There are certain performers who transcend their roles and are loved just for who they are. It's tempting to just throw the label national treasure at them and leave it at that. Miriam Margolyes, however, is something else.
She’s utterly unlike anybody else and, it has to be said, perhaps too caustic to be the usual recipient of the national treasure tag. It's this edge, though, that makes her priceless and such a good guest on chat shows, as numerous uproarious appearances on the Graham Norton Show attest.
She has the power to connect, mainly because she comes across as so unpolished, so authentic, that one almost feels one knows her. For this reason, I may call her Miriam from to time through this piece. Ms Margolyes seems ridiculously formal. Margolyes just isn't right. Besides, Miriam is easier to type.
On top of her personality prowess, she's actually a very good actor, having appeared in many, many well-known roles, as well as one or two that you might not expect. She started on stage and went on to make memorable impressions on the big screen (beginning with her performance as prostitute Elephant Ethel in Stand Up, Virgin Soldiers) and in many a TV appearance.
Let's get started with what is rightly regarded as her dramatic high point in a film of sustained but restrained power.
1. The Age of Innocence - Mrs Mingott
Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence is a remarkable piece of work. Those who equate the directing dynamo with nothing but gangster flicks will find a great deal to surprise them in this intelligent and sumptuous adaptation of Edith Wharton's ironically-titled weary take on fin de siecle morality.
That made it sound a bit worthy, but not a bit of it. The movie features Daniel Day Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and an impossibly perky Winona Ryder on a carousel of romantic entanglement and deception. Great though these three are, for many, it's Miriam Margolyes who stands out in her major supporting role as the shrewd society matriarch Mrs Mingott, a woman who plays a pivotal role in the unfolding relationships as the film progresses.
It was no surprise that Miriam won the BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress in 1994. What was surprising was that she wasn't even nominated for an Academy Best Supporting Actress Award that year. Oh well. Their loss.
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2. The Black Adder - The Spanish Infanta
The Blackadder saga is famous for its recurring cast members, but one performer who pops up a fair bit but tends to get overlooked among the Stephen Frys, Miranda Richardsons and Rik Mayalls is one Miriam Margolyes, who provides no fewer than three very different and massively memorable characters.
Blackadder II features her as Edmund's strict aunt Lady Whiteadder, and Blackadder's Christmas Carol has her popping up as Queen Victoria (a role she also performs in The Windsors and in voiceover on Channel 4's Queen Victoria in Her Own Words).
But for my money, the very best work she did on this hugely influential and much-loved comedy was as the over-amorous Spanish Infanta in the first series, titled The Black Adder (rather than the subsequent slicker Blackadder).
Speaking impossibly passionate and lusty Spanish throughout (translated by a very young looking Jim Broadbent), the Infanta is an unstoppable hormone torpedo, using those massive eyes to expressively rolling effect, not to mention a very active tongue(!) as she proceeds to put the fear of molestation into our poor dismayed hero.
One of the classic supporting female characters, in one of the very best British comedies ever. Lady Whiteadder is worth checking out too.
3. Cadbury's Caramel ad - The Caramel Bunny
From one rampantly predatory female on the prowl to another.
It's surprising how few people know that the saucy rabbit character in the Cadbury's Caramel TV ads, the one with the voice as smooth and rich as the chocolate itself, was given these sexy tones by none other than Miriam Margolyes.
That's not all. Her experience with the lascivious side of life goes way deeper than this. It turns out that she got the Caramel job because of the less-than-salubrious voice artist work she used to contribute to the adult entertainment industry, including such seminal works as Sexy Sonia: Leaves from my Schoolgirl Diary.
How the chocolate marketing people got wind of this schoolgirl notebook material and therefore decided that Miriam Margolyes was the gal for their bunny, is not a matter of record.
What we are left with, though, is a perennial piece that pops up from time to time on classic ad compilation programmes, especially ones that like to look at how apparently unnecessary - and, in this case, wholly unlikely - sexual techniques are used to sell products.
Miriam's work was exemplary, however, and was given rightful plaudits when a UK newspaper declared her bunny the third sexiest cartoon character ever. You want to know who was first and second now, don't you? You'll just have to read on to the end.
Miriam has quite a pedigree when it comes to voicing animations. She was the voice of Glow Worm in James and the Giant Peach, Fly the Collie in Babe and all the female characters in Japanese TV series Monkey.
4. Harry Potter - Professor Sprout
Phew, a change of pace. Things were getting a little steamy, so thank goodness for this child-friendly element on Miriam Margolyes' CV. Of course, the Harry Potter films were beyond massive, and such was the embarrassment of acting riches contained within that it might have been easy for some less distinctive performers to become overlooked.
Not our Miriam. Her role as Professor Pomona Sprout (in two of the Harry Potter films) was a great opportunity for her to exercise all her powers of eccentricity, as the downright unusual head of Hufflepuff House.
Recently, Miriam caused a bit of a Hufflepufflekerfuffle when she told a magazine that she didn't think of this work as important. To her, she told Vogue, it was certainly enjoyable, but it wasn't Dickens.
Though millions of children would disagree with her denigration of the importance of Harry Potter, she's absolutely on the money when she says it's not Dickens. Unlike The Man Who Invented Christmas, who most definitely is Dickens, in the 2017 slice of festive fare starring Dan Stevens as the doorknocker-bearded author trying to see his A Christmas Carol to a conclusion.
Miriam pops up here as Mrs Fisk, in a performance that didn't land in our top ten, but is worth catching nonetheless.
