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Sunday Times STLive By ©Marianne Gray, 2012-04-01

What I've Learnt: Judi Dench

DOING LOTS OF MAD THINGS: Judi Dench is still acting at full tilt aged 77. 'At 80 I'll probably be playing roles on Zimmer frames or in wheelchairs'
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The actress on stage fright, going blind and owning a racehorse rather than an ironing board

Next year Dame Judi Dench, 77, will celebrate 50 years in the acting business. For some people the image of Dench might be of the stern doyenne of British screen - as spy boss "M" in the Bond movies, as Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown, as Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love. But that's Dench in costume. In mufti, she is a relaxed woman with a beguiling girlish charm and exuberance.

Trained as a theatre designer, she is thrilled to have made a new career in the movies after decades as a star of stage and television. Given an OBE in 1970, made a Dame in 1988, the Queen has awarded her a Companion of Honour for services of national importance and, in 1999, she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar off only eight minutes of screen time in Shakespeare in Love .

Her new film, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, is a comedy about a retirement home in India for British pensioners.

I never could have imagined that at my age I would get to ride side-saddle on a scooter with no helmet, or row on the Thames in a fur coat and high heels or go up in a Gypsy Moth with a helmet and goggles. In one film I had to learn to smoke a joint and I set my trousers alight. Life is a most extraordinary thing.

Life in the acting world is extraordinary. When I went to Los Angeles after Mrs Brown and playing M in Bond, they asked me what else I'd done. I replied: all of Shakespeare, Chekhov and Ibsen. They all looked totally blank.

I get fixated by my acting in past movies because I am too much of a perfectionist. I have to leave a very long interval before watching a film I'm in. I have a fearsome dedication to acting.

At 80 I'll probably be playing roles on Zimmer frames or in wheelchairs. In every film, there's always someone shuffling across in the background, isn't there? That could be me. I'll take bets on it.

I bet on everything, anything. I have a racehorse called Smokey Oakey who is eight years old and I always bet on him. I love it. I haven't bet on anything yet today but ...

I don't bother too much about modern things like blogs. I barely have an ironing board, I haven't got a computer and my phone is on the blink. And I don't drive.

I have advanced macular degeneration, so I can't read much anymore. Somebody usually comes and tells me the story or I will choose a role because of the director. If I have a script it will be printed in the biggest print there is. I need four pages to everybody else's one. Worse, when I'm on stage I can't see if somebody's laughing or not.

I am absent-minded and sometimes quite eccentric and I do lots of mad things. Like when I was acting in the West End in All's Well That Ends Well and, finding I had so much time on my hands in Act Two, I went off and appeared in Les Miserables in a theatre round the corner, and then got back to All's Well in time to do the last scene.

What still attracts about acting is to be able to work on wildly different projects. I am a workaholic. It's part of my Quaker work ethic. I don't understand the word "retire". I'm certainly not ready to be packed away and told to put my feet up.

Being M means that waiters in cafés come up me and say to me: "zero zero sept" (007) and I think it's the bill. More glamorous than saying "James Bond".

In the early days, luckily I preferred theatre and, not having a "movie face", stayed with classical acting for 38 years. I think you have more of a chance to get it right - or sometimes wrong - when you are on stage. One has no control over a film. I do not know if I will end up on the cutting-room floor.

I learn something every time I make a film. And I always come to it thinking: "I know how to do this," but I never do know how to do whatever the "this" is.

I've always suffered from stage fright and it's much worse now. On films too. It is always there and I try to turn the fear or anger or feelings into something else.

I prefer to be a part of the puzzle rather than solving the jigsaw. I don't do one-woman shows or master classes.

I wrote my book, Scenes From My Life, which surprised everybody because I am extremely private about my life. But after ransacking through cupboards and searching through the loft, I found so many wonderful pictures of my life and roles and friends - all my favourite pictures, and they are worth sharing.

I have never ceased to be grateful that I am able to do a job I love. We must be one or two percent in the world; people who are doing something they are really committed to.

  • The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is 0n circuit.