I mentioned yesterday that I’d only finished one book in 2011, and that I’d be writing about it soon. Well, I’ve now finished two, and I’m going to write about the one I finished last night – because it’s rather easier to write about than Howards End, which I feel I should Think About Properly.
No insult to Dame Judi Dench, but I don’t feel I need to think so vigilantly about her book And Furthermore. (And, before I forget, thank you Becca for giving it to me for my birthday!) Well, we should be clear from the start – this is John Miller’s book, written after (presumably lengthy) conversation with Dench. He wrote her biography, and has turned Dame J’s anecdotes into book-form here. The brief diary she includes from her own pen, about attending the Oscars, reveals that she is no natural writer – but, then, she doesn’t pretend to be. But she couldn’t have picked a better man to write things down for her. One of the most amusing things about watching Miller and Dench in conversation back in 2004 was that he knew her life so much better than she did. Judi would refer vaguely to doing a play somewhere in the mid ‘sixties, for example, and Miller would know the venue, year, date, cast… bizarre!
And Furthermore is, essentially, a collection of anecdotes. For those of us who have read Judi Dench: with a crack in her voice by John Miller, they aren’t all new – but no matter. It covers Dench’s acting career – primarily in the theatre – and only occasional mention is made of her private life, and her childhood is covered in a handful of pages. As a rule, a biography focuses on the career and an autobiography on the childhood – or so I have found – so it’s nice to have an autobiography which looks mostly at the area which interests me most. Because it is Dench’s decades of theatrical experience which captivate me – each play seems to come with its own amusing or intriguing incidents, and I love the atmosphere conveyed of being part of the company. It’s a little secret of mine, but – were my talents different, and my life headed in a different direction – I’d love to be an actor. I can’t act, and I’m not confident or energised enough, so this is no genuine ambition – but I love reading about repertory companies and imagining being in one. TV and film acting doesn’t have the same appeal, in my eyes – it is the theatre that I love reading about.
And Dench doesn’t hesitate to call theatre her first love. It is through other media that I have mostly seen her – I love or admire As Time Goes By, Cranford, Iris, Mrs. Henderson Presents, Notes on a Scandal, and so on and so forth – but I have had the privilege to see Judi once on stage, in All’s Well That Ends Well. I think being alive while she is performing, and not seeing her, would be an absurd abuse of the possibility that future generations will envy. That’s how I feel about Mrs. Patrick Campell, Margaret Rutherford, Peggy Ashcroft – none of whom, of course, I had the opportunity to see. And I am determined to see Maggie Smith on the stage, if she ever returns to it. Sorry, I’m getting distracted… What I intended to do was segue into this quotation:
I am so often asked, ‘Does the audience make any difference?’ Of course! It is the only reason you bother to be in the theatre, in order that tonight it can be better than last night, that you can crack something that you haven’t yet, that this audience will be quieter, that this audience really will at the end think they have had a marvellous experience, and you have told the author’s story. I always get that very depressed feeling at the end, and then miraculously a night’s sleep somehow prepares you for doing it a step up the next day.With any autobiography, it is the author’s personality that comes across. This is mediated here, of course, by Miller – but I still think the reader can get a little closer to Judi Dench than in a biography. She is perhaps a little sharper than might be expected, a little keener to have control over performances – but what struck me most was her deep sensibilities for writing. The great actors are also, in a way, the great literary critics. True, they work only on the level of character – but what a deep understanding of character they must have. When Dench says that Hermione would think this, or Beatrice speak thus, or Portia behave in this way, I am impressed by the full and thorough life she can breathe into words on a page.
So – sometimes the anecdotes don’t quite work; there are often punchline-statements which seem a little flat, but these are miniscule quibbles in a wonderful collection of stories and a unique set of experiences. Well, perhaps Dench’s is not a unique perspective (except in the way that any would be) but hers is a highly unusual and significant vantage over more than six decades of the theatre. Even if I did not love Judi Dench – and of course I do – this would be an incredible record of the theatre by one who knows it about as intimately and broadly as anybody possibly could.
But – I shall let Dame Judi have the last word:
Actors are really remarkable people to be with. I love the company of other people, but I love the company of actors, and to be in a company. My idea of hell would be a one-woman show, I wouldn’t be able to do that, I wouldn’t know who to get ready for. The whole idea of a group of people coming together and working to one end somehow is very appealing to me. It is the thing I have always wanted to do, and I am lucky enough to be doing it. You don’t need to retire as an actor, there are all those parts you can play lying in a bed, or in a wheelchair.