5. The Life and Death of Peter Sellers - Peg Sellers
The British comedic legend Peter Sellers was a man of much complexity, who had his fair share of emotional and psychological hang-ups, as Britt Ekland is only too happy to talk about given half a chance.
This excellent drama, directed by Stephen Hopkin and starring Geoffrey Rush as the bespectacled enigma, posits that some of his issues may have stemmed from his very pushy mother Meg, played by Miriam Margolyes with fabulously overbearing intensity.
If you can dig it out, it's well worth a watch, with Miriam doing excellent work in a cast that includes, as well as the aforementioned Rush, notables such as Emily Watson, Charlize Theron (as Ms Ekland) and Stanley Tucci (as fellow Stanley, Kubrick).
6. Oh Miriam!
Of course, Miriam Margolyes is known not just for her work on TV and the big screen. She's also made quite a name for herself on stage too, which is only to be expected, as, apart from an early TV appearance on University Challenge in 1963, her performing roots are very much in the theatre, making a name for herself with the groundbreaking theatre company Gay Sweatshop.
Miriam Margolyes toured in 2023 with Oh Miriam!, her one-woman show drawing anecdotes from the book of the same name. It's lively stuff, alright, and it's fair to say that it's not for the faint-hearted. But to hear live and in person some of the stories that have offended people right across the globe is an opportunity not to be missed, which is why Miriam Margolyes' one-woman audacious anecdotal assault is in our top ten.
7. Romeo + Juliet - The Nurse
Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet is that rare thing: a modernising Shakespeare adaptation that hasn't, in turn, become dated. It still bowls the viewer over with its bold imagery and cartoon-like characters, none of whom draw the eye as much as Miriam Margolyes' Nurse. OK, it's not a massive role, but it's hugely significant because of the part The Nurse plays as go-between, thus enabling the doomed romance to continue.
The Nurse is also noted for the support she gives to Juliet, in so doing being the only figure in the play who seems to wish her and her beau nothing but joy. Miriam Margolyes brings a believability to the role, and it's delightful to see how much she seems to be enjoying herself in this powerful and punchy production.
8. Little Dorrit - Flora Finching
Miriam Margolyes' love of Dickens’ writing is well documented - she wrote and starred in a one-woman show called Dickens' Women, playing the parts of no fewer than 23 of the female characters dreamed up by Charlie D.
For a lot of people, though, this is the standout Miriam and Dickens combo: the 1988 Little Dorrit film production that also featured Alec Guinness and Derek Jacobi. Miriam turns in a terrific performance as the torrentially voluble Flora Finching, and she richly deserved her Best Supporting Actress award from the LA Critics Circle.
9. Call the Midwife - Sister Mildred/Mother Mildred
Sunday nights, for some, are all about Call the Midwife, the hugely popular BBC drama revolving around midwifery in 1960s London. Joining a battery of talent, including Jenny Agutter and Pam Ferris, Miriam Margolyes took the role of Sister Mildred (who becomes Mother Mildred as time wears on and promotion comes calling) and was an instant hit with the fans.
The indomitable and garrulous nun has a huge impact on those around her, dominating every gathering. More than a little like Miriam herself, it has to be said.
10. The Real Marigold Hotel
OK, what's this doing here? The Real Marigold Hotel’s a documentary of sorts, isn't it? Well, this is a list of Miriam Margolyes' best performances, and it's fair to say that as soon as the camera starts rolling, there's a performance afoot. It's not that she seems to be putting on a front - far from it. It's just that whenever she's on screen you can't take your eyes off the drama that unfolds in front of you.
With a bevy of bemused co-stars, including Wayne Sleep, Roy Walker and 70s legend (still looking exaclty the same as she did back then) Patti Boulaye, Miriam terrorises her way through a stay in Jaipur, shocking and delighting in equal measure her companions and hotel staff.
She went on to appear in several spin-offs called The Real Marigold on Tour, taking the pugilistic pensioners off to places such as Kyoto, Havana and St Petersburg. Throughout, Miriam is absolutely irresistible. Fabulous stuff.
So, that's Miriam Margolyes covered. Well, not really. The truth is that there's so much more to this devilish dynamo. She was recently in the Lady in the Van on stage in Australia (possibly the only woman alive who could give Maggie Smith a run for her money in that role), as well as being in a Radio 4 sitcom.
She's also written an autobiography, including in its contents early life Margolyes memories that bring forth tears of laughter and sympathy, as she tells us about the struggles and fun that have characterised her extraordinary life. Always disarmingly honest about her personal life, and a strident champion of LGBT+ rights, Margolyes tells it like it is, always supported by her partner Heather Sutherland, with whom she has been in a relationship since 1969.
What's more, very soon, she's to feature in that TV behemoth - Dr Who, as the voice of Beep the Meep. (No, I can't really help you with that one, apart from to tell you that Wikipedia informs us that she is a fictional alien. So, not one of those real-life aliens we're always bumping into.)
Overall, Miriam Margolyes is one of this country's very best bits, and long may she continue to bring the house down with her performances and her outrageous candour. She received an OBE for services to drama way back in 2002. Surely it's about time a damehood was bestowed. I can feel a letter-writing campaign coming on.
Oh, first and second sexiest cartoon characters? Betty Boop was in second place (one for the great-grandparents there). First? Jessica Rabbit. Of course. What's with the sexy rabbit thing? Bucked if I know.
Image Credit: cottonbro studio at Pexels