Tea with the Dames takes a privileged look at thespian titans

by James Robins / 08 June, 2018

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In Tea with the Dames, a summit of leading ladies Judi, Joan, Maggie and Eileen offers hilarity, history and heart. 

Rumour tells of a regular meeting of thespian titans. They are dames all: Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench gather to “gossip, to remember and to laugh”. Sometime last year, perhaps grudgingly, they let in Roger Michell (Notting Hill, My Cousin Rachel) and some cameras to document the bawdy jokes, nostalgic ramblings and pointed anecdotes.

This is the simple pleasure of Tea with the Dames (originally aired on BBC2 as Nothing Like a Dame, which is a much better title). The chat is unthemed; it’s more like a catalogue of sketches. They riff with wit and mirth: starting out in theatre; “naturalistic” acting; playing Cleopatra (pronounced “Cleo-par-trarh”, don’t you know); reading critics; being slapped by Laurence Olivier in Othello (“It was the only time I saw stars at the National,” says Smith); raising children, and so on.

Their conversation is intercut with footage from previous interviews, theatre performances, film roles and behind-the-scenes fluff. Together they meander through more than half a century in which they have amassed a collective 200-plus years of acting life and a whole ballroom of glittering honours and awards.

Michell tries to enter their domain and steer the conversation. He gets roundly rebuffed, like a commoner dismissed by a monarch. “What was it like working with your husband?” he asks of Smith. There’s a dense pause. “Which one?” she replies. “Tell us about getting older,” he suggests to Dench. “F--- off,” she says.

Occasionally, you feel as if the esteemed quartet are hinting at or alluding to slightly more painful or troubling subjects. A note of hesitation about Plowright’s marriage to Olivier is played out in a clip of the pair in The Entertainer (1960): a silver fox proposing to a much younger woman. And there’s an acknowledgement, quickly passed over but tinged with bitterness, that they all had to fight for their talents to be seen on account of not being in “the first rank of beauties”.

It’s no more penetrating than that, but brilliantly funny, nonetheless. It feels a privilege to be in such distinguished company.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

This article was first published in the June 16, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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