I’m quite sure you picked up this book hoping I’d make you laugh,” Miriam Margolyes writes in her memoir, This Much Is True. She more than delivered. When I was reading it this book on a train, a stranger asked if I was OK because I was crying with laughter at Margolyes’s description of her interview to study English literature at Oxford (“‘Do you like Milton?’ the tutor barked. I did like Milton and could honestly say so. ‘DAMN GOOD POET,’ she boomed, slapping her thigh like a principal boy in pantomime. This convinced me Somerville College would not be the place for me”), and then, many decades later, acclimatising to global fandom after playing Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films (“Usually when Jews are mobbed in Lithuania, it’s to kill them, but this was because of Harry Potter”). And, of course, there’s the sex. “I am now better known for my naughty stories than almost anything else,” she writes, a little regretfully, although that then sparks a thought about the hilarity of penises (“Such an odd dangler to have”).
Margolyes is one of Britain’s most prolific actors, whose career began with the Cambridge Footlights in one of its more legendary phases, not that she has any sentimentality about it. She was the only girl in the show and the boys showed her “studied cruelty”: John Cleese, Bill Oddie and Graham Chapman were “total shits,” she writes. “My dislike of that whole, largely male, world of comedy has never left me.” The Footlights lot “thought I was a jumped-up, pushy, overconfident, fat little Jew”.
She never needed them anyway. She worked her way through radio, voiceovers, drama and then Hollywood, winning a Bafta for her performance in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence. Yet, she is probably best known – certainly to younger generations – for her recent turns on talkshows, shocking the hosts and fellow guests with her tales of licentiousness. “Jesus, Miriam!” one guest shouted, after she recalled the time she gave a handjob to a soldier she discovered masturbating in a tree in Edinburgh. “You’ve got to support the troops,” Margolyes replied. She has become a regular on Graham Norton, who, rightly, finds her an absolute hoot.
But I have had mixed feelings about Margolyes’s talkshow appearances. Partly because, as she says, they have a tendency to overshadow her work, which really has been magnificent (I was especially pleased that her brilliantly weird performance in Kenneth Branagh’s 1991 film, Dead Again, gets a mention in the memoir.) But also because it sometimes feels as if she’s reducing herself to parody, playing the overweight older lesbian who talks – ooh! – about sex. Margolyes is aware of this concern and sweeps it away: “Not a lot of gay women front up on TV, so I hope I give courage to young dykes to be proud and confident. If you tell the truth – and I always do – you shame the devil.” She certainly does, although some of her fellow actors – William Hurt (“an arsehole”), Glenda Jackson (“horrid”), Leonardo DiCaprio (“quite nasty in his keenness to get away” from Claire Danes) – would probably prefer more discretion. Readers, however, wouldn’t want it any other way. In some cases, it is a mystery how she got her manuscript past the lawyers. In one aside, she claims that the 42-year-old cellist Jacqueline du Pré died by assisted suicide instead of – as her death certificate states – multiple sclerosis. Friends of Du Pré have cast doubt on Margolyes’s claim and her widowed husband, conductor Daniel Barenboim, told the Daily Mail “it has nothing to do with the reality of Jackie’s passing”. Margolyes, for her part, said in an interview with the Observer that she felt it was her “duty” to tell the story.
She was born in 1941, the adored only child of second-generation Jewish immigrants. Her mother had a fear of childbirth, so when she discovered she was pregnant, she tried to have an abortion. “But it was against the law and no one would do it. So she held on to me and never, for the rest of her life, let me go,” Margolyes writes. Her childhood was blissful and her memories of it and of her university life are my favourite sections of the book: lyrical, natural and shoulder-shakingly hilarious. At Cambridge, she was determined to make an impact and so smoked a pipe and arrived at breakfast every morning with the announcement: “I have just had a wonderful bowel movement!”
Despite becoming renowned for her blowjobs (“It didn’t matter whose penis was in my mouth, it was all grist to the mill”), she “formally became a lesbian” in 1966 and quickly fell in love with Heather, an academic, who remains her partner 53 years later. Yet one of her big regrets is coming out to her parents, as she believes it sparked her mother’s stroke. One of the book’s real merits is Margolyes’s refusal to mould her story to the usual celebrity narratives: being honest about herself only hurt her parents and, by extension, her; she sees no positives in her lifelong struggle with her weight; getting old sucks. But also, she refuses to be miserable about any of it. Despite all the talk about penises and celebrity prats, The main impression readers are left with is of her kindness. The friends she sweeps up along the way are friends for life, and as a result she has 11,833 names in her phone, and I dearly wish mine was among them. She and I would disagree about Israel, of which she is very much not a fan, and she knows fellow Jews get cross with her about that. But as she says: “How can I not be controversial? It’s like my parents not wanting me to be a lesbian.” A French teacher had her bang to rights: “You were naughty, Miriam, but you were never wicked.”