REVIEW

This Much is True: Miriam Margolyes' autobiography explores naughtiness

Character treasure Miriam Margolyes. Picture: Getty Images
Character treasure Miriam Margolyes. Picture: Getty Images

Miriam Margolyes' autobiography is a fascinating and candid account of the life of "a short, fat Jewish girl with no neck", although one not for the faint-hearted.

Margolyes, now 80, has been termed Britain's favourite and naughtiest treasure. She writes,"I am now better known for my naughty stories than almost anything else", not least her appearances on The Graham Norton Show, where "out of my potty mouth pop filthy sexual anecdotes".

This Much Is True is peppered with four-letter words, references to bodily functions - "my farts are legendary among my friends" - and sex, especially in her early life when she "ministered" to many an "inflamed member". She now worries that her "behaviour may just have been a therapy for her insecurities".

There is much in a remarkable career which has spanned performing the voices of Cadbury's Caramel Rabbit, Sexy Sonia for Ann Summers' sex shop and Fly, Babe's sheepdog mother, to her award-winning one-woman show, Dickens' Women, and her appearances in popular series such as Blackadder, the Harry Potter films and Call the Midwife. She won a BAFTA for her role in Scorsese's The Age of Innocence.

Margolyes says it is a good time to bring out her memoir; "in the past I thought I shouldn't because I'll tell the truth and it will mean I'll never work again and nobody will ask me to lunch. But sometimes it's quite nice to be able to make a statement . . . the trick is, not to let it crowd out the joy".

Margolyes was interested "in trying to work out how I evolved into the person that I am, beginning with my upbringing". She was born in Oxford in 1941, the only child of a medical doctor father and a mother who invested in property, a trait Miriam has inherited. She claims to have been the naughtiest girl at Oxford High School, and posed nude for Augustus John as a teenager.

Margolyes won an exhibition to Newnham College, Cambridge and joined the famous Footlights where she was the only woman and experienced the bullying and "studied cruelty" of John Cleese, Bill Oddie and Graham Chapman.

After Cambridge, her career took her on theatre tours and then into film. She provides insightful pen portraits and anecdotes of the many famous people she has worked alongside, including Sir Laurence Olivier, Warren Beatty and Barbra Streisand.

There's no one more famous than the Queen. Margolyes recalls how Queen told her to stop talking at a British Book Week reception at Buckingham Palace, after she had told the Queen, "'Your Majesty, I am the best reader of stories in the whole world!' Her Majesty looked at me wearily, rolled her eyes heavenwards, sighed and turned away". After Margolyes continued talking, "alarm crossed" the Queens's face and she quickly moved away "from this clearly crazed woman".

In 1966, Margolyes "formally became a lesbian" and in 1968 met and fell in love with Heather Sutherland, who has remained her partner for 53 years. Canberra enters the picture here.

At Oxford High School, Margolyes had met 11-year-old Katerina (Katy) Clark, when Katy's father, Manning Clark, was a visiting fellow at Balliol College. Later, Katy was to be the link between Margolyes and Sutherland, who was born and educated in "the entirely invented city" of Canberra. Sutherland graduated in Asian Studies from ANU and is now a professor specialising in South East Asian trade, living mostly in Amsterdam. Margolyes says, "I was lucky enough to find someone who was prepared to love me, I'm not that loveable . . . She doesn't like showbiz, but I think she's proud of my work."

Both sets of parents were not happy about their relationship. Margolyes says of her mother, "It hurt her. I really wounded her . . . She came from the generation that found homosexuality unacceptable . . . She went on loving me, but it was obviously coloured with sadness, because I would never be married with children."

In 1996, Margolyes and Sutherland bought their "dream home" at Yarrawa Hill, near Robertson, which butts onto the escarpment side of the Budderoo National Park. They will presumably return there when Margolyes returns to Australia in January to make documentaries.

Margolyes, who received her Australian citizenship from Julia Gillard in 2013, and has become more political in recent years, believes "the socialist legacies of Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke are being whittled away by greed and corruption".

She says writing the autobiography allowed her to look back on her life. "From the very beginning, I always wanted to connect with people using language and humour and naughtiness. I hope people will like me, but if they don't, I want them to notice me," she says. If people haven't noticed her before, they certainly will after reading This Much is True.

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This story Connecting through naughtiness first appeared on The Canberra Times.