MIRIAM MARGOLYES: I was so out of control I made the Queen snap!

I was so out of control I made the Queen snap! In the final madcap part of the showbiz memoir to make you weep with laughter – and pity – MIRIAM MARGOLYES’ very candid confession

Hilariously candid British actress Miriam Margolyes — best known as Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films — has been dazzling us with her outrageous new memoir. 

Yesterday, in our second exclusive extract, she snapped back at Monty Python stars John Cleese and Graham Chapman, who made her Cambridge days a misery. 

Now, in our final instalment, she recalls a joyous childhood, coming to terms with her sexuality — and a right royal dressing-down…

When the invitation arrived to attend the annual reception for British Book Week at Buckingham Palace, I was thrilled.

Smiling equerries opened the taxi door and we stepped out, to be guided to the very large reception hall where hundreds of people thronged and buzzed. I knew that the Queen, along with other members of the Royal Family, was expected to mingle and I felt this might be my opportunity to fulfil a dream.

As a child growing up in Oxford, I had a little ‘den’ just outside the kitchen, and I decorated it with pictures of the Queen from floor to ceiling.

I remember on June 2, 1953, standing at my bedroom window and saying: ‘This is Coronation Day and you must remember this all your life.’ And I have.

Over the years I’ve played various queens, including her great-great-grandmother Victoria more than once. But that was the nearest I got until that evening.

The crowd in the hall was huge and noisy, but I teamed up with a man I’d been introduced to, a president of the Association of Scottish Booksellers, and together we hunted down the Queen.

Her Majesty looked at me wearily, rolled her eyes heavenwards, sighed and turned away to my Scottish friend

An equerry had advised us to form a semi-circle and smile, and if she saw us smiling in her direction she would approach and talk to us. This worked and, unbelievably, Her Majesty, looking exactly like the Queen with a helmet of iron-grey hair and her handbag clamped like a grenade to her elbow, was standing in front of me.

‘And what do you do?’ she said.

That was where I made my first mistake: meeting the royals does tend to make people daft. Instead of saying, like any normal person, ‘Your Majesty, I am an actress who records audio books’, I took a deep breath and replied: ‘Your Majesty, I am the best reader of stories in the whole world!’

Her Majesty looked at me wearily, rolled her eyes heavenwards, sighed and turned away to my Scottish friend.

‘And what do you do?’

‘Your Majesty, I’m an academic trying to help dyslexic children to read. We’ve discovered that if the letters on the page are printed in different colours, it helps the children to absorb the information more easily.’

Listening beside him, I couldn’t help joining in.

‘How fascinating!’ I said. ‘My goodness, I didn’t know that.’

Her Majesty turned back to me and said sharply: ‘Be quiet!’ The ‘t’ of ‘quiet’ was especially crisp.

Everyone looked down, trying to contain their embarrassment at my gaffe. Undeterred, I spoke again: ‘I’m so sorry, Your Majesty, I got carried away with excitement.’

That was where I made my first mistake: meeting the royals does tend to make people daft. Instead of saying, like any normal person, ‘Your Majesty, I am an actress who records audio books’, I took a deep breath and replied: ‘Your Majesty, I am the best reader of stories in the whole world!’

The Queen rolled her eyes — again — and started talking about how that morning she had visited a London school and been fascinated by the way English literature was taught there. I was keen to respond so, once more, ignoring the royal request for my silence, I blurted: ‘But, you see, Your Majesty, we are so lucky to be born English and to have English as our first language. Imagine, for example, Your Majesty, if we had been born . . .’ I paused, looking for a country that didn’t boast much of a literature, and came up with ‘ . . . Albanian!’

Well, that was altogether too much for the Queen. I supposed it smacked of the political.

Alarm crossed her face and she moved away, anxious to put some distance between herself and this clearly crazed woman. Clutching the handbag even more closely and murmuring ‘Yes, yes’ to herself, she disappeared into the throng.

In 2002 another thick, creamy-white envelope, embossed with the royal insignia, was delivered, announcing that I had been awarded an OBE for services to drama. A lot of people were quite surprised, none more so than me.

