Margolyes’ first documentary series in 2005 saw her retracing the footsteps of her favourite author, Charles Dickens, on his trips to America. “It was very popular and successful and they didn’t ask me to do any more and I was quite cross,” she recalls.
After a couple of brief appearances in documentaries – one about the National Health System (her father was a Scottish doctor), the other about The Marigold Hotel – she returned to a hosting role in Miriam’s Big American Adventure (2018), where she travelled through the US to ascertain “the state of the States”. Then in Miriam’s Deathly Adventure (2019) she probed her fear of death, and more recently, in Miriam’s Big Fat Adventure, she examines obesity. Her practice is never to look at the series after they’re finished as she fears she would become self-conscious in front of the camera.
Now in her late 70s, and by her own admission “rickety”, “arthritic” and requiring a loo close by, she says that she finds the discovery tours physically challenging. “The body is weak,” she explains, “but the spirit is strong.”
The latest production came about following an approach from Southern Pictures. Margolyes has spent a lot of time in Australia over the years and became an Australian citizen in 2013. With her longtime Australian partner, she owns a home in the NSW Southern Highlands, a region that she discovered while working on Babe in 1995 (she voiced Fly the dog).
She had also been approached by a commercial channel, but says, “They wanted me to do a kind of Joanna Lumley thing, swanning about in lovely places, and I didn’t want to do that.” Instead, she wanted “to go outside the world that I inhabit and see the larger Australia”. And she had particular parts of it in mind: “I wanted to see the Aboriginal world because I simply didn’t know anything about it. And I wanted to meet poor people. I don’t meet poor people, it’s just not the world I live in. Show-biz can be a bit of a bubble. And I wanted to go to a mine, because I don’t approve of mines.”
As well as taking in the mainland states and the Northern Territory, her 10,000-km, two-month trip, which she makes in a mobile home – because it enables proximity to the aforementioned loo – examines the notion of the Australian dream, explores the concept of mateship and probes the idea of a lucky country.
Her manner is direct: “Why are you so big?” she asks substantial pub owner Tim Carter in Daly Waters, on the road to Darwin. Her candor can “disarm, but it can also disgust”, she observes. “Some people find it quite offensive.”
Globally, Margolyes is perhaps best known for her role as Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films. “I’m very grateful to Harry Potter because it gave me worldwide attention,” she says. “It’s a hugely successful franchise and it was fun. It did mean an income and I’m still getting fan requests for stuff. But it wasn’t the most interesting role I’ve played by a long way.” She won a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress in The Age of Innocence and has recently appeared as Mother Mildred in Call the Midwife.
Her Down Under CV is extensive. She played Aunt Prudence in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and Huntley-Brown in Rake. On stage there’s The Lady in the Van, I’ll Eat You Last, an edgy one-woman show about Hollywood talent agent Sue Mengers, and Dickens’ Women, in which she showcases an array of female characters from the work of her favourite author.
“I started off feeling very critical about Australia,” she says of the recent TV project. “It’s not the Australia that I knew when I first came in 1980: it’s harder and harsher, just like the world.” And essentially she found the country “a lot more complicated than I’d been aware of”.
However the aftermath of her journey suggests that, if she was choosing a location for a home here today, it probably wouldn’t be in NSW. She declares affection for Melbourne and Victoria, for Western Australia, Tasmania, Adelaide and a South Australian town called Goolwa. But she’s “fallen out of love” with Sydney. “When I first came, I was enchanted by it. I thought it was the most gorgeous, thrilling place in the world. I don’t feel that now.” As for the Gold Coast, with its high-rises casting shadows over the beach, it’s not a contender: “What a clump of shit that is,” she declares.
WHAT Miriam Margolyes Almost Australian
WHEN ABC, Tuesday, 8.30pm