Interview with Actress Miriam Margolyes
During the performance run of Dickens’ Women in Vancouver, British Columbia, we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to engage Miriam Margolyes in a phone interview.
Miriam Margolyes: Good morning.
Eric Scull: This is Eric Scull with MuggleNet. How are you today?
Miriam: Good, good. Yeah, fine so far.
Eric: The whole day is ahead of us, I guess.
Miriam: Yes, it is. It is indeed. And quite an interesting one for me because I’m going to see the Cirque du Soleil before I do my show. Because the company manager of that was my stage manager for Dickens’ Women when I went around India about 20 years ago.
Eric: Was that in 1989?
Miriam: It would’ve been a bit later than that. I can’t remember exactly but a bit later than that.
Eric: So the show you’re doing now is a revival of the one you wrote in the ’80s?
Miriam: Yes, yes, it is a revival. Because I haven’t done it for a while, so I guess it is a revival.
Eric: So you’ve decided to do it again after some time off.
Miriam: Oh, yes. It’s my passion! Absolute passion. Yes, it is a revival. That is what it is. It is a show that I actually last did six years ago in Australia. But before that, I hadn’t done it for many, many years. But it’s been revived a couple of times.
Eric: Have people’s views of the characters changed? Literature being very transformative, has it changed since you first put it on?
Miriam: A little bit, I think. As you get older, your work hopefully improves and gets deeper. And people who’ve seen it this time around say it is very different, that it’s deeper and more profound, so I hope that’s good. My view of the characters… I feel more sympathy for Miss Havisham than I ever used to. I think she’s become my favorite.
Eric: What made you choose each of the characters that you do portray in Dickens’ Women?
Miriam: I chose them with two ideas in mind, really. One was simply because I wanted to act them, and I knew that I could. And second, because I wanted to show a parallel between the women in his life, the real women, and the women that he depicted in his books. There was a link between them, and I wanted to show that. And that is really what the show is. The show is his life story.
Eric: That’s quite fascinating.
Miriam: Have you ever read a Dickens book?
Eric: I must admit that I have not read a Dickens book – the questions I have today were sourced from some of our other staffers who had, and they were very passionate about it, but I have not… slightly embarrassing!
Miriam: Don’t be embarrassed, because he’s not – perhaps – in touch with this generation, as you are. But I want you to remember that he was a journalist, like you. And if you remember that, you might be more interested to pick up one of his books and have a go. You don’t have to read everything – skipping is not an executable offense, you can skip – but if you don’t read him, you’re missing the greatest prose writer who ever lived. And for a journalist, I feel that’s a pity.
Eric: You’ve certainly stated the case clearly. And speaking, again, of the characters, you’ve played Dickens characters on film and TV before – Mrs. Corney, Flora Finching, and even Catherine Dickens in the biographical work. Are you reprising any of those roles for this show?
Miriam: Flora Finching is in this show. Mrs. Dickens is in the show. So in that sense, yes, your word – very American – “reprise” – I am reprising them!
Eric: I have a couple of questions now that are more analytical about Dickens’ specific works. These come from our friend and collaborator John Granger.
Miriam: Go ahead!
Eric: Dickens is consumed by orphans – outside of Sketches by Boz and Pickwick, all of his books feature children without one or more parents struggling to find their way in the world. This orphan “trick,” if you will, is obviously effective in winning the hearts of readers (and is even present in J.K. Rowling), but I suspect Dickens was not just calculating to win the hearts of his female readers. Was this his own cry for feminine, maternal attention?
Miriam: Oh, absolutely. There’s absolutely no doubt about that whatsoever. And you see, if Dickens had been born after Freud, and if he had read Freud, he would not have been able to write. Because so much of his interior life is in his work that he would have felt transparent. And what my show tries to do is to make him transparent. And he wouldn’t have liked that.
Eric: They do say that writing is a baring of the soul.
Miriam: All art is, in some way, revealing of the person who is the artist. Maybe in different ways. Dickens did it by putting his soul into different characters in different books. Not all the time – because he had a great imagination. He created over two thousand characters.
Eric: That’s amazing.
Miriam: It is amazing. And not all of them had a slice of Mr. Dickens in them, but many of them did. And particularly, because he felt that he had been badly treated as a child, he made children very important in his books.
Eric: I think that was a great service to children, who afterward could be seen as strong like the characters that he wrote.
Miriam: Yes. Well, he was really the first writer who made the child the hero of the book. And that would’ve been Oliver Twist.
Eric: Well, actually, now, I have seen a version of the musical production, Oliver!, performed.
Miriam: Are you an American?
Eric: Yes, I am.
Miriam: Well, a problem with America, I feel, is that there is an anti-intellectual strand in American life, and it’s very damaging to the ordinary American person. They talk about “pointy-headed intellectuals,” and instead of revering wisdom, they deride it. This is a most terrible aspect of America and what is holding it back in the world. You don’t get that in China or India.
Eric: Do you anticipate that your show will be received differently when you come to Chicago than, say, when you perform it internationally or even in Vancouver?
Miriam: Well, the thing about Chicago is that is one of the places where intellect and achievement [are] revered. So I don’t expect to get a “stupid” audience in Chicago. No, I don’t. I think it will be an educated audience – and a theater audience. I always think of Chicago as a theater city, one of the great theater cities of the world. And what they will come to see is, well, not just about Mr. Dickens (because not many people know much about Dickens and few people care), but what they will want to see is an actress in her prime, giving the best performances of her life. And that they will want to see.