Some people think that because of my socialist views, I shouldn’t have accepted my OBE. Of course, I shouldn’t have. I know that. It goes against everything I believe in — but I most certainly wasn’t going to turn it down.

As the Queen was observing mourning for her mother, who had just died, it was Prince Charles who pinned on my gong at Buckingham Palace.

‘Oh, I am so delighted to be able to give you this,’ he said — and I was delighted, too, because we have got to know each other a little over the years.

It all started when HRH wrote me a lovely letter out of the blue about my 1998 unabridged audiobook Oliver Twist. We met a handful of times over the following years and I was invited to spend three nights at a house party at Sandringham, with other guests including Michael Morpurgo, Jeremy Paxman, Sir Antony Sher, Stephen Fry and David Hockney. The Prince welcomed me with a hug and said: ‘There’s something I want to show you. Here, come with me.’

I followed him and there, in the entrance of the house, was a curious leather chair that wobbled. ‘What do you think it is?’ he asked.

‘Well, it looks like a big fireside chair, or a sofa,’ I replied.

He said, ‘No, it’s a weighing machine,’ explaining that when Edward VII, his great-great-grandfather, had his house parties, he would weigh each of his guests on arrival and departure and if they hadn’t put on weight, he felt he had failed as a host. He showed me the old original weighing book with all the famous people with their weights noted alongside.

What a terrifying thing to see as a guest. I said: ‘I hope you’re not thinking of weighing me!’

The weekend continued swimmingly (so much so, I even went swimming with Camilla at Holkham sands). She and Prince Charles are cracking good hosts, the food is spectacularly good — and to crown it all, I was given a doggie bag of grouse to take home.

Day I starred as a skinny sex goddess 

Although I don’t have a sexy voice normally, I can imbue that quality by breathing through my lines, which is why in the Seventies I got the job to do the Manikin Cigar advert, which was very sexy.

I was the voice for the beautiful girl with a sublime body played by Carole Augustine, a young British model and actress (who had made a brief appearance in Confessions Of A Window Cleaner).

Carole was filmed standing beside a tropical waterfall, all in white, revealing a gorgeous tanned midriff and cleavage. She was dipping a tobacco leaf in the water of a rock pool and stretching it lasciviously across her lips.

I had to say: ‘I come to show why Manikin flavour plenty enjoyable. I need water, see? Water make leaf stretch. Wrap cigar well. Mouth enjoy flavour, yes? Manikin flavour special.’

Carole was filmed standing beside a tropical waterfall, all in white, revealing a gorgeous tanned midriff and cleavage. She was dipping a tobacco leaf in the water of a rock pool and stretching it lasciviously across her lips

For the next campaign, there was a new stunning beauty in her place, but I still voiced the ads in the same sultry tones. It was one of the most famous and most successful advertising campaigns of all time; you can look it up on YouTube.

I was a useful voice artist because my voice is flexible but there were then fewer opportunities in television commercials for women.

Generally speaking, people believed a male voice — the man was the ‘expert’ and male voices accounted for 93 per cent of all commercials. It was an extremely lucrative area of the business and people who were in the know wanted to keep it to themselves. Mummy always said ‘the world is big enough for everyone’ — but she had no experience of commercials!

Eventually, I became the top-earning female voice-over artist in the country and I recorded a good number of the famous PG Tips adverts with the chimpanzees. Nowadays you couldn’t do it because they used real chimpanzees from Twycross Zoo, which were dressed up and filmed drinking tea and so on.

Although I don’t have a sexy voice normally, I can imbue that quality by breathing through my lines, which is why in the Seventies I got the job to do the Manikin Cigar advert, which was very sexy

I was Dolly, who had a charlady voice; Ada, the other chimp (whose real name was Choppers), was the glorious Stanley Baxter.

In one of our adverts, Dolly was at the sink, up to her elbows in suds.

‘I’m fed up with this washing up,’ she says. ‘My Phil always calls me his little dishwasher.’

Stanley, playing Ada, says: ‘What do you call him, then?’ and I reply, ‘Bone idle!’

