Miriam Margolyes is the first person to acknowledge that being an only child can be a mixed blessing. There was always going to be a price to pay, she makes clear, for being so cocooned in love by her GP father Joseph (Joe) and property-developer mother Ruth during her childhood in Oxford that they formed what she calls a "fortress" family.
"I don't for a second regret my closeness to them because they were wonderful, golden parents who gave me so much confidence," says Miriam, who began her career as the only woman in the 1962 Cambridge Footlights alongside the Monty Python stars John Cleese and Graham Chapman, and has since worked with everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio and Barbra Streisand to Martin Scorsese.
"The umbilical cord was never completely cut, metaphorically speaking, so I still feel massively connected to them long after their deaths."
"But I also happen to think that being an only child is inevitably damaging in some way because it too intensely focuses you on your parents and deprives young people of the socialising they must experience in order to fruit properly. I was terribly anxious to make friends; and I'm still needing people rather more than I should be, even at this advanced age," says the actress, now 71.
"I think my friends felt sorry for me and thought it would be good for me to see less of my parents."
Self-centredness, she also admits, can be a hazard for an adored "only", and she describes herself as "appallingly selfish throughout my life".
Miriam, who is about to embark on the British leg of the latest world tour of her critically acclaimed one-woman show, Dickens' Women, believes that she shares with the mercurial Dickens "an element of excess and a kind of wilful greed for what we want".
When I first interviewed her 13 years ago, she told me about a promiscuous period in her early life that had deeply hurt the loyal partner she is still with – and which was only finally cured by three years of therapy.
"I used to sleep around and be silly because I thought I was an ugly, fat little person and couldn't believe that anyone would want me. So I did it to prove I could get someone – and my partner felt terribly hurt," she told me at the time.
Her selfish tendency, she believes, led her to "cause misery" to her parents by coming out as gay. The hothouse intensity of her relationship with her flamboyant mother, in particular, whose wholeheartedness she has inherited, meant that Miriam told her about everything – including her sexuality, which she now regrets.
"I used to get into bed with my mother every morning, almost until she died, and talk about everything. She was my closest confidante always. I had no secrets from her," says Miriam. "She was overpowering, a huge personality who didn't rein in her emotions. She was an exuberant, abundant person and a great, great character."
Miriam was in her 20s when she told her mother about her relationship with a woman. The revelation shocked Ruth, as she and Joseph longed for their only child to have a conventional Jewish marriage, with children. Shortly afterwards, Ruth had a severe stroke that crippled her.
"She was obsessive about me and a worrier by nature, so I can't be sure it [the shock] didn't contribute to her stroke," admits Miriam. And devastating though it was to lose her mother in 1974, after seven years of illness, she now feels, "Her death liberated me from her, in a way, because although she had met my partner by then and got on with her, Mummy would have had no scruples in trying to divide us. In some ways I think it was a good thing that she died when she did because she could have affected my relationship with my partner. Although my parents both liked her, they just didn't approve of a same-sex relationship. Nowadays people say that you must let children be what they are, but when I was growing up, the parents defined the child – and my parents had a definite vision of how they wanted me to be."
Miriam prefers not to publicly name her partner, a retired Australian academic, "It's her wish that she is, as it were, a sleeping partner in any interview I give."
As soon as her mother found out about her sexuality, she told Miriam' father. "He was appalled and disgusted and disappointed and made me swear I would never sleep with a woman again – although I knew perfectly well that was an impossible promise to keep. But I don't think it ever affected the love he had for me," she says, imitating Joe's flutey Scottish voice, always greeting his daughter, "My angel! How are you, my angel?" The only time, she says, that he ever mentioned the subject again was years later when they were watching a television programme about a transgendered person. "He said, 'I hope you're nothing like that', and I said, 'Don't be bloody ridiculous, Daddy, of course I'm not.'"
The widowed Joe died in 1995 aged 96 after being cared for by his daughter at her south London home for the last 10 years of his life, with round-the-clock helpers when he became frail and she was away filming.
Her partner's family has, she says, become her second family and Miriam, who has several homes round the world, seizes every opportunity to meet up with them. "I'm very fond of them and I'm particularly close to my partner's sister. My partner's cousin, a Melbourne estate agent, gave a party for me a few years ago and said how proud he was that I was part of the family.
"I responded by saying that was incredibly generous of him because a fat Jewish lesbian was probably the last thing he wanted for his family. Everyone laughed and clapped, which was sweet of them. And although it probably was the last thing they wanted because they are very, very conservative business people, they like me – so it doesn't matter," she says.
After 43 years of unwedded bliss with her partner, Miriam has almost matched her parents' record of 44 years of happy marriage. Although she believes in gay marriage for those that want it, she doesn't feel the need. "We don't see the need for a civil partnership either, for any public demonstration of a life lived together for all this time," she explains. "I think life is sweeter shared; and if anything were to happen to my partner, I would find it really hard without her because she's the perfect person for my life."
And it turns out that she has emulated her parents' example in another telling way, too. "My parents were two opposites attracting, and that's very similar to my partner and me," she says.
"Those early patterns are very important – they are the paradigm for relationships since they are the earliest ones you observe. I am a clone of my mother, whereas my partner is like my father in that she's a thoughtful person, a scholar, who is extremely quiet, not demonstrative.
"Although theirs was a passionate relationship in which they were often at odds, my parents absolutely adored each other. I never saw my father cry except once, when he looked at Mummy lying in bed after the stroke. He was a dear, dear man and it's from him that I get my love of words."
Meanwhile she believes that her mother was – and still is in spirit – "a huge inspiration for my acting. She took centre-stage in our lives, she was the star. And when I hear pieces of music that my mother liked, I weep. I think it's true that the people you've loved in your life never leave you because seeds of that love always remain flowering somewhere."
• Miriam Margolyes' national tour of Dickens' Women runs till October, then goes to the US and Canada. Dates and venues: miriammargolyes.com
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