GYLES BRANDRETH celebrates the life of six British actresses 

Aren’t I blessed? I happen to know six of the most remarkable women of our time. They are all actresses in their mid-80s and each is a phenomenon in her own way.

Incredibly, Dame Judi Dench — national treasure and the performer who has received more honours and awards than anyone else in the history of entertainment (fact!) — turned 85 last Monday.

I sent her a birthday card. She sent me a beautiful bauble for my Christmas tree. It’s in the shape of an avocado.

That’s Dame Judi’s little joke, dating back to the day we had breakfast together when I was on a low-carb diet and, while she tucked into the croissants, I asked for an avocado.

Actress Sheila Hancock, pictured enveloped in the arm of Sir Ian McKellen at One Night Only at The Ivy in London, rides through arthritis-related health issues with grace, good humour and extraordinary resilience

Ms Hancock’s first break into TV saw her play the part of Carole Taylor in the 1960s sitcom The Rag Trade. She was then replaced by Barbara Windsor

Judi Dench loves jokes. I first saw her on stage, at the Old Vic, in 1960, when she starred in Romeo And Juliet. I went with my parents.

It turned out that Judi’s parents were there, too. When Judi as Juliet came on and said to the Nurse (played by Peggy Mount), ‘Where are my father and my mother, Nurse?’ a reassuring voice called out from the stalls: ‘Here we are, darling, in Row G.’

I got to know some of her favourite stories because I have interviewed her a few times for charity fundraisers. (She raises tens of thousands for good causes every year.)

Back in March — on St Patrick’s Day, actually — we did one for Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Because of the Irish parade taking place at the time, the streets around the theatre were closed.

Dame Judi, then 84, was dropped outside a strip club in Soho. As she stepped out of her car, a mile from the theatre, the heavens opened and hailstones rained down on her. ‘Isn’t this fun?’ she exclaimed. What’s more remarkable is that she meant it. Her approach to life is entirely positive.

She regards ‘retirement’ as a dirty word. She has at least three films in the pipeline, including Cats opening at Christmas.

If she can, she says ‘yes’ to everything. I was with her when a call came from Sir Kenneth Branagh who wanted to arrange a meeting to discuss a possible film role with her. ‘Oh,’ she said happily, ‘it’s Ken is it? We don’t need a meeting. Tell him I’ll do it whatever it is.’

Heart of gold: Vanessa Redgrave (pictured with Franco Nero attending the 65th Evening Standard Theatre Awards in London on November  24) gave the performance of a lifetime, opposite Timothy Spall, in Mrs Lowry & Son. She is to start her new year at Broadway

Her eyesight is failing her. She can no longer drive nor read well enough to learn her lines from the printed page. She has to learn them with a friend who reads them out to her while she repeats them — usually laughing as she does so. She is laughing all the time. And when she isn’t laughing, she is trying to make you laugh.

At the last fundraiser we did (where her presence raised £60,000 for the cause), we sang a song together and in the performance, without warning me, she changed the words to see if she could set me off giggling.

I have interviewed Dame Maggie Smith on stage, too. She will be 85 on December 28 and last month won her fifth Evening Standard Best Actress award for her towering solo performance as Goebbels’s secretary in a new play that opened in London earlier this year.

Prize-winning: Dame Maggie Smith (pictured in Downton Abbey) secured the Evening Standard Best Actress award for the fifth year running for her towering performance as Goebbels’s secretary in a new play that opened in London earlier this year

I first saw her on stage at the National Theatre in the early Sixties when she played Desdemona in Othello opposite the great Sir Laurence Olivier.

In the production, Othello had to strike Desdemona, and at one performance Sir Laurence got carried away and hit her too hard, knocking her out in the process.

She was carried to the wings, where she began to come round and regained consciousness. She said later: ‘It was the only time I did see stars at the National Theatre.’

She has a caustic wit that she shared with her great friend, the late Carry On star Kenneth Williams, and, because of it, some people are a little frightened of her.

She does have a wicked sense of humour, too. On the set of the Downton Abbey film, an assistant director asked her if there was anything he could get her?

National treasure: Dame Judi Dench (pictured with Jennifer Hudson during the filming for the Graham Norton Show on December 12) has received more honours and awards than anyone else in the history of entertainment

Dame Judi gives a powerful performance as Juliet while clutching John Craven’s hands in an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in 1960

‘Yes,’ she replied, in her trademark laconic drawl, ‘a death scene’.

Dame Judi signs every autograph she’s asked to and smiles for every selfie. Not so Dame Maggie, not because she is grand or naturally forbidding (those are just the kind of parts she sometimes plays), but simply, I think, because she is fundamentally shy.

I first saw Sheila Hancock, 86, in The Rag Trade on TV when I was a schoolboy. I got to know her when we were both panellists on Just A Minute on the radio in the Eighties. Over Christmas, you can see her on TV in her latest film, Edie.

The Skyfall star is seen in the upcoming film Cats which is due to be released  on December 20

In it, she plays a woman who, when her husband dies, decides to fulfil a lifelong ambition of scaling Suilven, a challenging 731-metre peak in the Scottish Highlands. To make the film, Sheila, in her 80s, climbed that mountain.

