One of the many tantalising shows lost to the lockdown was I Remember It Well at London’s Bridge theatre, in which Judi Dench was to reminisce about her career in conversation with Gyles Brandreth. There is talk of it happening at a later date but in the meantime Dench-watchers can catch a recording of a conversation, filmed in 2017, between the great Dame and Brandreth at the Orange Tree. Declaration of interest: I too have done one of these public chats at the Richmond venue. I would still say this is engrossing viewing that gets way beyond the kind of anecdote-swapping you find on a Graham Norton sofa and that offers a good deal of practical wisdom about the art of acting.
There are, of course, one or two familiar stories. We hear about the film producer who once brusquely told Dench: “You have every single thing wrong with your face.” We also hear how, when Dench as an Old Vic Juliet passionately cried, “Where are my father and my mother?”, the audible response was “Here in Row H” (a story I’ve always found somewhat incredible since her parents, long involved in the York Mystery Plays, were hardly naive theatregoers). But many of the stories are fresh and funny, including one that shows that John Gielgud, normally regarded as the high priest of British acting, had a sense of mischief that more than matched Dench’s own.
Dench, filmed before an audience largely composed of drama students, also reveals a lot about her craft. Quizzed by Brandreth about her debut as Ophelia at the Old Vic in 1957, she recalls how she over-complicated her performance. “I’d know what to do now,” she says. “You only have to do one thing to indicate madness.” Tellingly, she also reveals that during a four-year stint at the Vic from 1957 to 1961, she would stand in the wings and avidly watch her colleagues: “That’s how you learn.” I also loved her comment about directors who seek to induce an ensemble spirit by getting actors to toss around a fluffy ball. “Directors,” says Dench, “underestimate actors’ instinctive ability to create a sense of company.”
Not that Dench is anti-director – although she wincingly recalls how she was brutally treated by Michel Saint-Denis in a 1961 production of The Cherry Orchard: “To think,” Peggy Ashcroft consolingly told her, “I nearly married that man!” But Dench is full of praise for Peter Hall and his approach to Shakespeare’s verse – “He stood at a lectern and made you obey the way it is written” – and for Hal Prince who cast her as Sally Bowles in Cabaret after seeing her in a play called The Promise. “You didn’t sing in The Promise,” notes Brandreth. “I didn’t sing in Cabaret either,” Dench retorts.
This is a wonderfully relaxed conversation in which Brandreth skilfully steers Dench through her life and times and shows that she is as quick-witted and effervescent as ever. But the most revealing moment comes when she recalls something John Neville told her early on in her career: “You must decide why you are doing this job and then never tell anyone.” Looking squarely at Brandreth, Dench says: “And I never have.” If I were to make a wild surmise, I would say that her dedication to acting is tied up with her Quaker faith, about which she says little in the interview. But that is only my guess; and one of the many delights of this film is that Dench is very open about her craft while preserving the mystery that is essential to great acting.