“I’m lesbian, I’m short, I’m fat, I’m Jewish, I’m Dickensian,” rattles off Miriam Margolyes, fully aware no string of identity markers could capture her uniqueness. Oh Miriam! is similarly hard to define – a mix of celebrity memoir, sex advice column and anti-Tory soapbox, it demonstrates the loose-cannon plain talk that has endeared her to millions, while pushing back against her caricature. Often snortingly funny, it’s also surprisingly rueful. “Why is it that now I am showered with the work that eluded me for so many years?” she asks.
The book jumps between subjects almost at random, but early sections are the freshest, covering stories of her Belarusian émigré family and her adolescence spent in 1950s Oxford. She saltily updates the Proust Questionnaire, a Victorian parlour game that prompts discussion about overrated virtues and personal mottoes. Margolyes’s own conversational icebreakers include: “Who should define madness?”, “Should cunnilingus be taught in schools?” and “Has America’s legacy bettered or worsened human happiness?”
These questions sadly unanswered, Oh Miriam! becomes largely a vehicle for showbiz tales. She has a musical ear: a van carrying chattering actresses to the set of prison drama Scrubbers is “a hop-picking charabanc”; a treacherous floater laid in the toilet of Chernobyl actor Jared Harris a “cloacal bundle”. Elsewhere, an anti-Zionist critique might precede a profile of her favourite dogs, the making of a Christmas wreath or an acrimonious fart duel with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
At Cambridge, she felt bullied by “the public school boys who ended up in Monty Python, AKA the light entertainment Bullingdon Club”
Margolyes describes herself as “a national trinket” – not good enough to be a dame. It’s easy to forget that the Bafta-winning character actor voiced the sultry Cadbury Caramel bunny and played Professor Sprout in Harry Potter, as well as appearing in Blackadder and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Her outre personality outshines her CV. Chatshow clips of Hollywood stars, dumbfounded by her confessions of enjoying airport strip-searches, or preferring radishes to sex, go viral. She makes money recording personalised videos for fans on the website Cameo, while a recent Vogue clip revealed she always keeps a raw onion in her bag. (This odd snack choice doesn’t help her flatulence – a habit she trumpets loudly.)
As with many actors’ autobiographies, we miss her physical presence. The shock of hair and dancing eyes, gleefully at war with her matronly tone – this is what makes Margolyes special. Transcribing anecdotes, some familiar from her “spiritual home”, The Graham Norton Show, doesn’t convey quite the same mischief, though you read with her voice in mind. There is also a little repetition from her previous autobiography, 2021’s deliciously unbridled This Much Is True.
Now 82, she has spinal stenosis and describes herself as having soured since that book: “I am beginning to feel like a lonely, stout promontory surrounded by corpses.” Yet she levels most of her pessimism at the past decade of Tory rule, the self-harm of Brexit and political corruption. She memorably swore on Radio 4’s Today programme after following Jeremy Hunt as a guest – an electrifying moment described here as a mortifying accident. Both Boris Johnson and his father, Stanley (“a complete arsehole”), feature on the list of entitled men she condemns. At Cambridge, she felt bullied by “the public school boys who ended up in Monty Python, AKA the light entertainment Bullingdon Club”.
Readers looking for dirty laundry or juicy showbiz gossip may be frustrated. Margolyes hasn’t been drunk since a university sherry party in 1960 and isn’t interested in popular culture. She’s not permitted to write much about her spouse, Heather, though we do learn the couple have kept separate houses and bedrooms throughout their 54-year relationship. As an agony aunt, Margolyes can be starchy. Her advice to today’s anxious teenagers: “Keep clean, keep reading and travel while you can.”
She resists being patronised – these days by admirers, not detractors. People want her to be a swearing machine, she notes of her Cameo requests: “I have to grind the words out, almost through gritted teeth.” She doesn’t see why the Harry Potter films, which introduced her to a new generation, had to be made. (She hasn’t read the books and slept through the premieres.) She has grown less interested in her visible lesbian role, one that inspired queer supporters for decades. “I slightly resist when gay groups want me to be their patron… I just don’t think we need to be separated,” she writes.
There is something heroic in her unruliness. Oddly, you wish she allowed herself to be a touch more serious at times, about herself and the freedom to develop her themes, but it’s unwise to have expectations around Margolyes. Let her take the lead and enjoy the show.
• Oh Miriam! Stories from an Extraordinary Life by Miriam Margolyes is published by John Murray Press (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply