Dame Judi Dench on Bond, theatre, wildlife and her love for Surrey

Dame Judi Dench during her exclusive interview for Surrey Life

Dame Judi Dench during her exclusive interview for Surrey Life - Credit: Andy Newbold

One of Britain's best-loved actresses, Dame Judi Dench has been a resident of Surrey for more than 30 years and has an enormous affection for our county. Surrey Life editor Caroline Harrap met up with the Skyfall star at one of her favourite places, the British Wildlife Centre in Lingfield, just down the road from where she lives, for an exclusive interview

Surrey Life interviewed Dame Judi Dench at the British Wildlife Centre

Surrey Life interviewed Dame Judi Dench at the British Wildlife Centre - Credit: Archant

Tucked away in a quiet corner of the coffee shop at the British Wildlife Centre in Lingfield, Dame Judi Dench is telling me animatedly about a forthcoming project to mark Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary when she stops in her tracks, transfixed. “I do apologise,” she says, “but I’m just so riveted by the rats…” Fortunately, the creatures to which she is referring are not uninvited guests but, on the contrary, one of the stars of the show. Just beyond us, these lithe brown animals appear to be enjoying races around their expansive enclosure at breakneck speed. “Isn’t it marvellous?” she says in those familiar cut-glass tones, eyes sparkling now. “I just love it here!”

Over the past few years, the Oscar-winning actress has become an unlikely visitor to this peaceful sanctuary in the east Surrey countryside, which she was introduced to by her now long-term partner David Mills. A keen conservationist, he founded the centre back in 1997, with the aim of educating people about our native wildlife, and today it is home to some 40 British species – from tiny harvest mice to magnificent red deer. It was also how the couple first met, when he invited her along to open the red squirrel enclosure in 2010, and she’s been a firm fan of the place ever since – often accompanied by her daughter, the actress Finty Williams, who provides the voice for the centre’s popular DVD, Pip the Squirrel, and 18-year-old grandson, Sammy.

“We used to drive past here such a lot when Sammy was little, as it’s right on our doorstep really, and we used to say, that man in there has got otters – because otters are my passion,” she continues. “But it wasn’t until years later that we actually visited – and all that time we have wasted! I’m just mad about the otters. I love watching them run up and down the banks of their lake – with all those reeds and things – and so much space. It’s just so lovely to come here and see all the animals in their natural habitats. I suppose if you work here, like David, and you’re here all the time, you get used to it – but I’ll never get used to it. It’s just wonderful.”


The name’s Bond

One can only imagine what her fellow visitors must make of it all; admiring the red squirrels one moment and suddenly realising they’re standing alongside ‘M’ from James Bond the next. Or maybe they’ll be reminded of the long-suffering Laura in classic comedy series A Fine Romance, in which she starred opposite her late husband, the actor Michael Williams, or the no-nonsense Jean in the BBC’s celebrated sitcom As Time Goes By. For others, it might be Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown who comes to mind; the real-life Irishwoman Philomena Lee in the eponymously-named biopic; or plucky pensioner Evelyn in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – or any one of the other diverse roles she has played to such acclaim over the years.

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There is no doubt, however, that it is her tenure as everyone’s favourite Bond boss for which she remains best-known. The first woman to play the part, she went on to do seven films in all, before going out in a blaze of fire in Skyfall. So what does she think she brought to the role?

“Bossiness; somebody frightfully bossy,” she says, with that trademark twinkle. “I was drunk with power. It was all good fun, very good fun, and my street-cred went up no end. And of course, a lot of the scenes in Skyfall were shot here in Surrey, on Hankley Common, where they recreated 007’s childhood home in Scotland. We got so excited because they said we were all going to be flying up there – as it’s a place I have a particular passion for – and in actual fact we had just one day there in the end. For the rest of the time, we just pretended. It was so lovely that house; but it was just, you know, cardboard. They super-imposed the mountains and lake and everything, and you’d never, ever know…”

On the day that we meet, the papers are full of stories about who might play the next James Bond; does she have any idea? “None! Do you think they have? Is Daniel not going to do another one? Mind you, he’s had such a thriving career away from Bond now. I think they all brought something to the role though; they were all brilliant in their own way. And my first Bond was Pierce's first one, so that was good, and then I was with Daniel on his first one too. I got on very well with both of them. In fact, I remember Pierce coming to our house in Surrey one day and Finty opened the door and just reeled!”


