There has never been a British actress quite so candid as Miriam Margolyes, perhaps best-known as Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films.
On Saturday, in the first exclusive extract from her eye-popping new memoir, she shared her frank views on A-listers from Dame Maggie Smith to Warren Beatty.
In today’s instalment, she recalls the ups and downs of her Cambridge University days and the unalloyed joy of making Blackadder . . .
The three years I spent at Cambridge gave me everything I have. That was a time when I was fully alive, when I fully became myself. But I lost my smile a little when I performed in the Footlights revue of 1962.
I didn’t like the Footlights boys and they really didn’t like me. They made that obvious.
When I say ‘they’, I refer to a most distinguished group: John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Bill Oddie, Humphrey Barclay (later Head of Comedy at LWT), Tony Hendra and Tim Brooke-Taylor.
Not my heroes: Miriam’s fellow Cambridge undergraduates and future Pythons John Cleese and Graham Chapman, with Aimi MacDonald and, front left, Tim Brooke-Taylor and, right, Marty Feldman
The only girl in the show, I was a pert little madam and thought I was as good as they were — and they didn’t.
My perception was that they thought I was a jumped-up, pushy, overconfident, fat little Jew. But I was funny, and they didn’t like it.
If you think about it, the Monty Python shows didn’t feature funny women, only the occasional dolly bird. And I certainly wasn’t that.
Their attitudes towards women stemmed from the minor public schools most of them had attended. At that time, and the whole time I was at Cambridge, a woman could not be a member of the Footlights Club. Girls were not welcome: we attended only as guests. These chaps wanted to sleep with women, not compete with them. I was neither decorative nor bedworthy, and they found me unbearable.
The problem was exacerbated by my excellent notices, which were resented. They acknowledged each other’s cleverness, but only just, and there was considerable class antagonism. David Frost was looked down on, for example, because he was merely a middle-class lad from Gillingham, and they were not happy when Clive James arrived during the Sixties.
His brilliance was unstoppable but they disparaged his Australian roots. It was like water off a duck’s back with Clive; he had no respect for any of them. And they quickly changed their minds about his acceptability.
Cambridge was a competitive place; in Footlights, that became toxic. It was the first time in my life that I experienced that sort of competition. Someone decided I was not to be spoken to offstage: I would go on, do my bits, then the minute I stood in the wings, I was ignored; silence and cold stares.
Slow, searching — my best male kiss
I didn’t have sexual intercourse at Cambridge, partly because my parents told me I mustn’t and also because I didn’t know until I was 27 that I was gay (we called it ‘queer’).
However, it was imperative to have a boyfriend, so I spent a very enjoyable year as an ‘item’ with David Bree, an engineering student who worked backstage at the university’s theatre and said he fell in love with me from his lighting box high in the eaves.
When I came on stage, he didn’t look at anyone else. He didn’t see all the things that I think of when I think of myself; he didn’t think I was fat; he saw someone he really fancied. He thought: ‘That girl’s got oomph!’
David’s kissing technique was excellent. Only Bob Monkhouse, with whom I later acted on television, surpassed his osculatory skill.
Bob’s was the best male kiss I think I’ve ever had — slow, searching, not slurpy. I thought, if I was straight, I would go for Bob. He was interested in people — wise, kind, funny, generous, all the things you hope a star will be. He is one of my heroes.
In total contrast I name Terry Scott, who was the nastiest person I have ever worked with. How the divine June Whitfield put up with him, I cannot imagine.
He was horrid to the chorus girls, tried to grope and kiss them and if they wouldn’t play, he rubbished them publicly. Of course, he would have behaved himself with June.
Bob’s was the best male kiss I think I’ve ever had — slow, searching, not slurpy. I thought, if I was straight, I would go for Bob
During the entire run of that 1962 revue, directed by Trevor Nunn, they treated me as if I were invisible and did not speak to me at all. Initially, I had no idea why. I was 19 and it was painful. I used to go back to my room in Newnham College and weep.
My dislike of that whole, largely male world of comedy has never left me. I feel awkward, admitting to such bitterness — it seems absurd, I should have got over it. But I haven’t. The treatment I received from those Footlights boys was diminishing, pointed and vicious. On reflection, it is they who diminished themselves.
I admire the creation of Monty Python and The Goodies and I think they were men of genius, but they were not gentlemen.
