A SELL OUT audience at Winchester’s Theatre Royal saw Dame Judi Dench tread the boards, after months of shut down, and she was delighted to be back.

The event was a fundraiser for charity Home-Start Winchester and Judi’s friend and biographer John Miller was in the chair asking the questions.

Her reminiscences ranged from her very early days playing Anya in The Cherry Orchard under the tutelage of Sir John Gielgud to her latest film Belfast, about the early life of Kenneth Branagh. Indeed both men equally adored by Judi for their work ethic and dedication to their craft.

She recalled the farting horse that she had to ride as Queen Victoria with Billy Connolly by her side as John Brown, who cheekily asked “Was that you?” And how evenings after filming Mrs Brown were filled with Billy keeping cast and crew convulsed with stories and gags until the early hours. Judi described having to swim in pantaloons and a floppy hat, complete with wet suit beneath, at the end of October in a freezing Solent and how parts of Osborne House were closely guarded by English Heritage and the cast would have to step over the corners of fragile carpets during filming.

Judi’s daughter played one of the Queen Victoria’s daughters in Mrs Brown and Judi described her pride at seeing Finty star in Pack of Lies at the Menier Chocolate Factory in a role that she had played many years before alongside her husband Michael Williams.

A great mimic, Judi described how Clint Eastwood never conformed to the “Action” and “Cut” school of direction, but rather “In your own time” and “Stop” were his metier and she produced his low rasping growl perfectly.

Judi is known the world over for her role as M in the Bond films - even in the jungles of Borneo - and she had eight outings as the eponymous MI6 boss. Looking forward to spending three weeks in her beloved Scotland she was hugely disappointed when she found herself on the flight home on the day she arrived, and filming was completed on MoD land at Aldershot. She confessed that she never understood what Quantum of Solace was all about, a view it seemed shared by most of her audience.

When asked what advice she would give to a budding actor she recommended “Learning about your heritage and seeing absolutely everything on stage and screen and immersing yourself in the craft. Sadly there are no rep theatres any more where we performed different plays every week and learned the next production at the same time,” she said. “And don’t go on stage when you’re ill, but hand over to your understudy.”

Her recent outing on BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? had been a revelation. She knew nothing of what was to unfold until the last minute and was amazed to find she had such noble and distinguished Danish forebears in the 16thC, with incredible links to Shakespeare.

Judi described how Covid had had such a devastating effect on theatres, the staff and stage hands, some of whom had worked in the same theatre for 40 years, and she hoped that audiences would come back in droves now that things were opening up and to local theatres like the Theatre Royal in particular.

“We are so grateful to Dame Judi for giving of her time to support Home-Start,” said Barry Page, chairman, “and for John Miller’s help in making it happen. The past two years have put a huge strain on young families and on charities like Home-Start which have been unable to raise funds during lockdowns, and at a time when we are needed the most.”