Miriam Margolyes, oh what a funny woman you are!

by | Mar 29, 2023 | Uncategorised | 0 comments

Some are born comic, some achieve comedy, while some have comedy thrust upon them. 

And Miriam Margolyes is definitely in the third camp. There’s something about her face and body that makes people laugh. 

This lady has no filters and doesn’t hold back, telling you the absolute truth unvarnished. From being open about her gay relationships and also her sexual escapades with men saying she knows more about cocks than cooking, to her farting experiences with Graham Norton.

Miriam never went to drama school. She read quite a bit about theatrical technique but mainly learnt on the job and through overseeing others. 

She made a living by being inquisitive which really stemmed from a genuine and powerful curiosity about the world in which she inhabits. 

She was able to build relationships of trust throughout her career and was often told private things by other people about themselves which they wouldn’t have told anybody else. 

In her longer days she became a member of the Footlights club which had a powerful professional influence in the world of light entertainment. Some of the great comedians included Stephen Fry, Peter Cook, John Cleese and Eric Idle. 

Miriam couldn’t really sing or dance plus her beauty wasn’t on her top list so the only thing she resorted to was being funny. And back then the men didn’t want women to be funny. Their attitudes towards women stemmed from the public schools they mostly had attended. They weren’t used to dealing with strong, opinionated women. And women were not meant to be funny.  Miriam was neither decorative nor Bedworthy and they found her unbearable. 

After graduating from Cambridge university she didn’t get auditions easily because she hadn’t been to drama school and while she waited she sold encyclopaedias from door to door. After two years of selling she wrote to a gentleman by the name of John Bridges at BBC radio and he arranged for an audition. 

She didn’t really have a script and improvised a conversation between characters with different accents and made it up as she went along. 

After a week she received a letter saying that they liked her audition and that they’ll be able to offer her some work in the future. 

One thing Miriam wants all young and up and coming actors to remember is that when it comes to auditions remember that when you go into one you have the right to be there. Your talent gives you the right to be there and don’t let anyone put you down. Make them see you as a person. Engage. Make the first move: take control. 

At one particular audition she was faced with a panel of producers and was asked if she knew who the lead actor was. She said she didn’t and when she was told it was a particular actor she replied back with ‘oh I see. He’s a bit of a cunt, isn’t he? Of course, she didn’t get the part. 

She eventually got work at her very first radio job and quickly started to engage in more jobs especially in radio drama productions. She did anything that was asked of her including narrations, character work, and even announcements. and because she didn’t play leading roles she played the ‘other parts’ because of her versatility she was useful and had lots of work. And thus began her career in radio. 

Miriam believes that radio performance is the most concentrated: there’s nothing else to do but get the voice right. And you don’t necessarily have to learn the lines. But the creative process remains the same. Acting for radio is no different from acting for the stage or any other medium. it’s an exercise in imaginative travel. Your journey from yourself into this other person that you have crafted. You are using some of the bricks of your own humanity and personality and slowly stepping over into another persona which you are inventing based on the text that you’re given and the backstory that you might imagine for yourself. 

Radio drama taught her that you should always talk to an audience as if it’s one person.

The engineers and the studio managers also taught her the skills of the medium; explaining that she shouldn’t talk straight into the microphone, but speak slightly across it. That way, the voice is still present, but not threatening the mike – meaning she won’t ‘pop’ and distort the sound. 

Of course, most recording aren’t live so the engineers can help you a lot. Make friends with them, they are skilled as you are and their expertise can help you in so many ways. They can clip your take to make it fit the time, and they can make you sound amazing. You are a team, the engineer and your voice.

A smile is helpful for warming the tone of your voice. A lift to the corners of your mouth can give a ‘shine’ to your sound. There is an energy of some kind, a warmth and pleasure, which communicates across the microphone. 