Shakespearean star

Born in York in 1934, the daughter of keen theatre-goers, her first foray into acting was “as a snail in the school play”. Later, having moved on to more versatile roles, she went on to follow her brother Jeffrey to London’s Central School of Speech and Drama and, on graduating, was cast as Ophelia in the Old Vic’s production of Hamlet in 1957. She would go on to have an almost unparalleled career on the stage, playing every one of Shakespeare’s female leads, before subsequently achieving equal acclaim for her roles in television and then film – at the last count, there were ten BAFTAs, eight Olivier Awards, two Golden Globes and, not least, an Academy Award for her performance as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love.

“All my life, I have just tried to avoid being pigeonholed really,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I always like to be challenged and to try something different each time. And whenever anyone says, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t play that part’, it only makes me more determined to try. For example, when I told people that I was playing Cleopatra, they used to be so shocked that their mouths would almost drop open. So I thought, well, my goodness, I’ll have a go then…”

Needless to say, as one of the most respected Shakespeareans of her generation, this year has been a particularly busy one for the actress, with a whole string of high-profile events to mark the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. So as well as her recent performance as Cecily, Duchess of York, in the BBC’s celebrated adaptation of the history plays, The Hollow Crown, there was also a special edition of Countryfile with John Craven, in which they followed in Shakespeare’s footsteps around the countryside, and, perhaps most memorably of all, a gala evening in Stratford-upon-Avon that featured a star turn from none other than our future king.

“The scene with Prince Charles was great fun, although I have made up my mind never to appear on stage with him again; he received more applause before he even opened his mouth than the rest of us did put together!” she says, with mock indignation. “It was wonderful though being back in Stratford and meeting up with so many old friends.

“We lived just outside Stratford for about 12 years, when Michael and I were members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, so the visit brought back a lot of happy memories. David was with me too, and it was lovely to be able to show him around some of our old haunts.”


Move to Surrey

Having moved from Stratford to Surrey in 1984, these days the actress is very much a proud Surrey-ite, though she didn’t know the area at all when she first arrived. It was her husband, Michael, to whom she was happily married for 30 years until he passed away from lung cancer in 2001, who brought them to the county, after seeing the house by chance and falling in love with it on the spot.

“He didn’t even tell me about it at first, as we were quite settled where we were, but Michael suddenly saw this place and sent for the details,” she remembers. “And then, one day, he said to me, we’re going to look at a house, and that was it!

“Now, of course, I love it here. There’s all this lovely countryside – we’ve got the Surrey Hills and the North and South Downs – and it’s very convenient for going up and down to London. Then, if I am filming, Shepperton and Pinewood aren’t far away either, and we have some wonderful theatres too, such as Kingston’s Rose where I did A Midsummer Night’s Dream a few years ago. Who could ask for more really?”

While she may be one of Britain’s best-known actresses, it has never stopped her from throwing herself into local life. Hugely supportive of her adopted home county, whether it’s cutting the red ribbon at the nearby village hall, helping out charities such as Surrey Wildlife Trust, as a patron for their new education centre at Nower Wood, or simply doing her shopping at her local farm shop, Priory Farm in Nutfield, she can often be spotted out and about – her little dog Minnie, a shih-tzu, usually in tow.

“We’ve had her for 15 years now, so she’s quite old and completely deaf, but watch out if you’re sitting at a table and you put your foot underneath; she’ll take your leg off! She’s very nice really, though, and she doesn’t like me to go anywhere without her so I take her with me – she’s even coming to the dentist tomorrow. The only place she doesn’t come really is here, as understandably dogs aren’t allowed. There’d be chaos!”


Birthday tattoo

Dressed today in a smart blue coat, colourful striped scarf and racy red nail varnish, the actress looks effortlessly stylish. Contrary to what she’d have you believe, she also looks as radiant as ever – and decades younger than her 81 years. So what is her secret then, I wonder, to looking so fabulous?

