miriam Margolyes: Almost Australian premieres on the on Living Channel

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