Miriam Margolyes: ‘I call myself the poor man’s Joanna Lumley’

The actor and comedian on writing her new memoir—and how Graham Norton revitalised her career

December 06, 2023
Illustration by Michael Rea
Illustration by Michael Rea

What is the first news event that you can recall?

Amazingly, I recall the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. I knew it was important because my father, a rather gloomy, thoughtful sort of man, said “This will mean trouble.” It has come to be one of the more important moments of my life, I suppose, because of the horror that we’re in now. It’s just terrible to think that what was joyous for Jews became the Nakba for the Palestinians and has remained so. I remember it because of the sadness of my father. He was never a Zionist. The way the world is looking at this is wrong and has caused me incredible distress and grief. I’ve lost friends and I’ve been ostracised and I’ve been called a fascist and all these phoney epithets. 

What is the biggest problem? 

Oh goodness, there are so many it’s quite hard to pick one! But I think, perhaps, it’s the inability of people to see the other as a human being—we all tend to be with our own tribe, whether it’s Guardian readers or photographers or Romanians. We have to remember that we all shit out of the same hole. And not to class others as vermin or unemployable or drunks or drug dealers or drug takers, or asylum seekers or whatever. As though they somehow don’t inhabit the same earth. 

Which of your relatives are you most proud of?

My mother, because she was a woman of courage and intelligence. She had no education. And she had huge will and determination. Mummy knew what she couldn’t do. She couldn’t sew. And she couldn’t put up shelves. But I think she could do almost anything else. 

If you could spend a day at one moment in history, what would that be?

I would have loved to have heard Charles Dickens’s last public reading in London, when he bade farewell on 15th March 1870. I start to cry when I think of it. When you’re Jewish, emotion is very close to the surface. I don’t have a stiff upper lip; my upper lip is always wobbling and trembling. The thing I like to think that I share with Dickens is my connection with an audience. And he was saying goodbye to his. It would be a treat to hear him say goodbye. Don’t just ask me about it. Make it happen.

What have you changed your mind about?

I’ve changed my mind about music, because in the 1960s I thought I wasn’t interested in those pop groups: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones. But now I think that the Beatles were very good, and the Rolling Stones were very good. Artistically I’ve enlarged my appreciation. 

What was it like writing a second memoir?

Very hard and scary. I only did it for the money. It was hard, because I felt that I’d said everything I wanted to say in my first book. But the publishers persuaded me by paying me a huge amount of money—it was a quarter of a million pounds! That’s not the sort of money I normally get, I can tell you! 

What is fame like at 82?

It’s bewildering because I don’t know why it’s taken people so long to see how wonderful I am. I think I owe a lot to ­Graham Norton. I’ve always been like this—rude, naughty, sexually explicit. And suddenly, it’s made me very well known to another generation. I’ve been able to start a new career doing documentaries. I call myself the poor man’s Joanna Lumley.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I don’t like jokes and joke presents. If I get another fart cushion, I’m going to scream. I can’t bear silly jokes. People think that I must be a fount of raucous laughter all day. Quite the reverse.

What’s your favourite quote?

It is something that Mummy said, which I put on the front of my book, “Cast your bread upon the waters, and it’ll come back sandwiches.” And what I think that means is: give it a go and you never know what might happen. Be daring. Be generous and you will be rewarded. You won’t find that in any book but mine. 

Miriam Margolyes’s new book “Oh Miriam! Stories from an Extraordinary Life”, is out now from John Murray Press