Lunch with Miriam Margolyes

Lunch with Miriam Margolyes

Miriam Margolyes is endearingly frank about fame, sexuality, food and bodily functions, writes Gabriella Coslovich.

''I AM so star-struck! I'm a massive Harry Potter fan!'' says a young waitress as English actor Miriam Margolyes slowly and studiously descends the stairs into the Middle Eastern cave that is Maha. Margolyes is a most unlikely ''star'' - she's 70, short of stature and wide of girth, has a halo of plump grey curls and today is dressed in a lovely, peasanty floral dress, black socks and chunky runners that have seen better days.

She doesn't mind at all that in a career spanning such highbrow fare as Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence and her long-running solo theatre show Dickens' Women, she's known foremost, at least among the younger crowd, for her role as Professor Pomona Sprout, the dumpy little witch who teaches herbology at Hogwarts, in the Harry Potter films.

Margolyes extols the virtues of vegetarianism.

Margolyes extols the virtues of vegetarianism.Credit:Rodger Cummins

''I don't care why they know me as long as they know me,'' Margolyes says in her perfectly pitched, attention-grabbing Oxford accent.

What she does mind, though, is that dreadful Middle Eastern music and our allotted table. She orders the music be turned off, finds a table more to her liking, plonks herself down and waits for the rest of us to catch up.

Couscous with lentils, figs and zucchini flowers from Maha.

Couscous with lentils, figs and zucchini flowers from Maha.Credit:Rodger Cummins

Her bossiness can be alarming - when she fixes you with her big eyes she's rather scary. She's also endearingly frank. Within minutes, we're on to one of Margolyes' favourite subjects - bodily functions. Margolyes has recently become vegetarian and the results, she says, are simply quite marvellous. ''My shit doesn't stink,'' she obliges. ''Well, you asked me.''

Actually, what I asked was: ''Did you find any differences in the way you felt?'' Then again, this is the woman who on prime-time television, the ABC's Enough Rope with Andrew Denton, revealed that she specialised in oral sex at Cambridge University, because Jewish girls ''don't get f---ed … you do oral sex''. Expect nothing if not honest answers from this grande dame of theatre, TV and film.

''What's the point of giving any other sort?'' she says. ''I mean, I want you to know the real me … and my shit doesn't stink.''

That sorted, we move on to the menu and opt for the two-course chef's choice - vegetarian, naturally. ''I feel a bit missionary about vegetarian food now; I think everybody should be on it,'' she says.

Heirloom tomato salad from Maha.

Heirloom tomato salad from Maha.Credit:Rodger Cummins

Why's that?

''Because I am appalled at what people are eating. I've been fat all my life and so I am aware of the problems that being fat brings, but I have never eaten muck and I think a lot of people are eating a lot of muck these days … and when you look around Australia, it's an obese nation now. And that's shocking; they were always the most beautiful people.''


Margolyes has strong views about many things: Dickens (loves him beyond all writers); McDonald's (should be banned); religion (so destructive); gay marriage (''If someone wants to get married, for god's sake let them get on with it''); and Julia Gillard.

''I like Julia Gillard, actually, but I think she needs a little attention to her diction and to her hair … the colour's a bit stark. I think she should look at her front bottom and decide to have her hair like she has on her front bottom,'' she says.

Well, now that we have both back and front bottoms comprehensively covered, so to speak, it's time to take the edge off our appetite. The waiter brings us a small canister of olive oil and warm bread to soak it up. Margolyes eyes the canister suspiciously. ''You don't put much in it, though, you might have to put a bit more,'' she says, assailing the oil with her bread. ''I make my own olive oil; I have trees in Italy. I don't do it myself. I get the gardener to do it.''

The London-based Margolyes is rather well endowed with picturesque properties - apart from the Tuscan farmhouse, she has a historic seaside home in Kent and a modernist home in Yarrawa Hill, New South Wales, perched high in the bush and overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Eventually, she would like to live permanently at Yarrawa Hill, which she owns with her partner of 44 years, Heather, an Australian-born academic based in Amsterdam.

''I love Australia. It makes me feel young,'' Margolyes says, although she worries about whether there would be enough work here for her. An Australian resident, she appears in the deliciously cheeky ABC TV crime drama Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries as Phryne Fisher's stuffy Aunt Prudence.

''She's an old bitch,'' Margolyes says affectionately. And yes, working on the show was as much fun as its extravagantly stylish sets, costumes and wild plots suggest.

''It's Australian and there should be more Australian content. It's ridiculous, all this English and American stuff,'' Margolyes says.

Our first course arrives: a large white plate with a minute curlicue of something odd arranged in the middle. Margolyes gapes at it anxiously: ''Now what's that? Is this one of the courses? And we've only got one more? Because that's not going to be enough, I'm letting you know!''

''There's more coming, don't worry,'' the waiter assures. ''So what you have here is shavings of coconut, lime pearls, a bit of kombu seaweed and I'm just going to add the orange blossom and coconut water.''

Margolyes devours the precious curlicue before he has time to administer the finishing splash. Clearly, she is a woman of big appetites - speaking of which, how did she go from being an, um, specialist in the oral pleasuring of men to a fancier of women? ''The thing about being gay is, because it wasn't the norm when I was growing up, you didn't know that it was an option. So the way to behave was with men and it was only later, when I realised there was something else, that I went full steam ahead into dykedom,'' she says, matter-of-factly.

Dishes begin arriving in quick succession and soon we have a veritable feast before us: giant spheres of couscous with lentils, figs, onions and zucchini flowers; a Turkish pilaf; an heirloom tomato salad; and a rich Lebanese fattoush salad. Margolyes is relishing it all so much she begins mopping up juices with her fingers.

''That was really something,'' she says. ''Now who would have thought that would have filled us!''

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, ABC1, Fridays at 8.30pm.

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