‘When I came on for the Birth of Christ, it poured down’

She was a long way from Oscars and Damehoods in 1951, but Judi Dench's role in the York Mystery Plays set her on the path to superstardom. From being a forgetful angel aged 17 to the Virgin Mary six years later, Dame Judi will never forget those special, not to say rainy, performances in Museum Gardens.
York's own Dame Judi™ looks angelic in the Mystery Plays

She’s enjoyed a glittering career, won Oscars and Baftas, had a walk named after her and was even named York’s Person of the Millennium by readers of the York Press.

But Dame Judi Dench’s career began with the York Mystery Plays.

Dame Judi took a role in the plays three times, first in 1951 as the forgetful angel, then in 1954 as “the young man in white clothing” and most triumphantly three years later as the Virgin Mary.

As this extract from her autobiography And Furthermore reveals, it even rained back then…


When I was seventeen at the Mount School, Canon Purvis did a new translation of the York Cycle of Mystery Plays, for its first revival since the fifteenth century, produced by Martin Browne, who specialised in religious dramas.

He came to Mount and asked for people to play angels, so we were all taken from school and auditioned; eight of us were chosen, and I got the part of a forgetful angel. I was meant to forget everything, and I did of course forget everything; people used to get so irritated with me. We had all-white robes with a gold collar and gold wigs.

Three years later, in 1954, I played the young man in white clothing sitting at the door of the tomb, or rather in my case not sitting, as Henzie Raeburn (Martin Browne’s wife, who was playing Mary Magdalene) insisted that I could perfectly well crouch there while the three Marys did their scene.

It actually looked quite angelic, as when I got up there was no chair to be seen. Mummy made the costumes again, Daddy played Annas the High Priest, Caiaphas was the drama teacher John Kay who taught at Bootham’s, the Mount’s brother school, Joseph O’Conor played Christ, John van Eyssen the Devil, David Giles the Archangel Gabriel, and Tenniel Evans was the Archangel Michael.

Mary Ure, who was in the sixth form at the Mount then, played the Virgin Mary. Three years after that, just as I was leaving drama school, Martin Browne asked me to go back and play Eve, but when I got there he said he had changed his mind and wanted me to play the Virgin Mary.

Funnily enough, I followed Mary Ure in another part after a three-year gap at Stratford. She was Titania in Peter Hall’s production of The Dream in 1959, and I played her when he revived it in 1962 with a mostly new cast.

All three productions were done in the open air at St Mary’s Abbey, and I was always rained on. It was fine for the Creation of the World, and everything was terrific for the Fall of Lucifer, but when I came on for the Birth of Christ, it just poured down.

I used to bend over when he was born, and then come up and part the straw to show the baby, and as I came up I saw people pulling their macs on and putting up umbrellas, and it seemed to happen every time, but it was still a wonderful experience.