As any trip to a book-store these days will remind you, ’tis the season of the Ghastly Celeb Autobiography. There are always a few exceptions, though, and amidst the chaff, I found it hard to resist a look at Judi Dench’s memoir And Furthermore, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. The Great Dame may be sharing shelf space with the likes of Cheryl Cole, Gok Wan, Chris Evans and Katie Price at present but she has one significant advantage over most of these guys: a career that’s actually worth writing about. Dench’s life has already been the subject of a 1998 biography by John Miller, who’s also overseen the publication of both the illustrated volume Judi Dench: Scenes From My Life and the embarrassingly titled but enjoyable and revealing exercise in "Dench-olatry" Darling Judi: A Celebration of Judi Dench, which collected the reflections and reminiscences of nineteen of her colleagues. Miller’s finger-prints are on And Furthermore as well, meaning that there’s much in the new book that’s familiar from those earlier volumes, a lot of repeated jokes and observations and anecdotes. (A personal favourite: Dench “drying” on the opening night of Filumena and replacing the Italian place-names she was supposed to be declaiming with the names of varieties of pasta.)
The new book’s value lies in some of Dench’s commentary on her most recent work, from the unloved production of Madame de Sade (2009) and the mis-conceived musical Nine (2009) to the successful Cranford series. (The volume is so up-to-date that it even includes some brief reflections on the Stephen Sondheim Prom at which she sang “Send In The Clowns” just this past July.) Her account of working on Sally Potter’s great, under-seen Rage (2009) is a bit brief, but there are some terrific reflections on the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which she starred as Titania earlier this year.
What’s especially heartening is the love and enthusiasm that Dench still expresses for her profession, and her commitment not only “to continue working right to the end” but to take on as many fresh challenges as possible. “I want to do something that is much more unlikely for me, more daring,” she confesses. “And if I am going to put my energy into a play, then I will do something I haven’t tackled before.”
And Furthermore is written in a brisk and unpretentious style. It won’t satisfy those hoping for sensational revelations: Dench tends to keep the focus on her work throughout, even in the chapter that deals with the death of Michael Williams. Like most of these endeavours, the book often skims the surface and doesn’t ever really get to grips with the depths of the actress’s artistry. Interestingly, though, my favourite passage in the book has Dench challenge the idea that that’s a possible or a desirable aim. Musing on the stresses of film promotion, she offers the following, rather prickly defence of the mystery of her craft:
“[In interviews] you have to sit and answer questions about what you think of the part, why you wanted to play the part, and I think that’s none of the public’s business. … Why should the public know everything? The joy of theatre is not really going and knowing that somebody had a terrible difficulty playing this part, or why they did it; it is to go and be told a story, the author’s story, through the best means possible. In any case, I never know why I’ve done something, it’s for lots of reasons. I want to keep a quiet portion inside that is my own business and not anybody else’s.”
Such scattered subversive observations make And Furthermore a worthwhile reading experience for Dench-olators.
Dench discusses the book at a Platform at the National Theatre on 9th December.