She has arthritis-related health issues: she doesn’t hide them. She rides through them with grace, good humour and extraordinary resilience. At the beginning of this year, to acclaim, she sang and danced her way through a new stage musical at Chichester and then joined me to take part in a TV series, Celebrity Gogglebox, in which, for six weeks, we sat side by side being filmed simply watching TV.





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The programme-makers deliberately took us out of our comfort zone, inviting us to enjoy such treats as My Gay Dog And Other Animals, and Naked Attraction, in which, believe it or not, young people who have never met before show one another their private parts and comment on them.

Watching Love Island together Sheila and I bonded — and laughed like drains.

This month, to universal praise, Glenda Jackson, 83, returned to TV after an absence of 27 years, playing a woman with dementia in a BBC1 drama, Elizabeth Is Missing.

This year she has appeared on Broadway in King Lear — playing the title role. She is extraordinary. An Oscar-winning film star in her 30s, she gave it all up to become a Labour MP. She and I arrived at the Commons on the same day in 1992.

In Parliament she struck me as a slightly lonely figure. At first, other MPs didn’t quite know what to make of her. Some found her seriousness of purpose disconcerting and her intelligence uncomfortable. She is gloriously direct. This week, for example, she has been saying how unfairly she believes Theresa May was treated in Parliament, and by the Press, when she was prime minister. Some of Glenda’s former colleagues did not like that. Glenda does not give a damn.

Dame Eileen Atkins has thrown herself into the roles of theatrical dames while also doing a bit of TV (pictured in Doc Martin) – and has just finished a run in a Broadway play

In a completely different way, my friend Eileen Atkins, 85, doesn’t give a damn either.

She is the least well-known of the theatrical dames, but that doesn’t bother her. She does a bit of TV (she plays the aunt of Martin Clunes in Doc Martin); she does the odd movie (she popped up in Paddington 2, and is just back from filming an art-house epic in Iceland). But her real love is serious theatre and she knows that those who know about these things think she is incomparable.

She has just finished a run in a new play on Broadway and she is now writing a book. She is fiercely intelligent, incredibly funny, and basically can do anything. She is an ace tap-dancer and she created the TV classic Upstairs, Downstairs with her friend Jean Marsh.

A few weeks ago I saw her revive her play about the novelist Virginia Woolf and her lover, Vita Sackville-West, in which she first starred on Broadway with her friend, Vanessa Redgrave.

With Vanessa, you don’t laugh so much, but you have to cheer. Redgrave has a heart as big as the Albert Hall. You may not choose to espouse the many causes she champions, but her passion is irresistible and her energy is formidable.

Eileen Atkins reflects on 50 years of marriage in The Height of the Storm production (pictured) along side Jonathan Pryce. Among her portfolio of works is TV classic Upstairs, Downstairs created with her friend Jean Marsh

She began this year in the West End. She is beginning next year on Broadway. In between, on screen, she gave the performance of a lifetime, opposite Timothy Spall, in Mrs Lowry & Son, link alternatif semangat88 and starred in a new stage play — an unusual piece about her father (the great actor, Sir Michael Redgrave) and European politics in the Thirties.

But wait, Vanessa did not just star in the play. She wrote it. She produced it. She directed it. And she will be 83 in January.

These women are incredible. So what is it that they have in common? They were all born in the Thirties. They lived through, and remember, World War II. They have all had full and often quite complicated lives. Each has known her fair share of sorrow. Four of them are widows who feel that particular loneliness. Vanessa’s daughter, the actress Natasha Richardson, died following a skiing accident ten years ago. None of them complains about any of this.

Glenda Jackson beams as she poses in the 72nd Annual Tony Awards Press Room at 3 West Club on June 10. The Oscar-winning actress has returned to our screens in BBC1 drama, Elizabeth Is Missing after giving it all up to become a Labour MP

All talk about their work because they love what they do. They don’t talk about themselves. They are not introspective. I don’t think they read their reviews. I know Sheila Hancock never watches her own work.

Each is a perfectionist, but quite dismissive of her own extraordinary achievements. (They have a large roomful of Oscars, Baftas and Oliviers between them.) Vanessa, Glenda and Sheila are political animals, but their discourse is nothing like the sour argy-bargy we’ve been subjected to during the General Election.

As people, they are instinctively courteous, but, happily, none of them is too keen on the worst excesses of political correctness. They are all good company, amusing and amused by the world around them.

Ms Jackson poses by a towering Oscar after presenting Best Actor award during the 47th Academy Awards at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles

From failing eyesight to emphysema, several of them face challenges with their health, and often are completely exhausted, but none of them makes a fuss about it. Overall, their work ethic is awe-inspiring.

Their energy is enviable. Their life force something to be reckoned with. They are still ambitious, still hungry for more. They are passionate about their work, determined, resilient, courageous, compassionate and kind. They are interested in the world around them. Each is in her ninth decade, learning her lines, doing her exercises, turning up for the show, still giving her all, still laughing, still living life to the full. What a generation!

They can teach the millennials and the snowflakes a thing or two. If that generation wants role models, look no further!

Dancing By The Light Of The Moon by Gyles Brandreth is published by Penguin Michael Joseph.