16 Nov 2023

Miriam Margolyes: Stories from an Extraordinary Life

From Nine To Noon, 10:05 am on 16 November 2023
Miriam Margolyes and her second memoir, 'Oh Miriam: Stories from an Extraordinary Life'.

Miriam Margolyes and her second memoir, 'Oh Miriam: Stories from an Extraordinary Life'. Photo: SUPPLIED

Miriam Margolyes "can't resist naughtiness". The actor famed for her character roles and her outrageous chat show appearances is described as someone for whom currency is laughter - by any means possible: outrage, obscenity, and occasional flatulence.

Despite recent heart surgery and a body she describes as "crumbling concrete," the 82-year-old is refusing to slow down.

Margolyes will be in New Zealand this summer to shoot Holy Days - a film about a group of nuns fighting a development order, starring alongside Judy Davis and Joanna Scanlan, and has just finished her second memoir: Oh Miriam: Stories from an Extraordinary Life.

Her book pulls few punches; she is a Jew who strongly supports the Palestinian cause.

“There are a triumvirate of villains in my world, Netanyahu, Putin and Boris Johnson, they are loathsome toads on the face of the earth.”

Their positions of power owed to a mendacious social and traditional media and and a lack of critical thinking, she tells Susie Ferguson.

“Because social media lies, and newspapers lie, and people who are not trained to be critical in reading reports, accept what is said. Liars hold the sway at the moment, that never was true before. Now it is."

Margolyes says she's copped her fair share of flack for her views.

“I'm a brave and strong little person and I think I'm right. I'm sorry that people regard me as an anti-Semite, that is complete and utter nonsense. It's almost something I should take people to law for saying and many do.

“I'm not an anti-Semite, I'm a very proud Jew. I think Jews are fabulous and interesting, have the best jokes, the best food, and the clever ones are cleverer than anyone else.

“No, it's absurd. But I don't like certain aspects of Jewish behaviour. And I know that Jews are not liked, have never been liked. People think we're too rich, too clever, too flamboyant.”

She’s encountered anti-Semitism in her life, she says.

“And I loathe it, just as I loathe any prejudice against people because it's absurd.

“I hate anti-Catholic, I hate anti-Muslim, people are too ready to hate these days, we've got to be more caring and understanding.

“I hate the attitudes towards asylum seekers and boat people. It's wrong. People… we're vulnerable and there are forces ranged against us of greed and so on.

“And I think people are stupid. And I know I'm right.”

J.K. Rowling arrives at the 2019 RFK Ripple of Hope Awards at New York Hilton Midtown on December 12, 2019 in New York City.

JK Rowling is a victim of cancel culture, Margolyes says. Photo: AFP / Getty

Margolyes is also no fan of cancel culture or the treatment that has been meted out to JK Rowling for her views on trans women.

“I just feel a bit puzzled and sad about it all. I can't stand all this cancel culture and people just being so unfriendly and silly.”

She has great respect for Rowling, she says.

“I think that to throw nastiness at people is just stupid. I don't want to cancel JK. She's not a bad person. What has she said that so awful?

“She wants women to be respected as women and she doesn't want people who are not yet men to inhabit, threateningly, the same spaces. I don't blame her.

“I wouldn't like to have a raving nutcase with a penis anywhere near me whether they wanted to be women or not. I think we’ve all got to just calm down about this. It's just not sensible. We're making things worse for ourselves.”

Her book is rich with the friends she’s made in a long career, although not all have impressed her.

“I talk about what's happened in my life. I can only respond to people the way that I have experienced. And I did not enjoy my experience with Mr Cleese or Mr. Jagger.

“I didn't really have an experience with Mr. Jagger, I simply observed, and I thought, I don't like you, you're very up yourself and not particularly pleasant. I may be wrong. And he doesn't give a stuff either way. But why not mention it? I was very disappointed in him.

Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger struts the stage at Havana.

Mick Jagger is "a jolly good singer" but "not particularly pleasant", Margolyes says. Photo: AFP

"It was during the run of The Vagina Monologues. I observed his behaviour with Sophie Dahl, who was his girlfriend at the time, who was very much in love with him. And I thought he disrespected her. I didn't see love and affection and caring being displayed.

“And also, I could see that he felt that he was rather special. I think he's a brilliant singer, I would say, isn't that the word one would use Mick Jagger is a singer, a jolly good singer. But he's not a very good man.”

Margolyes has been with her partner Heather for more than 50 years, although their respective careers mean they are often apart.

“She is a very remarkable woman, a very serious woman; totally different from me in every way. Except politically, we share the same politics and I think we share the same love of reading and being interested in current affairs.

“She's an Australian, she's 80. She's very quiet, thoughtful, immensely kind, immensely perceptive, a very good cook, particularly of Indonesian food.

“Her career is as a historian, a professional, an academic historian. And so, we have forged a life together, which is not unlike everybody else's life, but it is too much apart because we love our jobs.”

Time together now becomes more precious, she says.

“What we gave up was our time together. And as we get older, that's becoming increasingly important and valued. And now, as I'm quite sure we won't have much time left before we die, I desperately want to be with her as much as possible.”

She has recently had heart surgery in which an aortic valve was replaced, but remains in good health, she says.

“I've just done a tour of 22 cities of the UK. And shortly before that, I flew to Australia, and did a seven-week documentary around Australia. So, I’ve put it through its paces all right, and I'm still here.

“I'm a bit scared because I know my days are numbered. All our days are, and that is the thing about being 82 you just wonder if you'll ever be 92. And you know, you probably won't.”

So, in a long career that’s garnered many more bouquets than it has brickbats, what is the greatest compliment she has received?

“I think it was by Augustus John, when I was painted by him, or rather drawn by him, and I modelled for him in the nude and climbed a ladder, aged 17, with not a perfect body, but a pleasant body, which he eyed appreciatively and said, ‘hmmm your skin takes the light.’ I thought that was wonderful.”

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