At the end of each commercial, Dolly would have a swig of PG Tips and I would say: ‘It’s the taste.’

I loved doing it, although it was difficult lip-syncing for chimpanzees because their mouths move differently from ours and we had to make sure that the words opened and closed exactly in time with their mouths.

 

As always when such lovely things happened, I wished my parents had been alive to kvell — the Jewish word meaning to feel proud. Everything they worked for, every sacrifice they made, was to make my life better, but in many respects my mother and father were two opposites attracting.

Tempestuous and immoderate, Mummy looked like a short and stout Gracie Fields and she did all the housework in the nude. Our maids and au pair girls found it a tad discomforting at first, but Mummy liked to get it done, then have a bath.

Daddy was far more strait-laced. Like many Scottish second-generation immigrant Jews, he was born in the great Glasgow slum, the Gorbals, in 1899.

He won a scholarship to grammar school, later studying medicine at Glasgow University and moving to London to become a GP in working-class East Ham.

Mummy also came from a poor background. Born in 1905, she was raised in South-East London and was a passionate and determined social climber. She once confessed she didn’t love my father when she married him; she just wanted a doctor as a husband. I don’t know if he ever knew that and, of course, I never told him, but Mummy told me because we told each other everything.

They met at the Jewish tennis club in South London and married in 1930, living in a house near my father’s surgery until it suffered a direct hit during the war. My mother was then four months pregnant with me and they fled to Oxford, as people said Oxford would never be bombed. And it never was. Apparently, Hitler had planned to make it his capital because it was such a beautiful city.

Most newly married couples try to have children; for ten years my parents tried not to, as two of Mummy’s cousins had died in childbirth. She was afraid it was a family curse and the same fate would befall her.

When she became pregnant with me, she tried desperately to have an abortion. But it was against the law and they wouldn’t do it. So she held onto me and never, for the rest of her life, let me go.

Born in May 1941, I was a much-prized, spoilt, golden child; my parents were determined I should have every advantage they perhaps felt they had been denied.

My mother was, without doubt, the most important person in my life. She bound me to her, quite deliberately, with emotional ‘hoops of steel’, to borrow Shakespeare’s words.

Every morning when I wasn’t at school, I’d climb into bed with Mummy. We talked about everything. No subject was taboo and we would often lie in helpless giggles.

Our relationship was completely loving and open, but I should have realised there were some things I could not say and I still regret coming out to my mother.

At school, I’d had crushes on girls and they were all-consuming, but I didn’t have a mature loving relationship until I was 27. Once I found her, I knew.

When Heather and I first met in 1968, through a mutual friend, we didn’t get out of bed at my flat in Paddington for a week. On the first night, she phoned the friend she was staying with to explain that she wouldn’t be back and I heard her say ‘I like Miriam’. Next to getting into Cambridge, that was the best moment of my life.

Partners: Heather (left) and Miriam (right) with a friend in 1971

One weekend soon afterwards, I went home to Oxford and told Mummy I was gay. She immediately told my father. I don’t think they really believed it. They knew it was possible, but Miriam wasn’t going to be like that because Miriam was perfect and to be a lesbian was imperfection, so it simply couldn’t be entertained for one moment.

It also meant I would never have a nice Jewish husband, and therefore they would never have grandchildren. I think that was part of their sorrow, or disbelief.

Mummy really couldn’t handle it. She was an extraordinary woman who loved theatre, opera and music; a many-sided individual, deeply aware of social gradations but closed-minded about homosexuality where her daughter was concerned. It was shameful in the Sixties. People weren’t supposed to do that sort of thing: it wasn’t proper.

She and my father insisted I come into the drawing room and swear on the Torah never to have relations with a woman again. I did as they asked, but I broke my promise.

I stayed with Heather because I loved her, because my whole soul cleaved to her, it would have been impossible to stop. And because, somewhere along the line, I knew they were making an unreasonable request.

A few days later, Mummy had her first stroke and I always believed that my coming out in some way caused it. Her second, devastating stroke came three months later, starting a long period of appalling illness leading up to her death in 1974.

