It was the third Wednesday in March, and a deep panic had reached Britain. Schools were in limbo, businesses were shutting down, and the streets took on the surreal vibes of science fiction movies as the country was close to closing. For many, the first real sense of what the coronavirus epidemic will mean in everyday life has faded at last.
As the early spring sun descends upon a rebellious nation in the English countryside, an 85-year-old is given a calm, sticky pair of fluffy white puppy ears. “I don’t use social media at all,” Judi Dench said to me over the phone, laughing at the memory. “It was only because my daughter Vint gave me my ear. It was an improvised thing. Some upbeat fun trying to make people smile, hopefully.”
Oh how they smile. The call to prayer led to a short video, filmed on her daughter Finty Williams’ phone, which was posted on Twitter that she has no doubt seeing. “Oh, here you go!” The bright-eyed Dench says, sitting on his ears in amazement, as if he had crossed pathways in his garden. “Just keep laughing. That’s all we can do.” It turned out to be exactly the kind of digital stimulant people needed: He scored millions of views in the chaos to come, and a flash of continuity in a world on fire. Comparisons to Vera Lynn are duly drawn.
Dench sticks to his tagline, though he’s a little less optimistic. In addition to the nationwide lockdown, it, by virtue of its age, if not its enthusiasm, and like about 10 million other people in Britain, has embarked on a much longer period of self-imposed isolation. “I am sure I feel like everyone else, such unprecedented times are difficult to comprehend,” she explains from her home, with its wooded gardens, where she has lived for more than 35 years. Her panic is for people who don’t have what she has. “The good thing is that it made people completely aware of the condition of others living on their own,” she says carefully. “If this results in a lot of kindness, that would be an advantage.” A few weeks ago, before terms like “herd immunity” and “flattening the curve” entered the daily lexicon, I was in the aforementioned house (built in 1690 with an unusually small front door) in the deepest city of Surrey for an audience with the actor, one of the most important dramatized women in the world. Of course, things come first.
“I can see?” I ask. “Of course,” Dench says, he jumped into action boldly. “If you really want to …” I say “I feel really bad when I ask.” “Just a little mean,” he said in a hoarse voice. “I must hold you accountable.” In this one, Dench – 5 feet 1 inch and full of balance – leads me through his dangerously low-ceilinged hallway and into his sun-soaked living room. “Wouldn’t you send me about that?” After you promised him, one of the country’s most beloved, and perhaps even beloved, citizens if you don’t count David Attenborough, begins to search his trophy shelves. My eyes rose. Is there six BAFTA? “Do not count!” Cry, literally surprised to realize that there are actually 11. “I don’t want to be a flash.” He takes a wonderful pause before adding, “Here it is …” and hands me an Academy Award.
A duality has always been at the core of Judith Olivia Dench, the common woman littered with stardust. On the one hand, I am happy to confirm that it is the warming national treasure you envision. At home on this clear, clear morning in the wilderness of Surrey, it’s a relaxing sight in beige sweatpants; Kettle, au pain chocolate from the supermarket on a tray, and set the luvvie counter to a hundred. Being a legendary champagne fan, she brought her a bottle of Dom Pérignon Blanc Vintage 2008, whose presentation sparked a delicious first click on the brand’s voice: “Absolute Heaven! She laughs. Her acting skills are so intense that you think no one has ever gifted her. From before.
Indeed, his powers are such that, in a broader act of seduction, it is safe to say that Dench now has general affection on an industrial scale. The simplest look at his six-decade biography indicates why. She went from drama school to playing Ophelia in The Old Vic in the late 1950s, and ruled the National, West End and RSC for decades, marking shifts in courage and presentation of perhaps the most notable of Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra in the late 1950s. Twentieth century. Meanwhile, stun the middle of England on the small screen with home comedies and historical dramas before Boom! He won an Academy Award in 1999, at the age of 64, for his role as Elizabeth I in Shakespeare’s play in love. (“A quick eight minutes with bad teeth,” is how he described his performance). His magic became universal, so much so that when, a few years ago, writer Alan Bennett played the most offensive logo that you could wear on a shirt, reflecting themes from terrorism to child abuse, he decreed that nothing would irritate more. For the audience, “I hate Judi Dench.”