When you think about British actors and actresses, one of the names at the top of the list is Judi Dench. Her roles range from the stage to the screen and even to animation.

So let us get to know this beautiful and versatile British actress.

Judi Dench: How It All Began

Dench: Origins

Judith Olivia Dench was born on December 9th, 1934 in Heworth, North Riding in Yorkshire. Her parents had met in Dublin before moving back to the UK, where Judy attended a Quaker girls’ school in York, England.

Both her parents were interested in the theatre; her mother was the wardrobe mistress of the York theatre; her father was its actors’ GP. Dench originally wanted to become a set designer but ended up following her older brother Jeffery to drama school and taking acting classes. She was a classmate of Vanessa Redgrave at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, where she was awarded several prizes.

Making a splash

Dench’s official acting debut was as Ophelia in the Old Vic Company’s 1957 production of Hamlet, first in the Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool, then in London at the Old Vic.

She remained with the Old Vic company until 1961, when she debuted with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Cherry Orchard (playing Anya).

Her film career began with The Third Secret in 1964 where she played Miss Humphries, a minor role. A year later, she played Sally Young in the original Sherlock Holmes thriller A Study in Terror, where the famous detective is pitted against Jack the Ripper.

Shakespeare On Screen and On Stage with Judi Dench

In her four seasons with the Old Vic, Judi played various roles including Katherine in Henry V.

Further roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company and other playhouses such as the Playhouse Company in Oxford and others include:

  • Isabella in Measure for Measure in Stratford-upon-Avon (1962)
  • Lady Macbeth in Macbeth in West Africa for the Playhouse theatre company of Nottingham (1963)
  • Adriana in The Comedy of Errors in a musical staging by Trevor Nunn in 1976-77
  • Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing
  • Lady Macbeth with the Royal Shakespeare in 1976 where she starred next to Ian McKellen
  • Cleopatra in the National Theatre production of Antony and Cleopatra in 1987, a role for which she garnered much acclaim opposite Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins’ Anthony.
  • She staged a production of Much Ado About Nothing in 1988, starring Emma Thomson
  • The Shakespeare Company’s musical version of the Merry Wives of Windsor in 2006
  • Titania in A Midsummer’s Night Dream in 2010
  • The Winter’s Tale in 2016
Judi Dench as Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love.
Judi Dench's eight minutes as Elizabeth I was so powerful she won an Academy Award. Photo credit: Movie-Fan on Visual hunt

And of course, she played Queen Elizabeth I in the movie Shakespeare in Love, which took place in the period when the Bard was writing Romeo and Juliet. She appeared in all of four scenes with a total of about 8 minutes. Her portrayal of Elizabeth I was the second-shortest performance ever to win an Academy Award.

Judi Dench’s Rise to Prominence in Films and Television

In the 1970s, Judi Dench acted in several BBC series and dramatisations, including On Giant’s Shoulders, for which she was nominated for BAFTA, and Langrishe, Go Down where she starred next to Jeremy Irons. She appeared on the 10,000th serial of the soap opera The Archers, as the face of the otherwise off-screen presence of Tom Forrest’s wife.

Judi Dench in Song and Dance

Though she had no musical background whatsoever and supposedly auditioned for her first musical, Cabaret, offstage with only the pianist visible, her rendition in the 1968 production was well received.

Dench was supposed to premiere Grizabella in the original Cats production but had to pull out because she had torn her Achilles tendon, leaving Elaine Page to debut the role in 1981.

In 1995 she played Desiree Armfeldt in a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (she won a Laurence Olivier Award for it.)

The James Bond Films: Judi Dench as the Head of MI6

When in 1995 Martin Campbell directed the first James Bond film in six years - starring Pierce Brosnan - the producers decided to modernise the franchise and (possibly as a tribute to Dame Stella Rimington who ran MI6 from 1992-1996) cast a woman in the role of M - Judi Dench.

After Goldeneye, Dame Judi has played M in all the subsequent Bond films (though her appearance in Spectre was in a very short flashback).

She is the only actor to have survived the transition between Pierce Brosnan’s final appearance as James Bond and Daniel Craig’s debut in Casino Royale.

Here is a list of the James Bond films Judi Dench has appeared in:

  • Goldeneye
  • Tomorrow Never Dies
  • The World is Not Enough
  • Die Another Day
  • Casino Royale
  • Quantum of Solace
  • Skyfall
  • Spectre (uncredited)
Judi Dench stayed on for Daniel Craig's Bond.
Judi Dench is the only actor to have stayed on after Daniel Craig became the new James Bond. Photo credit: Moonez on VisualHunt.com

Historical and Critically Acclaimed Films with Judi Dench

Judi herself often said that Mrs. Brown, a BBC teleplay that was taken up by Miramax to international acclaim, was her true breakthrough in film. Queen Victoria was her first leading role on-screen, alongside Billy Connolly. Connolly plays Queen Victoria’s manservant John Brown in a beautiful tale of friendship and love.