I had caused the person I loved most in the world a pain she could not bear. It was a horrendous time and I was very unhappy. I knew I couldn’t change what I was; I should not have told them.

I realise now that it’s indulgent of those of us who are gay to say you’ve got to know this; to share this. Some people cannot accept their loved ones being homosexual. And if they can’t, they shouldn’t have to.

My friend Ian McKellen and I have a constant difference of opinion on this matter. He feels you should come out as an encouragement to others and be true to yourself. And I say, it depends who you’re coming out to. It’s better if people can truly be who they are meant to be — but my insistence on opening up hurt the ones I loved most in the world.

Posing naked up a ladder for a philandering artist 

In May 1960, just a few days before I turned 19, I watched a television interview with the octogenarian Welsh artist Augustus John.

I was enthralled. He was a very big man, very good to look at, with an untidy, bushy beard and bright, twinkling eyes. Suddenly I thought, ‘Why don’t I pose for him?’ So I wrote him a letter suggesting I did.

A few days later, my mother took a phone call from Dorelia McNeill, Augustus’s common-law wife. Mummy was so disarmed by her cut-glass tones that she didn’t demur when the ground rules were firmly laid out: ‘My husband is doing a painting of some bathers, so it would have to be a nude.’

In May 1960, just a few days before I turned 19, I watched a television interview with the octogenarian Welsh artist Augustus John (pictured)

I have never understood why my parents agreed to let me do it, but off we drove to his beautiful old country manor in Hampshire. There, Augustus took me into the studio at the bottom of the garden. ‘You might as well take your clothes off now,’ he said. And so, without any curtain, I speedily divested myself.

I’d never stripped for anyone before. I stood there naked, quite embarrassed, hoping my plumpness wouldn’t put him off. Augustus (right) stroked his beard contemplatively and said: ‘Very nice. Very nice. Your skin takes the light. What I’d like you now to do is to climb that ladder.’ Somewhat awkwardly, I clambered up and down a library ladder while he drew. I was there for a couple of hours.

He didn’t talk much but he was very avuncular, so gentle and so sweet. Perhaps I should be insulted that he didn’t attempt at least a quick grope, as I later found out his sexual appetites had allegedly resulted in his fathering up to 100 offspring!

Supposedly, walking down the King’s Road in Chelsea, he would pat any passing ragamuffin on the head ‘in case it’s one of mine’.

 

In retrospect, I think Mummy’s stroke was an accident waiting to happen and perhaps my telling her exacerbated it. Maybe it was also the realisation that she couldn’t contain me any more. She was very controlling and she trusted no one.

In some ways it was fortuitous she had her stroke then, because had she been at full strength I feel sure she would have done her best to end my relationship with Heather — my partner, my love, my life.

We have now been together for 53 years. It is a big achievement. An academic and a scholar, Heather is my polar opposite: reticent, incredibly private and reserved. We’ve probably lasted this long because we have always led completely separate lives.

To begin with, Heather, who is Australian, was working in Malaysia, but for many years she has been in Holland. Normally we see each other about eight times a year, but speak every day on the phone. We have never lived together for long periods, except when we had holidays. Our houses in Italy and Australia have filled our lives in the way others have children.

Our farmhouse in Tuscany is where we come together. It has meant that when we do have that time, I am always happy to say hello and sad to say goodbye.

I will try as long as I can to have these two lives. Life’s like cheesecake — you want to have as much as you can.

We often talk about whether to live together. Maybe we will only get to do that when we’re in an old people’s home. I always had the idea that we would build our own and gather our friends there, and that’s what I’d still like to do.

There would be a library and a garden and memories shared. And animals. And a swimming pool, with easy steps down. One thing I know is that my home will always be where Heather is. Life is sweeter shared. 

This Much Is True, by Miriam Margolyes, is published by John Murray on September 16, £20. © Miriam Margolyes 2021. Buy This Much Is True for £10 in WHS, saving 50 per cent, with the exclusive voucher on page 60. Offer valid until 22/9/21.

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