Gloriously profane, Miriam Margolyes is a force of nature and thoroughly loveable for it.
Crackling with irresistible energy, she generates a magnetic field attracting all in her orbit.
Margolyes wears none of the airs and graces you might expect from a such a storied star of stage and screen, with a glittering career spanning more than half a century and taking in Harry Potter, Romeo + Juliet, Call the Midwife and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.
What you regularly see on Graham Norton’s sofa is exactly what you get.
This forthright nature makes the dual national (since 2013) a grand person to set off on a two-month, 10,000-kilometre journey around the nation, asking what it means to be Australian.
The three-part ABC TV documentary series Miriam Margolyes: Almost Australian is the glorious result.
It was her good friend Blanche d’Alpuget, the writer and widow of former PM Bob Hawke, who hooked her up with Laurie Critchley at production company Southern Pictures.
Margolyes jumped at the concept, only put off by the size of the bus.
“I thought, ‘Jesus, I’m not gonna be able to get up there, never mind drive it’,” a jovial Margolyes recalls over the phone from lockdown in her London home.
“It’s not built for somebody of my size, because I’m very short and very fat. But I got some steps from the hotel in Sydney, and in the lunch hour, I got up and drove it. I conquered my fear.”
Aussie partner Heather Sutherland, an academic who has been with Margolyes since 1968, was unfazed by the star’s plans but did offer a word of caution.
“She said, ‘Be very aware that Australians do not like criticism’. And they don’t, so I knew that I was doing something quite risky by, you know, having an opinion,” Margolyes said.
“Because I think Australians are a bit tired of Brits mouthing off about Australia, and I don’t blame them.”
A beat or two later, Margolyes adds: “I hope people will not be too annoyed about the things I have to say, but in the end, to be honest, f–k ’em if they are. That’s tough. I’m telling it like I see it.”
And she does.
The idea was to discover far more about this great wide land than her idyllic corner in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales allows.
A green and misty spot not entirely unlike England, she and Sutherland bought land and built a home there after she filmed Babe in 1995 (Margolyes voiced border collie Fly opposite Hugo Weaving’s Rex).
The adventure takes her from millionaires’ mansions in Sydney, where she bought her first Australian home in Bondi in the 1980s when it was much more affordable and good deal rougher, to dying rural communities revived by welcoming refugees.
“I just sort of bollocksed in and talked to anyone,” she chuckles.
A visit to Seven Emu Station in the Northern Territory was the most eye-opening for Margolyes.
“Visiting First Nations people, I didn’t realise how tough their world is,” she said.
“But we had one night under the stars, and when you looked up into the sky, you could see the Milky Way.
“The skies in England are small, but the sky in Australia is immense. There was no electric light for thousands of miles to disturb the majesty of the heavens.”
A self-confessed loud Jewish lesbian, she loved being schooled by trans sistergirls from the Tiwi Islands.
“I was just flabbergasted,” she said.
“I’ve never seen anything like that and I loved them. It was very, very exciting meeting them completely out of the blue as I was scooting along by the beach.”
Not unlike her previous doco series Miriam’s Big American Adventure, there’s heaps of heart and a few tears along the way.
Like when she meets a young Afghani man whose family was murdered and is now stuck in limbo in Australia, waiting for a visa while volunteering at a charity shop.
“Meeting Moj was the most heart-rending experience,” Margolyes said.
“He so desperately wants to be Australian.
“It is, for him, the culmination of a real dream of safety. And because of horrific government policies, his life hangs on a thread. And it’s just terrifying.”
Locked down separately from Sutherland, who is in Amsterdam, Margolyes yearns for their reunion but fears international travel will not have resumed in time for their ticket to Australia in November.
Describing herself as something of an outsider in England too, fitting in is overrated, she said.
She just wishes we’d all get along better.
“I don’t think that Australia today finds it easy to let people in,” she said.
“There’s a real animosity towards migrants. Hence those appalling camps they have.
“There’s a hardness and I think that the kindness of Australia has turned a bit sour since I first came here in 1980.”
She hopes sweetness can return.
“Maybe this horrid virus will draw communities together, because we all have to be kinder to each other. We have to be.”
Miriam Margolyes Almost Australian starts on May 19, 8.30pm on ABC + iview