“Oh gosh, not at all, not at all; I think you’re just very kind,” she says emphatically. “You’re good for the soul, you are! I’m hopeless really. I’m constantly worrying what to wear. The other day, I was at an occasion and the press were asking everyone who designed their clothes – Armani, Gucci, etc. And when they got to me, I said to them, ‘I have absolutely no idea, this dress is so old!’ So they just put ‘vintage’!”

I can’t resist asking her at this point about the tattoo that reportedly she had last year; is it true? Did she really have one? With a shake of her bracelets, she proffers the inside of her wrist and there it is: ‘Carpe Diem’.

“That’s my motto: ‘ Sieze the day.’ Finty gave it to me for my 81st birthday – she’s wonderful with surprises. Good, isn’t it? Mind you, the company of A Winter’s Tale, which I was doing at the time, used to say that it said fish of the day...”

Fish jokes aside, the choice of wording sums up her attitude to life perfectly; making the most of every single moment. So what other ambitions does she still hope to fulfil?

“Ooh, there’s a question; I just want to go on being mobile really and being able to do things. I’m not going to be beaten by my eyes for instance. I have macular degeneration, which means treatment every six weeks, but you just have to settle for it. On my scripts, my font is point-size 22, so you can imagine… If we’re doing a sonnet of 14 lines, all the others will have one page and I’ll have 14! It’s ridiculous, it’s a farce, but I’m not going to give in.”


New projects

Indeed, she has spoken often of her determination to continue acting for as long as the parts keep on coming – and, in fact, later this year starts filming for another major new project that she isn’t allowed to talk about yet. Suffice to say, mention the word retirement at your peril…

“That’s an awful word, retirement. I see it as a step back in a way, a step down. And if you give up one thing then it seems to me that you might as well give up another, and so on, when it’s so much better to keep the mind active. For my part, I like to try and learn a new fact every single day. Did you know, for example, that a weasel can get through a wedding ring? David told me that. If we watch something like University Challenge and there’s some obscure question about animals then he’ll always knows the answer. He’s wonderful like that.”

Right on cue, the resident rats tear past again and it’s time for her to head off too – though not before another quick tour around the Wildlife Centre, no doubt drawing a few double-takes along the way.

The British Wildlife Centre, Eastbourne Road (A22), Newchapel, Lingfield RH7 6LF. Open every Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holiday, and daily during school holidays. Admission: Adults, £11.50; seniors, £10.50; children (aged three to 15), £8.50; family ticket (two adults and two children), £37. Children under three and essential carers admitted free. Tel: 01342 834658; britishwildlifecentre.co.uk

For those still looking for the tattoo photo that got the world talking, you’ll find it here


My Favourite Surrey

Thing to do: “I like horse racing very much, so I enjoy visiting Lingfield Park Racecourse. Do I have a flutter?! David will tell you, I’ll bet on two flies walking up a wall! I had a horse that I shared with my driver Brian – Smokey Oakey – and he won the Lincoln and the Brigadier Gerard. He’s retired now and we gave him to Riding for the Disabled, just down the road, so we see him all the time.”

Places to visit: “Apart from the British Wildlife Centre, I love The Rose Theatre in Kingston, where I did A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Sir Peter Hall. I enjoyed it hugely – it is such a lovely theatre. I remember we saw it when it was just being built – and we did the gala night before it was finished. It’s sort of in-the-round – almost banana-shaped – and I adore that theatre. I also love The Archway Theatre in Horley. We went to the pantomime there and had the most lovely time. It’s a sweet little theatre – underneath the station – and they do things very nicely indeed.”

View to enjoy: “I love all the beautiful Surrey countryside – it’s a magical thing. Like everybody else, I do worry about our Green Belt though and don’t want to see it built on. I understand that people need houses, but I do often think when I go into London, how many of these buildings are actually lived in?”

Way to relax: “I really enjoy spending time in our garden here in the Surrey countryside – that’s just lovely. Working in London and then coming back and being able to stand and listen to the silence; it’s so relaxing...”