John Cleese, Bill Oddie and Graham Chapman were total s***s — and they have never apologised. The only one who did was the late Tim Brooke-Taylor. All the perpetrators went into light entertainment and I went into drama, so thankfully our paths were seldom to cross. But nearly 60 years later I have not forgotten.
Some are born comic, some achieve comedy, some have comedy thrust upon them. I am definitely in that third camp. There is something about my face and body that makes people laugh. I’ve always known that. It’s professionally useful, socially perhaps a bit limiting, but I’m asked to dinner parties because of it and I’m not going to moan about looking different.
I’d assumed comedy was not for me after the nastiness of Footlights but I have ended up working with many of the non-Cambridge-educated greats of comedy (including Kenneth Williams and Ken Dodd).
Day I made history on University Challenge
My TV career began even before I left Cambridge, in what would later be seen as my trademark shocking style.
In 1963, I was part of the team representing Newnham College in the debut series of Granada TV’s University Challenge, presented by Bamber Gascoigne.
When I couldn’t deliver an answer to something that was on the tip of my tongue, in frustration I swore loudly and we lost the point.
It was beeped out of the actual transmission — but my claim is still staked to be the first person ever to swear on national television.
I was certainly the first woman to do so. I met Bamber again last year and he acknowledged that my ‘F*** it!’ has resounded in his memory for almost 60 years now.
In 1963, I was part of the team representing Newnham College in the debut series of Granada TV’s University Challenge, presented by Bamber Gascoigne
In 1982, I got the call to be a part of Blackadder, playing the ugly Spanish infanta in the fourth episode, The Queen Of Spain’s Beard. Although I didn’t know many of the other cast members personally, I instantly liked Rowan Atkinson, who played Edmund Blackadder.
The thing that fascinated me most was his nervousness. His stammer is not evident now but he definitely had a faltering delivery back then, and it used to infuriate him. He was never nasty to anybody else, but he just couldn’t bear it when he made mistakes and would get himself into a frenzy. It was painful to see; his face would contort with rage.
I later went to the first night of his one-man show on Broadway, which was a disaster. It was actually brilliant but I could feel that it wasn’t going down well with the audience, who just couldn’t understand his humour, and I knew he’d be terribly disappointed.
After the first-night party, everybody went to Sardi’s, a nearby celebrity restaurant. Rowan was already well-known for Blackadder — the place was packed. Then the reviews came out and they were bad.
And all the people at the party just drifted away — one minute the room was full of babble and a throng of merrymakers, the next minute there were only about six people left, and I was one of them.
It was a chilly experience because America does not like, cannot deal with and is afraid of failure. Rowan has never been a failure since but he was that night. I think it was the audience who failed him.
It was an honour to be in Blackadder. I was in it in three extreme incarnations: as a Spanish Infanta, as Queen Victoria and as my favourite, Lady Whiteadder, the fanatical Puritan. She gave me flashbacks to my caricatures of the more ridiculous teachers at school.
Call me ‘Sexy Sonia’
In the early Seventies I got my first voice job, playing a character called ‘Sexy Sonia’ on a porn tape sold by the Ann Summers sex shop.
I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the pornography aspect — Daddy already felt that being an actress was akin to prostitution. So I rang up the shop and asked, ‘This is voice only, isn’t it? We’re definitely not on camera, are we?’ The woman reassured me that it was only an audiotape.
The script had no redeeming features and so much panting and gasping that I had a bad headache by the end of the recording. Truly, one climax is much like another, but I was having to delve into my sub-conscious to achieve the variety I felt was expected.
After all, at least if you have real sex, you have some fulfilment. My only fulfilment was the 300 quid I was paid.
But I wasn’t complaining: that was a big pay cheque for those days. Although I got no royalties, my commercial instincts came to the fore when the tape was on sale and I wanted to find out how it was doing.
So I went into Ann Summers (the shop was full of browsing men, all deliberately avoiding eye contact) and said loudly to the chap behind the counter, ‘Oh, hello, I wonder if you could help me. I’m ‘Sexy Sonia’ and I wondered how I was selling.’
Some of the customers’ heads turned but the salesman froze.
‘Shhhhh!’ he whispered.
He didn’t want the customers to connect me with the tape; I assume he thought that if the punters saw me, they probably wouldn’t buy it. But I was delighted to discover that it was a nice little earner for them.
I used to have a copy but sadly I don’t know what happened to it . . . if anyone finds Sexy Sonia in a charity shop, do let me know.