Another thing to remember is that even though you’re using your voice as a medium when you’re acting a part, the whole body comes into play. A voice is a person: if you’re just doing a voice, you’ve left the humanity out – you’re only doing half the job. 

You only have your voice to create a whole world so you have to pick out the words in the script which sell and you have to colour them, lean on them, elongate them, or make them suddenly stand out in a certain way: words like ‘free’ or ‘you’ or ‘love’ – these are words that have bubbles of excitement in them. Use that emphasis and nuance when you’re delivering your text. 

If you’d like to see some of Miriams previous work go on YouTube and watch the Cadbury’s caramel bunny and PG Tips chimp to get a sense of Miriam’s work on voice overs. Even in the film Babe, with that little Pig, she plays the voice of the Scottish border collie Fly. 

You could say that Miriam’s world has always been about speech. Her professional life was often based on understanding and replicating voices: identifying. The subtle nuances of geography, time and class; searching for a character’s background and then mining the rich seam to create them, using speech as her starting point. 

Whenever she gives masterclasses to students she quotes one of her teaches who used to say – remember vowels carry the emotion in a word – consonants carry the sense. 

When it came to theatre – Standing on the stage didn’t frighten her to death, it frightened her to life! 

What makes a good actor? She believes it’s talent to a degree but this can be improved and refined through attention to details, careful observation, a love of people and a desire to communicate. How much of it is training and how much of it is innate? A mixture of both. 

When she gets a play script she wants to see if the character has changed at all during the course of the piece. Is there an arc to the character? If not, does the character move in any way from beginning to end? If there is no movement, Miriam has to try to put it there, because its boring to know everything about a character from the minute they step onto the stage. The actor or actress must surprise the audience in order to engage them and to entertain them. But the surprise must be organic, from within, imposing it won’t work.  

She tries to discover what it is that opens the door to a character – maybe it’s a single sentence in the script, or something that another character in the play says. She sees every rehearsal as an opportunity both to offer and to glean something new from her fellow actors – as long as you are receptive to that dialogue and you open yourself to the moment, the process of finding your way into a character becomes a continual foreplay. 

You have to be sensitive to the moment, and if you’re lucky, the moment comes – but it can go again just as quickly. It is a flash, and you can’t control it and you can’t compel it – you just have to be available. To make yourself available for the moment. That’s what occurs in the best moments when you’re on stage – you’re not you any more: you’re the person you’re playing. 

When she was working in LA she sensed that everybody is afraid of failure. And fatness. She was afraid of neither. They are so in tune to success and celebrity that they’re terrified it might not happen. But you shouldn’t fear failure. It’s not something that we relish – no one wants it – but it may be something we have to endure in order to improve and succeed. 

While in LA she sensed the terrible hierarchy in TV where they treat the star as luxury while the underlings and extras are treated like dirt. Miriam would make a point of talking to every single person, laughing and joking with them, and sitting with them at lunchtime. She talked to everybody so that they felt comfortable and confident because if you’re eaten up with nerves and fear, it prohibits the creative process. She’s been there: and she knew what terror is. 

Having performed in several roles on screen including in Baz Lurman’s Romeo & Juliet, Scorceses the age of innocence and of course the Harry Potter series. Miriam felt she lacked screen technique and it wasn’t until she worked with Jeremy Irons on Being Julia that she began to get an insight into the art of acting for the camera. 

Jeremy Irons offered her some notes which included not doing too much too quickly, to reserve something different for each take. Not turning too fast; moving slowly so that the camera can capture your moments and gestures. And the golden nugget – that close ups are everything. 

Always reserve your best stuff for the close ups, because when the character is looking into the camera, or the camera is close, that’s when your audience can see inside your soul, when they look into your eyes. Learning to rein it in and save it for later – people are always more interesting if they’re hiding something. 

Now in her 80’s Miriam is still going strong, working both in film and television and even though the wrinkles which have appeared are the honourable traces of her life, she sees them as laugh lines rather than frown lines. 

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