She plays Mother Superior in Call The Midwife, so it comes as a bit of a surprise when Miriam Margolyes says that she isn’t fond of children and is anti-religious.
“I don’t like children very much, so having to work with them on Call The Midwife is hard,” she says. “I mean, they are very sweet, little people, but I would rather not be with them. And I hand them back to their parents at the first opportunity. It’s not anything to be proud of. It’s rather shameful that I just don’t get on with kids.”
In conversation with Margolyes, she is wonderfully amusing, as her co-stars can testify, and it’s difficult to tell whether she is being completely serious or not. There is a sizeable element about her that likes to shock people and make them laugh.
But, children aside, she is adamantly against religion.
“I am, by nature, completely anti-religious,” says Margolyes, who played Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films.
“I am a militant atheist. I believe in humanity and morals but I don’t need God telling me what is right and what is wrong.
“But when I came to London from Cambridge in 1963, I moved to Plaistow, in the East End, because my father had been a doctor there before the war. And I rented a room in the home of the local vicar, the Reverend Griffin, and his family.
“They were wonderfully good, Christian people and that has made it easier for me to give total respect to that part of Sister Mildred, which otherwise I might have scoffed at or felt superior to.
“I saw the kind of poverty in London that features in Call The Midwife.
“I missed out on the ‘Swinging Sixties’ though. I hated pop music and thought it was too loud, and I thought The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were awful – although I like them now.
“My father was a good doctor but conventional in his views and would not have approved of women having babies out of wedlock like in Call The Midwife,” says Margolyes, who has dual British and Australian citizenship and divides her time living with her partner, Heather, in London and New South Wales.
“I remember once we were watching a TV programme about a transsexual, and she looked at me and said, ‘You’re nothing like that, are you?’. I replied, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. Of course not.’ I mean, if I had been I would have said so.”
Margolyes actually based her character of Sister Mildred on a nun she met when she was a child.
“There was a Carmelite convent just next door to where I lived in Oxford and there were two lay sisters I used to meet when I was going to school.
“One day one of them said she had mentioned me to her Mother Superior and then she asked if I would like to meet her.
“I was only nine and said I’d better ask my mummy and daddy first. But when they agreed, I went to see her.
“I was invited for tea at the convent at four o’clock. It was a closed-order Catholic convent, not like the Anglican one in our show.
“She was behind bars and so I came into her cell and sat down and we started to talk and she was totally practical and completely normal and a sort of middle-class woman, very professional, like a lawyer or counsellor.
“Then I noticed her shoes were rather strange and I said, ‘You’ve got very weird shoes’ and she replied ‘We make our own shoes you know’.
“I remembered that because I thought it was the weirdest thing ever.
“But she was so real and without any sort of spiritual nonsense. And she was direct and I modelled my Mother Superior on her.
“I have always loved Call The Midwife and had wanted to be in it for years but I thought if I was ever cast I would be a Jewish Poplar housewife. It never occurred to me that I would actually play a nun.”
Call The Midwife, TVNZ 1, Fridays