Dame Judi Dench on how 'Who Do You Think You Are?' brought her nearer to her 'beloved' Shakespeare

Dame Judi Dench in Who Do You Think You Are?
Dame Judi Dench explores her ancestry in Who Do You Think You Are? (Image credit: (C) Wall to Wall Media Ltd - Photographer: Stephen Perry)

Who Do You Think You Are? has seen celebrities uncover some extraordinary stories about their ancestry over the years but Dame Judi Dench's discoveries about her roots are extra special. 

Ever since her first stage performance as Ophelia in Hamlet at London’s Old Vic in 1957, she has been devoted to Shakespeare so, as she took part in this week’s Who Do You Think You Are? on BBC1, she was stunned to find a connection to the Bard in her family tree.

Meanwhile, as she looked into the First World War service of her father Reginald, she learnt the moving story of how he won medals for gallantry.

Here, Dame Judi reveals all...

Who Do You Think You Are? is a fascinating show. Why did you want to take part in the series?

“I was asked! And not knowing anything about my mother’s side of the family I was very interested to find out more.

"I know that we have the head of a unicorn as our family crest and I was very interested to find out whether it had a motto below it.” 

Were you worried about what you might find out?

“I am sure that investigating anyone’s past would have parts that could surprise or even shock you. The work that researchers do is so thorough that there are bound to be some surprises to be found. Naturally, I was concerned about the possibility of what I might be told.”

What was it like finding out that your father won his medals for gallantry after serving at Ypres?

“I had known, of course, about his Military Cross and bar but being told the details and actually seeing a photograph of where it had happened was deeply moving for me. When you find out things like this, you just wish they were still about and could add their own reminiscences. My father, like so many men who survived the 14-18 war and the Second World War, rarely spoke about it. He and my mother were incredible parents. Both had great senses of humour and always encouraged my brothers and me in whatever we wanted to do. There has always been a great deal of laughter in our family.”

Dame Judi Dench and her father Reginald in Who Do You Think You Are?

Dame Judi Dench looks into the wartime experiences of her father Reginald in 'Who Do You Think You Are?'. (Image credit: (C) Dame Judi Dench)

Did you suspect you had Danish ancestry on your mother’s side?

“I look in the mirror all the time now and think, ‘Awwww Scandinavia!’ I had no idea about any of that or even that we had any Danish connections but this I have found out is my mother’s family and now of course I want to explore it further. And now I believe there are Swedish connections too, this may well prompt a visit there as well!”

How did you feel when you learnt that your 10-times-great-aunt, Beate Bille, was a lady-in-waiting at the Danish castle which was the inspiration for Hamlet?

“Yes the Castle was Kronborg Castle and was the Castle of Elsinore in Hamlet, a place I have always wanted to visit and now I have! Not only have I visited it but I now have a link to it too.” 

Beate is also likely to have seen Will Kempe, one of Shakespeare’s favourite actors, perform at the castle, did that please you too?

“I hope she liked Shakespeare otherwise she might have given the evening a miss! But knowing that Will Kempe visited the castle and presumably performed there does make me feel that I have got a step nearer to my beloved Shakespeare.”

When can I watch Who Do You Think You Are?

Dame Judi Dench’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? airs in the UK on Tuesday 19 Oct. on BBC1 at 9pm.

Caren Clark

Caren has been a journalist specializing in TV for almost two decades and is a Senior Features Writer for TV Times, TV & Satellite Week and What’s On TV magazines and she also writes for What to Watch.

Over the years, she has spent many a day in a muddy field or an on-set catering bus chatting to numerous stars on location including the likes of Olivia Colman, David Tennant, Suranne Jones, Jamie Dornan, Dame Judi Dench and Sir Derek Jacobi as well as Hollywood actors such as Glenn Close and Kiefer Sutherland.

Caren will happily sit down and watch any kind of telly (well, maybe not sci-fi!), but she particularly loves period dramas like Call the Midwife, Downton Abbey and The Crown and she’s also a big fan of juicy crime thrillers from Line of Duty to Poirot.

In her spare time, Caren enjoys going to the cinema and theatre or curling up with a good book.