Dame Judi Dench and Michael Williams: A Fine Romance

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Michael Williams and Judi Dench

Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Sonny and Cher — besides having been married in real life, these celebrity couples once worked side-by-side on their own TV shows. Over the years, art has also imitated life in the same way on the UK small screen, one example being Dame Judi Dench and her late husband Michael Williams. The two were married from 1971 until Williams’ death in 2001, and are the parents of actress Finty Williams. Ten years after they wed, the couple were cast in the popular British TV comedy A Fine Romance.

Produced by London Weekend Television and written by Bob Larbey (who also penned the long-running As Time Goes By, in which Dench starred as well), A Fine Romance made its debut November 8, 1981 on British television and ran for 26 episodes/four series. In it, Dench plays Laura Dalton, a shy single, middle-aged woman who works as a translator and is ill at ease in social settings.

She longs for the same type of happy marriage that her younger sister Helen (Susan Penhaligon) and her husband Phil (Richard Warwick) have, but holds out no great hope for that ever happening. Helen and Phil decide to fix Laura up with Mike Selway (Williams), a scruffy but kindhearted landscape gardener who is just as shy and socially awkward. At first, Laura bristles at the idea of sharing time with Mike, but then ends up volunteering her time to help organize his struggling business. The unlikely pair eventually overcome their insecurities and grow comfortable with one another, but not before wading through a host of comical misadventures and misunderstandings.

Specializing in the best of British TV on DVD/Blu-ray, Acorn Media recently released A Fine Romance on DVD. The four-disc set includes all 26 episodes (approximate running time 660 minutes) along with production notes from Bob Larbey.

Several years ago, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Dame Judi Dench in London following a theatre performance, and soon after had the chance to ask her a few questions about her career and working with her husband Michael. You can read that Q & A below. Enjoy!

How did you and Michael first meet?

I was appearing as Juliet at The Old Vic, and Michael had just opened in a play called Celebration. We met after the first night performance at a pub.

Why did you both decide to become actors?

Michael always wanted to be an actor, but worked in insurance first, then went to drama school. I trained as a stage designer, but felt I could never be good enough after seeing the most beautiful production of King Lear at Stratford, so I decided to follow my brother, Jeffrey, who was already at drama school.

Who or what were some of the influences that led you and Michael to acting?

Michael was taken to see The Lunts [the married couple and acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne] when he was a child and never forgot it. I was taken to see my brothers in plays when I was very young — Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra particularly, I remember.

What criteria do you go by when choosing a role?

I have always liked to do the thing least expected of me and as different from my last role as possible. I think Michael is the same.

You and Michael have had extensive experience in the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC); in what ways has this experience contributed to your individual acting styles?

It is said that the RSC has a house style where verse-speaking is very, very important in getting the story across. Members of the company are also involved democratically in the way the company is run, which we both felt was very helpful. Actors were also involved in the way the productions evolved.

The two of you are also founding members of the Theatre of Comedy Company; how did you become involved with this project? What was the inspiration behind it?

Michael and I were invited to join. The idea was to present new and old plays on a commercial basis for short runs so that actors who might not be able to do a long run in the theatre could do them.

Do you prefer playing comedy to drama?

It doesn’t matter. What is important is contrast from the previous role.

What effect did your marriage have on your performances in A Fine Romance?

People expected us to be like Laura and Mike, though we are nothing at all like them! But we do have respect and admiration for each other, and a kind of shorthand which helps us.

When you first saw yourselves on film, did it change your acting style in the theatre?

I never watch! Michael watches because it is known that if you watch, you learn, but I am much too squeamish!

Is there a particular character you would like to portray?

I would like to do some more Chekhov and Brecht, who wrote some marvelous plays for women.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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