In 1999 she starred in Tea with Mussolini with Maggie Smith, Cher, Joan Plowright and Lily Tomlin, documenting the life of a young Italian boy brought up by English-speaking women under Mussolini.

2001, the same year her husband of 30 years died of lung cancer, she finished filming Richard Eyre’s drama Iris about the life of Iris Murdoch. British actress Kate Winslet played a younger Iris.

Then in 2002 she reprised her role as Lady Bracknell (which she had previously played several times for various theatre companies) in an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. She played alongside Rupert Everett as Algernon / Ernest, Colin Firth as Jack Worthing / Ernest and Frences O’Connor as Gwendolen Fairfax. Importance of Being Earnest is a clever comedy of manners in which Dench’s dry wit shines.

She played her first alien in 2004 in the second film of the Riddick series, Chronicles of Riddick, because Vin Diesel wanted to work with her.

She once more had the opportunity to work with Maggie Smith on Charles Dance’s Ladies in Lavender, in which she rescues a stranger much younger than she and falls in love.

Perhaps her most beloved and iconic (supporting) role, though, is as Lady Catherine de Bourgh in the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, adapted to the screen with Keira Knightley and Donald Sutherland as Elizabeth and Mr Darcy.

In the following years, she has starred in:

  • An adaptation of Zoë Heller’s novel Notes on a Scandal in 2006, where she plays a schoolteacher who discovers that her friend and colleague is having an affair with a student.
  • Jane Eyre in 2011, where she played Mr Rochester’s housekeeper Alice Fairfax
  • My Week With Marilyn tells of the making of the 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl with Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier. Dench plays Sybil Thorndike.
  • In J. Edgar, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Dench plays J. Edgar Hoover’s mother
Judi Dench as a schoolteacher in Notes on a Scandal.
Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett movie adaptation of Notes on a Scandal was an internation success. Photo credit: THEfunkyman on VisualHunt.com

In 2011, she joined the cast of the comedy The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel next to, once again, Maggie Smith, but also Celia Imrie, Bill Nighy, Ronald Pickup, Dev Patel, Tom Wilkinson and Penelope Wilton, about a group of retired British who moved to the Marigold, a retirement hotel in India. She returned for the sequel, Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in 2015.

2013 brought Philomena to the screens, a British comedy-drama detailing a mother’s search for her son, which she had been forced to give up for adoption years earlier. Her acting as Philomena Lee earned Dench a nomination for Best Actress at the Academy Awards.

In 2015, she also acted beside Dustin Hoffman in the BBCOne adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book Esio Trot.

In 2016, she played Cecily Neville, Duchess of York in the BBCTwo historical series The Hollow Crown, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III.

In 2017 she reprised her role as Queen Victoria to explore the queen’s relationship to another of her servants, Indian Muslim Abdul Karim, in Victoria & Abdul.

In the same year, she played Princess Dragomiroff in Kenneth Branagh’s screenplay of The Murder on the Orient Express, next to Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer and Penelope Cruz.

Voicework in Animation

Like British actor Gary Oldman, Judi Dench has also done voiceover work.

Judi Dench voiced M in several video games associated with the James Bond films.

In 2002, she voiced Angelina’s ballet teacher in the children’s animated series Angelina Ballerina. Her daughter, Finty Williams, spoke the title role.

Disney’s last traditionally-animated film, Home on the Range, features Judi Dench as Mrs. Caloway, the cow who helps her owner run a small farm and is sucked into events by a new arrival.

Judi Dench on stage in Peter and Alice.
Even after she became a movie star, Judi Dench never stopped working on stage. Photo credit: steeljam on VisualHunt

Awards and Honours

Over the course of her acting career, Judi Dench has won:

  • 6 British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA)
  • 4 BAFTA TV awards
  • 7 Olivier Awards
  • 2 Screen Actor’s Guild Awards
  • 2 Golden Globes
  • 1 Tony Award
  • 1 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress

She also received several orders from the British Crown:

  • In 1970 she was made Officer of the Order of the British Empire
  • In 1988 Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire
  • 2005 she was made a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour

Trivia about Judi Dench

Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFayden revealed that Judi Dench used to embroider on set and give the samplers away as gifts - charming little needlework pieces adorned with insults and cuss words.
Dame Judi Dench owns quite a bit of land in Surrey, where she has planted over 30 trees. Initially a joint project with her husband, she continued on after he died. She explores the history and daily life of trees in a 2018 BBC documentary.


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Sonia is an Egyptologist turned writer and translator. She speaks 3 and a half languages, can translate hieroglyphs and enjoys yoga, singing, embroidery and travelling through all of time and space.