Judi: Behind the scenes is an updated version, a decade on, of Judi Dench’s photographic memoir Scenes From My Life. Behind the Scenes is a beautifully presented hardback book, full of mostly colour photographs from the private and professional life of one of Britain’s best-loved actors.
From her Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning roles, such as in Iris, Notes on a Scandal, Mrs Brown and Shakespeare in Love, to her marriage to actor Michael Williams, Behind The Scenes runs the length and breadth of Dench’s life since she arrived in the public eye in the late 1950s. There are pictures from her iconic role of M, playing opposite two James Bonds – and she restates that she was sad to be killed off in Skyfall. We see her alongside regular co-star Geoffrey Palmer in the long-running sitcom As Time Goes By. Theatre aficionados will relish seeing photographs from her time with the acclaimed Old Vic Company, where she performed alongside the likes of John Neville and Alec McCowen before her breakthrough role as the tragic heroine of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. There is a sense throughout the book, which includes her time with the Royal Shakespeare Company and productions at the National Theatre, that it’s the British stage where Dench’s heart really lies.
What Behind the Scenes isn’t is an insight into Judi Dench as a person. There is an autobiography and several biographies on the market that fulfil that function, and so that’s not a criticism of a book intended to be a photograph album with a running commentary. However, the text of Behind the Scenes is light and thin, with little detail on some incredible theatrical images. Stories and events are alluded to, but facts are sketchy, and in some instances, the anecdotes are unclear. There seems to be so much more to say about each photograph, and smaller text to allow more words might have been a better compromise. As it is, Behind the Scenes shows too much frustrating restraint.
Whilst the book proceeds along broadly chronological lines, it isn’t strictly chronological, and the jumping between the decades is a little disorientating. It certainly isn’t a kiss and tell: most of the pictures depict Dench with prominent artists and politicians, who are mostly ‘lovely’. A mention of Bill Clinton’s tardiness is as close as we get to finding any negative criticism of somebody. The most touching pictures are undoubtedly those of Dench with her husband, the late Michael Williams, their daughter Finty and grandson Sammy: the snaps from the family album.
If you admire Judi Dench and wish for a collection of photographs, some of which are personal, and others no doubt theatre and film rarities, you will enjoy this book. The memories are affectionate and often fun, even if they are low on detail. We were left wanting more, not just from the book as a whole, but from every story contained within its pages. Behind the Scenes is very well-presented, but the lasting impression is that its style rewards more than its substance.