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Actress Miriam Margolyes is star turn in Jesmond church fundraiser

Miriam Margolyes - Prof Sprout in the Harry Potter films - is to entertain in Tyneside to raise funds for St George’s church in Jesmond

Jennifer Robertson Actress Miriam Margolyes is to perform at St George's Church, Jesmond
Actress Miriam Margolyes is to perform at St George's Church, Jesmond

Conspicuous among the candles, cribs and carol services as churches prepare for Christmas is An Evening with Miriam Margolyes.

You have to hand it to St George’s, Jesmond, for this unconventional advent attraction, the chance to be entertained by a versatile actress who is not only Jewish but apparently not above the telling of an earthy joke or two.

In a busy and fruitful career stretching back more than 45 years, Ms Margolyes has played a multitude of colourful characters and picked up an OBE.

To legions of cinema-going Harry Potter fans she is the living manifestation of Prof Pomona Sprout. Others might remember her as the Nurse in Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet or Mrs Mingott in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence – for which she won a Bafta – or even, back in 1983, as Sarah in Barbra Streisand’s much-garlanded Yentl.

She has played the American writer Gertrude Stein, the wife of Lenin, the mother of Peter Sellers and – in an episode of Blackadder – Queen Victoria. Moreover, she has given voice to a sheepdog (the two Babe films), a glowworm (James and the Giant Peach) and a giraffe and a squirrel (the children’s TV series Tinga Tinga Tales).

Just imagine that lot as dinner guests around, or under, the same table!

As so often in these cases, it makes me wonder who exactly I will get on the end of the telephone line.

What I do get is Miriam Margolyes the early riser, emailing me – in the nicest possible way – to say the sooner we can get this over and done with, the better.

In my experience actors tend not to get up particularly early, their body clocks attuned to night-time exertions on the stage. Miriam, sounding chirpy, agrees that this is so and admits her preference does not always sit comfortably with her professional responsibilities.

“Basically,” she says cheerfully, “I don’t get enough sleep.”

So why Newcastle and why a church? “It’s entirely because of Barbara Peacock. From the time we were 11 years old we have been friends.”

Barbara, who lives in Jesmond, is a stalwart member of the congregation and the driving force behind The Friends of St George’s, who stage events to fund the church’s activities in the community. Barbara contacted Miriam both as a friend and a Friend and Miriam agreed to entertain in the church.

“I have remained close friends with Barbara and I’ve been to the church and met the vicar, and I like the place and I believe in crossing barriers and not making barriers. When she asked me if I would do a fundraiser, I said ‘With pleasure’, because to me that’s the most Jewish and Christian thing I can do.”

Barbara, too, was brought up in the Jewish faith but met Frederick Peacock, now the organist at St George’s, and married for love. This evidently did not go down well with her family.

Miriam, who has also opposed Israeli policy regarding the Palestinians, says falling out over faith is “complete nonsense” and “the absolute opposite of what people who profess to believe in God should do”.

No earthy jokes yet, then, but a brief insight into a woman who could surely be a formidable campaigner and opponent.

“I’m a very old fashioned person,” she declares.

“I can be very rude and push the boundaries of taste but I believe in structure.”

This she had appreciated at school in Oxford where she and Barbara were fellow pupils. “They gave you a wonderful structure to work within. I’m not saying you have to go to university to achieve anything, but they certainly prepared me for university and it was there that I had the most wonderful experiences.

“I read English (at Newnham College, Cambridge) and English literature has been a huge part of my life ever since.”

The audience in St George’s, she says, will be treated to readings of some of its choicest fruits.

Charles Dickens is bound to figure. “I’ve loved Dickens ever since I first read him, when I was 11 and read Oliver Twist for the first time.”

Dickens and Margolyes, in fact, were made for each other. In 1989 Miriam launched Dickens’ Women, a solo stage show featuring 23 of the author’s characters including Miss Havisham from Great Expectations and Sarah Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit.

“I’ll do a couple of items from the show but I don’t do it any more. My director, Sonia Fraser, died a couple of weeks ago and I don’t feel like doing it without her. We wrote it together and put it on together and, while I remain passionately proud of it, I just don’t think I’ve got the heart to do it again.”

Miriam, who is 72, began acting in her 20s. As an undergraduate she appeared with the Cambridge Footlights, springboard for a Who’s Who of prominent entertainers including David Frost, Fry and Laurie and half the Monty Python team.

It didn’t fast track the young Miss Margolyes to a glittering career, though. “When I left university I woke up the next morning with a terrible sense of blankness,” she recalls.

“I hadn’t got a job and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I sold encyclopaedias door to door and did some market research.

“But then I got an audition for the BBC repertory company on radio and that was what really kept me going. That was the start of it. Radio is still a big part of my life. I enjoy doing voice work.”

There are so many different roles to talk about so where to start? How about Blackadder? “I didn’t play Nursie, if that’s what you think,” almost snaps my morning interviewee, uncannily intercepting the thought en route to my mouth.

Common mistake, she says. Patsy Byrne, who’s now 80, played Nursie and it seems poor Miriam has been redirecting misplaced admiration for quite a lot of years.

No, she says, she appeared three times - as the Spanish Infanta, as Queen Victoria and as the terrifyingly puritannical Lady Whiteadder, covered in crosses. “But all my bits were brilliant!” She laughs heartily. In this she’s certainly not wrong.

And Harry Potter (in Chamber of Secrets and the second part of Deathly Hallows)?

“It was a nice job but it was a job. To me it wasn’t any more exciting than anything else. I read Dickens, I don’t read Harry Potter; but I think it’s a wonderful enterprise. I think it’s wonderful what JK Rowling has done for children.

“I’m very grateful to it because it’s made me a lot better known than I would have been without it.”

Miriam Margolyes has made many people laugh a great deal.

Her appearance with rapper Will.i.am on the Graham Norton Show was priceless. But she tells me: “I always say I have no sense of humour because I don’t watch comedy. I don’t like comedy and I don’t know much about it. I can tell a joke and I like to laugh. I even like to make people laugh but whether I’ve actually got a sense of humour...”

She tails off before confessing she’s not totally happy with the way her career has gone.

“I’ve never been at the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company. I’ve been asked but I’ve never been around. I’d like to do some serious things and I’d like to do some Shakespeare and some Restoration comedy.

“I’d like to tackle big stuff. I did do Madame Ranyevskaya in The Cherry Orchard (directed by Sonia Fraser) and I’d like to get more big parts like that.”

You would imagine she would shine in any of these spheres but her chances might come on the other side of the world. Miriam has recently been granted Australian citizenship, having been a regular visitor to the country with Heather, her Australian partner of 45 years.

“This means I can go and live there when I want to,” she says. “I love Australia because to me it’s got this great freewheeling democracy that I feel England rather lacks. I think our attitude, for instance, towards asylum seekers is absolutely disgraceful. I think if you’ve done well, you should be prepared to give back.

“The quality of life in Australia is so relaxed and just rather nice.

“Mind you, I don’t like much of this cricket stuff! I thought cricket was a game for gentlemen but it has got ridiculous. They need to be given a smack and sent home early.”

The second Ashes Test match begins in Adelaide tomorrow. Miriam Margolyes will entertain at St George’s, Jesmond, on December 12 at 7.30pm. Tickets are £12 from WeGotTickets.com. Meanwhile, the St George’s Christmas Fair is on Saturday at 2pm.

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