Nothing Like a Dame (UK 2018)

The four dames (from left) Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench

This shortish documentary (84 mins) received some cinema screenings in the UK before being broadcast on BBC2 at the start of June. It also has a planned release in Australia (under the title Tea With the Dames) and IFC has it for the US. The idea for the film couldn’t be simpler. The four surviving ‘grand dames’ of British theatre, film and television meet at Joan Plowright’s country house in Sussex – something they have done regularly in the past, but this time it is a ‘choreographed’ meeting with cameras present and proceedings under the control of director Roger Michell who asks questions off-screen.

Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith were all born in 1934. Joan Plowright is a few years older and she is now visually impaired. The film has several jokes about hearing aids which most of the four appear to need. Judi Dench possibly has the highest public profile of the four, regularly appearing on chat shows and telling her anecdotes. Maggie Smith also has a high public profile, here and abroad because of Downton Abbey. Both Judi and Maggie have gained many fans from working on film franchises such as James Bond and Harry Potter respectively. All four women know each other very well, primarily because they met in West End productions as young women and all have a background with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. One of the experiences they share is working with Laurence Olivier – and Joan Plowright married him in 1961 when he was considerably older. They tell stories about Olivier which only strengthen my idea of him as an unpleasant man (and I never really enjoyed his acting either). Much of this discussion is about playing Shakespeare on the stage and therefore something I know little about.

The most enjoyable parts of the film are concerned with finding out about the early lives of the women and how they got into the business. Some photographs of Eileen Atkins as a young teenager dancing in workingmen’s clubs in relatively skimpy outfits might raise a few eyebrows today, but much about her beginnings reminded me of earlier British actors like Ida Lupino and Margaret Lockwood except that Atkins eventually more involved in theatre than cinema. Of all the four, I feel that it is Maggie Smith that made the most impression on me in the 1960s and 1970s, partly through her marriage to Robert Stephens. I think I did see their stage performance together in Coward’s Private Lives in 1972. Judi Dench is a great sport and I’d seen her telling some of the anecdotes that she repeats in this film on earlier chat shows. It was nice to be reminded though of her TV sitcom success in A Fine Romance (1981-4) with her real-life husband Michael Williams. I wish I had learned a bit more about Joan Plowright since apart from The Entertainer (1960) I don’t know her work at all. Eileen Atkins is slightly different because I have seen her in quite a few films, but not necessarily in lead roles.

Since I mainly study films and now never get to West End Theatre any more, my sense of the four great actors is limited, but by bringing the four of them together like this the producers of this film (Sally Angel and Karen Steyn) raise two important issues. One is, why were these four made ‘Dames’? It occurred to me that there are at least three other women of a similar age and breadth of career – Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson and Sheila Hancock. I don’t know whether they would accept being made a dame (Redgrave is reported as turning one down in 1999 and I imagine that the other two would think twice about it). My point is that it does seem to be an establishment thing. I’m not arguing that Dench and co don’t deserve all their awards, only that some performances seem to have more ‘worth’ in terms of cultural kudos than others (Judi Dench has also worked extensively in the charities sector). Vanessa Redgrave is acting royalty but also politically a supporter of causes not welcomed by the establishment. She and Glenda Jackson outscore the others in terms of film rather than stage or TV work I think. Following on from this point, I think it would be interesting to contrast the seven UK actors I’ve listed above with leading actors in Europe, especially in France. It’s difficult to do this, but my impression is that the well-known stage actors in the UK tend to end up in much more mainstream fare on screen. This week I saw mention of Isabelle Huppert reading two stories from the Marquis de Sade on stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. Huppert seems capable and willing to do anything that interests her artistically. Would any of our four great dames do something similar? What would audiences think if they did? (If they have done similar things, forgive me, but I think you understand my drift.) Huppert is twenty years younger, but I’m sure Delphine Seyrig (born 1932, died aged 58) would have been game. In the latest honours list, the establishment skipped a generation to make Emma Thompson a fifth dame. She has a strong film background, but again mainly in middlebrow or prestige productions. The British actors who take on the widest variety of roles, such as Tilda Swinton or the late Billie Whitelaw (known for her work with Beckett) tend to get overlooked – they get the next award down, a CBE. Eventually I found this Wikipedia list of ‘dames’ and there are far more actors (stage, film and TV) than I ever imagined (but how could I have forgotten Dame Thora Hird?). My point still stands though – damehood is granted for the things you do that appeal widely to the public.

Nothing Like a Dame is entertaining and part of the BBC’s arts programming. But it’s time we had some serious programming about film culture back on BBC television.

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