Miriam Margolyes: 'When there's any pressure on feeling jolly, I immediately feel ill-tempered'
Actress Miriam Margolyes tells Gemma Dunn that while she won't be 'bamboozled into Christmas' and sucked into the chaos that surrounds the holiday season, she does appreciate the opportunities for fellowship and looking after those less fortunate that it offers
MIRIAM Margolyes is a self-confessed Christmas Scrooge.
Her gripes with the holiday season are, among others, that it is over-commercialised, too expensive and a whole heap of stress. So why, then, is her name attached to a wholly festive-sounding Channel 4 show by the name of Miriam's Dickensian Christmas?
In a brilliant paradox, the 81-year-old veteran of stage and screen has agreed to see if she can warm to the season through her love of Charles Dickens. "He's a living breathing presence in my life," she says.
With her search centred on the festive traditions Dickens introduced in A Christmas Carol, Margolyes will immerse herself in the world of the Victorians, discovering the advent of turkey dinners, Christmas cards, family theatrics and quirky parlour games. All in the pursuit of fun – and learning.
"I love Dickens. I've always loved him. And I'm always trying to find ways to put him on television and get everyone else to learn more about him and enjoy him," Margolyes says.
"He's a force for good, which we badly need at the moment. And I learnt about things I didn't know anything about, like cooking and craftwork, because I'm absolutely not into anything domestic."
Margolyes grew up in Oxford in a Jewish family – "They weren't over Orthodox, they just were Jewish" - and she does recall Christmas celebrations with her family, although the focus was always on the feasting.
"My father disliked Christmas and he wouldn't entertain the idea of having a tree, or any sort of decorations, or sending cards," she says. "Whilst my mother, who was a very generous and social kind of person, thought that one should think about the people who didn't have family. Because it's a festival for families.
"So every year, as a child, we had a succession of lonely misfits for Christmas. And they really were rather nice. They were always old, pensioners, and they were always poor. And they were very often refugees from Nazi Germany.
"And that's how I remember it, it was about food and kindness."
Having not marked Christmas in any way for 30 years, aside from annual panto trips, the first stop on her yuletide immersion is the high end London department store Fortnum and Mason. Margolyes remains unconvinced by the excessive price tags – "There's quite a lot to say about that. But I'll let the programme say it, I'm not going to."
Next, she agrees to host her first Christmas party – an affair which sees her cook up a Victorian feast that includes age-old classic mock turtle soup (made from the head of a calf); craft her own historic decorations; and put on a performance using a handmade theatre and cut-out characters, all for her guests' entertainment.
She can get on board with the latter, it's the materialism and forced 'fun' she cannot stand. "I never enjoy any kind of encounter which has a potential to make people want to feel they have to be jolly," quips the Harry Potter actor.
"So when there's any kind of pressure on feeling jolly, I immediately feel cantankerous and ill-tempered. And I think there is a bit of a pressure at Christmas time. Families who don't like each other are forced to get together and buy presents that they can't afford for people they don't like," Margolyes says.
"And I do think a lot of it is commercial; we all think it starts too early and it's pushed too hard. But the essence of eating a meal with friends and people you like is gorgeous. I love that. The fellowship of Christmas, I enjoy. But the commercialism irritates me, and I'm sure it does most people, really.
"But there's no reason why I should like Christmas. I'm not a Christian. So why should I be involved in Christmas?" she adds, having described herself as "probably an atheist". "Why should I be forced into this hectic entertaining and present buying and so on?"
Instead, Margolyes and her long-term partner Heather will spend the day on their own terms, with even cooking being out of the question. "We might have sandwiches or something," she says.
"What we also do is we phone up friends in different countries and speak to them. But otherwise, we just stay at home and read or go for a walk... it's just any other day. We refuse to be bamboozled into Christmas."
They will watch King Charles's message, though. "I'm very fond of him, I really like him and Camilla, I think they're gorgeous people," Margolyes says.
Has making this programme changed her mind about Christmas in any way?
"I found it very moving when I went to Great Ormond Street, to the hospital, and I realised how much good Dickens did in his lifetime," she says, the great writer having been an early supporter of the hospital.
"When Christmas is combined with looking after those less fortunate, it is hard to refute," she adds. "I was very impressed by what goes on there. So much so I said that I would be an ambassador for it when I come back to England."
As for her own festivities: "I mean, I loved doing it. But no, I think I'm a bit set in my ways now," she concludes. "I mean, I'm 81, I'm allowed to be, I'm stuck in a groove. And I'm not going to change. I won't observe Christmas.
"But I hope that some of the things that we touch on in the programme are going to resonate with people," says Margolyes, who has recently enjoyed success with her travelogue alongside Scottish actor Alan Cumming.
"You know, instead of going down to the pub, go to an old people's home and give someone a present or a sing-song or something – just to cheer people up. If it cheers people up, it's a good thing. So that's what I am in favour of."
She adds: "I think Dickens wanted people to think about Christmas, he wanted to sharpen their moral sense. He wanted to make them better than they were, just as he did with Scrooge.
"And that's what I take away from A Christmas Carol itself, is that we can all be Scrooge, but we can be Scrooge repaired as well."
Miriam's Dickensian Christmas will air on Channel 4 on Tuesday December 20.