This week I’ll be trekking all over the place, promoting the book. Today I was on BBC Breakfast, and then I did a Radio Manchester interview. There are lots of other appointments this week, but I’ll write about them as and when. In the mean time I thought I’d share one of my favourite extracts from It’s All Going Wonderfully Well:
“Dame Judi Dench very kindly invites me to visit her home out in the countryside. Ray Ward drives me there on a crisp, bright winter’s day. Sunlight bounces off the wet rural roads. Ray doesn’t like to use satnav so we spend twenty minutes reversing down driveways and lanes and turning around and around until eventually we arrive at Dame Judi’s beautiful old house. She comes to the door with arms open and a genial smile on her face. ‘Darling!’ she says. ‘Thank you so much for coming to see me!’ I protest that it is she who is doing me the favour, but she’s having none of it.
Coffee is brewed and dainty Florentine biscuits are arranged on a china plate. A little white dog snuffles around our feet in hopes of a treat. I help myself to a couple of Florentines and Judi offers me another.
‘I’ve already had two,’ I say.
‘Oh, I think you could manage another,’ she replies with mischief.
I’ve met Judi only once before, during the filming of Mrs Henderson Presents. She barely knew me, but now she welcomes me into her home like an old friend.
We settle in her small study crammed with mementoes of a long and illustrious career. She asks with quiet and calm concern about Dad’s illness. I tell her how it took a grip of his faculties, one by one, until eventually he passed away. Her smile fades as she sits stock-still, paying close attention to my every word. Her piercing blue eyes glisten with tears, and at one point I think she might cry. It is in this moment, seeing Judi’s face alive with compassion and humanity, I realise why she is one of the finest actors in the world. An array of emotions travel through her, without her making a single movement.
After a moment’s silence she quietly states,
‘He’s the last person – and obviously this is a stupid thing to say – but he’s the last person you could possibly expect something like that could happen to.’
I scrabble to change the subject. If Judi sheds even one tear I will be a snivelling heap within seconds. I ask about the first time she came into contact with Dad. When she was cast in Mrs Brown, Billy Connolly told her, ‘We’ve already cast Bob Hoskins as Queen Victoria,’ and showed her a photograph (from the Ken Campbell Roadshow) of Dad as Queen Victoria. ‘And I believed it for a bit,’ says Judi. ‘I thought, Oh, I’m miffed. So I went into Mrs Brown feeling a bit secondhand.’ Then they worked together with Stephen Frears on Mrs Henderson, an experience she describes as ‘glorious’. There’s a devilish twinkle in Dame Judi’s eyes that speaks of delicious mischief. Dad had that exact same twinkle. He too could never resist a rude joke or naughty, politically incorrect banter. Dad and Judi were both consummate professionals, but that didn’t get in the way of having a raucous good time.
Judi recalls a scene that was particularly fun to film, in which she and Dad dance on the roof of the Windmill during a bombing raid.
‘I’ve got such a wonderful memory of dancing with Bob on that roof,’ she tells me, ‘doing a little kind of – oh, God! – doing that dance all over the roof, and laughing.’
Because she has very small feet, Dad said to her, ‘You haven’t got feet – you’ve got hooves!’ It has become a bit of a legend in her family. They spent a long time on that roof dancing, and Judi remembers they danced very well together. ‘And there’s a wonderful thing about Bob’s height,’ she says.
‘You know, it’s very rare in the movies that you can kiss somebody on the level. There have only been two actors in my life that I have been able to do that with: one is Dustin Hoffman and the other is Bob. I’m always raised up on a little bit of something. I could have kissed him all day.
‘So we just had a blissful time,’ she adds. ‘It was blissful. The feeling on set was very, very infectious and everybody had a really nice time. It was very, very joyous. I suppose it was filming and I suppose it was work, but it didn’t seem like it. And it’s not often you can say that.’
Judi and Dad shared an instant chemistry. ‘I’m always saying this,’ she explains. ‘It’s not absolutely necessary that you have chemistry with another actor, because you can make chemistry. But on the occasions you find you actually do have chemistry, believe me, the audience picks up on it. Oh God, how we laughed and laughed.’ They connected straight away.
‘You have actors in your mind and you grade them in a way,’ she tells me. ‘I mean, Bob was so extraordinary in everything he played. You wouldn’t have expected there’d be so many roles he could have done but he just was able to do it. It’s a sign of a really fine actor.’
Then she says, ‘And people are so affectionate about him – you must have met that. You must have met incredible respect and everyone so very fond of him.’
This pattern emerges in every interview about Dad. People say more or less the same thing, only from their own perspective. His generosity, both financial and otherwise, is a running theme. Judi insists that a generous actor makes for a better scene. There are actors who don’t share the scene, she tells me: they take it, but they don’t share it. So that if you’re playing opposite them, you have to get in while and when you can.
‘Not Bob,’ she says. ‘Not Bob in the slightest. There were never any histrionics.He did the work with no fuss.’
She thinks he must have found some of those scenes harder than others, but he didn’t give her any indication of it. He always made room for the other actors to act and that always made the scene better. It was his personality:
‘That’s just the way he’s put together,’ Judi adds. ‘And that’s also what makes it so joyous because it’s something that you share. It makes you want to run to work every day. So that’s what I call a really good actor. Oh, we had a most marvellous time doing it.’
Our meeting draws to a natural end, and I gaze out of the window at Judi’s lovely garden. I compliment her on its beauty and she points out the trees that she’s planted in memory of departed friends.
‘I’m going to put one in for Bob. I thought an oak might be good.’
‘We’re having oak leaves carved on his gravestone,’ I say, and tell her about the design I drew for Dad’s last memorial.
Oak leaves are fitting for him: they symbolise eternal strength with the wisdom that comes from being rooted deep in the earth. I tell her that Dad always carried an acorn in his pocket whenever he was working. Judi looks out over the garden with quiet resolve, then says, ‘I’ll make sure I get it planted. And next time you come down you can see it – the flourishing oak.’ ”
Feature image by Michael Coggin-Carr.