Eric: I wanted to talk about Ellen Ternan, Dickens’ “Invisible Woman” and mistress, the young actress for whom he all but abandoned his wife and their many children.
Miriam: Indeed, and all of this comes into my show.
Eric: She didn’t take the stage in his life until 1857. Do the great works that follow this time in his writing – Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend – have shadows in character and plot of his secret love?
Miriam: I would say so. Definitely. And that’s one of the things that I talk about in my show. Because my show is not a play – and it’s quite difficult to describe. It’s like, well, if I say it’s an animated lecture, that doesn’t nearly give you the thrill of it. Because let me tell you that every night, every night in Vancouver and everywhere else, the audience leaps to their feet at the end of the show. So they are witnessing something rather extraordinary, and they know it. And I know it too – I know it’s my swan song. I won’t do it again. And my performances in Chicago will be the last performances of something that means a very great deal to me, so it’s extremely charged.
Eric: That sounds absolutely wonderful.
Miriam: Well, I hope and believe it will be. Because I believe that the Chicago audience is a fitting audience for me to say goodbye. And I believe they will relish it. You see, people don’t need to know anything about Dickens at all, or to even have read a Dickens book. They don’t need to know who he is. They just come for a night of theater. And they’ll get it.
Eric: I had a question about A Christmas Carol. Because it’s got to be his most well-known… or maybe his most-adapted…?
Miriam: Hmm, I’m not quite sure. That could be Oliver Twist.
Eric: In Christmas Carol, it’s got a lot of men. And is almost entirely about men on the surface. Scrooge, and the nephew, Tiny Tim as well. When you’re doing a show called Dickens’ Women, are you still able to use that story in your work?
Miriam: There is a reference. There is a reference to A Christmas Carol. Christmas Carol was one of Dickens’ Christmas books. And it’s not one of his great novels. It’s very, very good. And it’s a morality tale, because he was a great moralist. You always know in a Dickens’ book who’s supposed to be good and who’s supposed to be bad. It’s very clear, unlike life, unfortunately. I think we are a little bit hung up on Christmas Carol, especially Americans, because they are somewhat sentimental and they love the idea of Christmas. I, being Jewish, am not interested in Christmas in the least. But I do think it’s a terrific story and one that is tremendously accessible to a modern audience. They get it right away. And they don’t always get Dickens at first, but he’s much easier to reach in Christmas Carol. It’s an “easy” book. And it was meant to be! It was meant to be an entertainment, and it is. But Great Expectations, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Our Mutual Friend, they are not entertainments. They are entertaining, but they are very great art as well.
Eric: We’ve been talking for a bit about Dickens now. Another author who is credited with writing strong, memorable female characters is, in fact, J.K. Rowling. Could you compare the characters in the two works?
Miriam: Yes, well, I’m a little inhibited. As you are, talking about Dickens, I am inhibited about talking about J.K. Rowling because I never read one of her books.
Miriam: I know they are incredibly popular, and I had the honor to play Professor Pomona Sprout in two of the films that were adapted from her books, but I haven’t really read one. So it’s difficult for me to opine on J.K. Rowling. I think she is a fearless writer, and I think she has done the world a great service in making Harry Potter the book that everybody had to read. And kids read. For the first time in their lives, they put down a screen and picked up a book. And thank God for J.K. Rowling. But I can’t really discuss much about her, except to offer her my grateful admiration.
Eric: I must say I’m proud to have been one of those children for whom that was the first book that I really read.
Miriam: Well, what a wonderful thing she has done for you!
Eric: I hope to follow up and to read a Dickens book.
Miriam: Well, it would do you good! [laughs]
Eric: At MuggleNet, we have, over the years, been able to interview some of the other actors and actresses who’ve been a part of the films. There is one question we always try to ask everyone, and feel free not to answer, but were there any pieces of the set that you were able to take home with you, or keep for yourself?
Miriam: Any pieces, do you mean physical things?
Miriam: Oh! I kept a pair of the Pomona socks.
Eric: The socks?
Eric: What was it about the socks?
Miriam: They were warm.
Eric: Do you know what they were made of?
Miriam: I don’t, actually. I suppose possibly cotton or wool. I’m not quite sure. I’m not very good with materials. But I kept a pair of socks.
Eric: That’s wonderful.
Eric: I want to thank you for your time.
Miriam: Not at all. It was a great pleasure talking to you, and I think that the world of Harry Potter, which is what I’m a tiny part of, is a very important world because it is opening people to the world of the imagination. And that is something that I believe is so stunted these days that anything we can do to revive the imagination is terribly important. And you’re part of that, so I’m grateful to you too.
Eric: I look very forward to seeing your show in Chicago!
Eric: I hope that you enjoy the Cirque du Soleil.
Miriam: Oh, I’m sure I will! It’ll be fun. And my imagination will be stimulated, and this is what we want. And if you want to pick up a Dickens book, pick up Great Expectations or – what’s the other one that kids like? – oh, Oliver Twist.
Eric: I’m happy to have that recommendation.
Miriam: And read it aloud! Read it aloud to yourself.
Miriam: That’s how most Victorians experienced Dickens. They were read to by the master of the house after supper on Sunday. With all the staff standing up behind while the family sat down.
Eric: That’s such good imagery.
Miriam: Well, you see, I’ve stimulated your imagination!