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Miriam Margolyes: Blithe Spirit in Melbourne and Sydney

You won't see her face gracing any cosmetic ad, or her body dressed in designer fashion for the celebrity red carpet, but British actress Miriam Margolyes has a list of film appearances which is the envy of more glamorous stars.

This vertically challenged character actor with large expressive eyes and a humorous grin has appeared in The Age of Innocence, Magnolia and Baz Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet. She was the voice of Fly the border collie in Babe and recently played the role of Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter movies.

Miriam Margolyes, an only child of doting parents, was born in Oxford, England in 1941 and developed a taste for theatre while attending Cambridge University.

"When I was at school I thought it was fun to lark about and show off and so I did a lot of that and my mother had always wanted to be an actress and she was a nice Jewish girl and they didn't do that sort of thing in those days, so she used to put me in for what we used to call music festivals and I would do poetry and stuff like that," she says.

"I went to Cambridge and I read English and that really decided me because I got a huge range of roles in Cambridge that I thoroughly enjoyed."

After university, Miriam went on to play many roles on BBC radio. Radio is still her favourite medium. "The fun of radio is that you can be whatever you want to be. I'm not vocally limited, like I'm physically limited, because I'm short and fat and have no neck. I do have big eyes, which is quite useful, but vocally I can do anything anybody asks me to do."
Miriam began to be offered a lot of voiceover work, including television commercials. She was the voice of Cadbury's chocolate, a charwoman for a tea ad and the voice of a glow worm in James and the Giant Peach. She then went on to appear in many British television series such as Black Adder, Life and Loves of a She-Devil and the mini-series Oliver Twist before being noticed by Hollywood.

"In 1989 I won an award in America for Little Dorrit which was an adaptation of a Dickens novel, in which I had a lovely part. And when I won the award for the best support in the LA Critics Circle I thought, 'Ah, this is a moment when I can go and increase my marketability', so I took myself off to America. I was I think about 50 and it was very brave of me to do it, but it paid off because I got lots of roles in America. I had a television series and made a lot of money and made a lot of friends. It opened up the world for me."

Miriam now wants to live in Australia where she has been a regular visitor for 20 years. She says, "I like this place, and I want to come and live here. I've got residency now which means I'm legally able to come her and work. I've got somewhere to live and if God spares me, I'll be here."

Currently she is appearing in the Melbourne Theatre Company's production of Blithe Spirit with Pamela Rabe and William McInnes.

Says Pamela Rabe, "I was cast as Alice B Toklas to her Gertrude Stein in a production that played at Belvoir Street called Gertrude Stein and Her Companion, and it was quite a bonding experience in that play and we toured with it as well and we've been very firm and fast friends since then."

Director Roger Hodgman says, "For some time we've been talking about trying to do a play together, preferably with Pamela. They're such an odd couple in a way, physically and to some extent in their work as well and they were delicious in Gertrude Stein … so I've been desperate to get them in something again. The height difference to start with creates a certain type of comedy."

The Noel Coward play Blithe Spirit is about a writer, Charles, who is married to his second wife Ruth after the death of his first wife Elvira. Miriam plays the role of the eccentric Madam Arkarti, a local psychic, who conjures up the spirit of the reluctant Elvira.
"The character of Madam Arcarti is one of the great comedy inventions of Coward's and of 20th century English drama really," says Roger Hodgman. "It's a wonderful, larger-than-life eccentric character that Miriam's ideally suited for."

Says Pamela Rabe, "What I admire so much in Miriam [is] … she's such a wonderful mix of fearlessness and vulnerability, and she's kind of out there. She can speak her mind, and actually at a point when she's feeling at her most frightened or vulnerable she will go right into the eye of the storm. She will confront things. She's very direct. Whereas I'm a hider you know. So I'm always full of admiration for her."

"I am rather an opinionated person I suppose," says Miriam. "I feel passionately about a lot of current political issues. The problem about being an actress is that I should shut up. People say 'look, do your work and just shut up'. I can't do that".

Blithe Spirit is playing at the Arts Centre Playhouse until December 20. It will then be performed at the Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre from January 30 to March 13, 2004.

Source: © 1997-2003 ninemsn Pty Ltd -

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Miriam Margolyes in Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward

Noel Coward

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