It’s hard to be subtle bellowing out lines like ‘Wicked child!!! Drink is urine for the last leper in Hell!’ I particularly relished slapping Rowan and Tim McInnerny each time I shouted ‘Wicked Child!’
I loved every moment of it and I loved the boys — they were a sweet, funny bunch and the atmosphere was totally different from the nail-biting competition of the Footlights. A generation or two later, there was a pleasure in each other’s success and a generosity of spirit between the lads that I hadn’t seen before.
It was just as funny — funnier, even — but without the personal edge. I like people to get on, and my Blackadder pals were gentlemen and gentle men.
I have always needed an audience and always loved acting, even at school. When, as Brutus in the Oxford High production of Julius Caesar, my toga kept slipping, revealing rather more bosom than Brutus was normally expected to have, some parents in the front row showed alarm.
On another occasion, as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I forgot my words but just made up some nonsense and carried on. Once a show-off, always a show-off!
At Cambridge, I appeared in 20 productions. By my second year, I knew I wanted to be an actress and two years after graduating I began getting parts with the BBC Radio Drama Company (RDC).
It was an honour to be in Blackadder. I was in it in three extreme incarnations: as a Spanish Infanta, as Queen Victoria and as my favourite, Lady Whiteadder, the fanatical Puritan
I loved it but it wasn’t enough: I wanted to act with both my voice and my body, so I began auditioning for TV. One of my early TV appearances was in 1967, on the soap opera Crossroads, playing the rather unpleasant mother of a character called Shirley Perkins.
There was a green room where we rested between takes. I was once sitting in an armchair when Noele Gordon, the star of Crossroads, came in.
‘That’s MY chair,’ she barked.
‘Oh sorry,’ I said, ‘I didn’t see your name on it.’
We reckoned she only had the job because she was sleeping with the boss of the channel. But that little tussle was nothing compared with my worst-ever professional experience, working with Glenda Jackson in The White Devil at the Old Vic in 1976.
I played a servant to Glenda Jackson’s character. A star actress with little patience and no humility, she has given great performances — but she didn’t in The White Devil, and knowing that she was rubbish made her even nastier.
It wasn’t just her. The general mood was unpleasant and rivalry and discord among the cast members sporadically bubbled over in little moments of irritation and nastiness.
It was the hottest summer on record. We poured with sweat all day; the physical discomfort was intense and that spilled over into rehearsals. I’ve talked to other cast members about our experience, however, and not all hated it. My own misery may have coloured my memories.
One day, Glenda and I had a terrible falling-out; I cannot remember what it was about, but I called her a cow and she called me an amateur. I think she won that one!
Also in the cast was Jonathan Pryce, who was particularly combative and scornful if anyone made mistakes. He patrolled the set like a shark, eating up errors from other cast members.
It didn’t help that our opening night had to be delayed. During the eventual opening-night curtain call, the composer and conductor Andre Previn, who was in the audience, got up and shouted, ‘Rubbish!’ and the show closed after only six weeks.
It is agony to go on stage every night and know your work is poor — but when it goes well there is no feeling like it; to inhabit your part and to hear the audience gasp and know they are catching their breath because of you.
I cherish my audiences and am grateful for them, yet my stage fright has only increased as I’ve got older. I now have to have a bucket in the wings because I am so often sick before I go on stage. I’m not alone in this: Maggie Smith once told me how nervous she gets, to the point of vomiting.
And this is but one potential pitfall of working in the theatre. There are so many more. It was after one performance of She Stoops To Conquer, with Donald Sinden and David Essex, that Princess Margaret came backstage. Tiny and cool, she had enjoyed the show and congratulated us. Carl Toms, a friend of hers, had designed the show. I knew he had been ill and, without thinking, asked if she would pass on to him our loving best wishes.
For a split second, her eyes narrowed and she stiffened. She was deciding whether I had been guilty of massive impertinence. But she saw from my concerned face that I only wanted to send Carl good wishes. She relaxed and said: ‘Yes, I will. I enjoyed your performance, rushing acraws the stage, backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards.’ And, finally, she smiled.
The danger was over but I would not fare as well with her older sister. As I will explain in tomorrow’s Mail, meeting the Queen was something I had dreamed of all my life — but my one and only encounter with Her Majesty actually ended with my getting a royal reprimand.
Adapted from This Much Is True, by Miriam Margolyes, published by John Murray on September 16, £20. © Miriam Margolyes 2021.
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