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Tea With the Dames

A unique celebration of the lives and careers of four iconic actresses: Dame Eileen Atkins, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Joan Plowright and Dame Maggie

Three of the dames – Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins – are the same age at 83, and all still working. The fourth is Dame Joan Plowright, the doyenne at 88, who is now blind. The venue is therefore her country home at Ashurst near Brighton, the one she and "Larry" bought about 50 years ago when he, Sir Laurence Olivier, was running the Chichester Festival Theatre.

Dame Joan is less voluble than the others, perhaps because she is also harder of hearing, but her presence is majestic, generous and occasionally hilarious. She remembers the French director and acting theorist Michel Saint-Denis telling theatrical manager George Devine that "she can't play queens, you know …"

She had just joined the Royal Court in London, which was devoted to new and radical work: no queens required. Dame Joan's voice, so distinctive and musical, trills through several octaves, like a bird. We see a fascinating selection of photographs of each actor, along with rare clips of some early appearances that remind us of how vibrant English theatre was in the 1950s and '60s.

Dame Judi remembers Saint-Denis being quite cruel to her as a young actress doing Shakespeare with John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft. It gave her a lifelong fear of directors. Dame Eileen remembers turning down the role in Antony and Cleopatra four times "because I thought I wasn't good-looking enough". Dame Maggie, whom Dame Joan simply calls Maggs, chimes in with another veiled swipe, "What are we supposed to say to that?"

Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) has worked with all of them, either in theatre, TV or film, and remains on friendly terms. That's important for trust. He keeps the filming informal, showing the crew at work, rather than pretending it's all seamless and spontaneous. Knowing these dames got together for occasional weekends was one thing; getting them to agree to cameras at one of their reunions was quite another.

In no sense do these women regard the camera as their friend. We see them fussing with the folds of their clothes or make-up before formal filming begins, lest the camera catch something unintended. Dames Maggie and Eileen are aware at all times of where the camera is and what it sees. Even if they're playing themselves, this is work.

Dame Judi appears less wary, perhaps because her sight is also failing, but she's even more vulnerable. When Michell asks them what advice they would give to their younger selves, Dame Eileen talks about wishing she had not been so confrontational, and Dame Maggie says her motto would be, "when in doubt, don't". Dame Judi says she would "try not to be so susceptible to falling in love".

Of husbands, they've had a few, most of them actors, most of them now dead. "Well, mine was the most difficult," says Dame Joan, a judgment with which no one disagrees. Dame Maggie says she was terrified of Olivier, until she found her stride. Then she terrified him.

Dame Judi rails against the treatment of the elderly. She was recently stung by a wasp. The paramedic asked her, "Do we have a carer?" She blew up. "F--- off, I've just done eight weeks at the Garrick!"

Students of acting will not find a lot of advice, but what's there is choice. "Fear is petrol," Dame Judi says. What constitutes "naturalism" changes with each generation of actors, Dame Joan says. Reviews? "Best not to read them," Maggs says.

It is hard to overstate the charm of this restrained and intimate film. While none of them is fully relaxed with a film crew ruining their weekend, they can't help entertaining each other. The humour flows like a river once they start talking. And the camera may have given these exchanges a little more energy. They all have deadly comic timing, after all.

Courtesy: Paul Byrnes, Sydney Morning Herald

Virtual cinema: 

No screenings currently scheduled.

Directed by: 
Roger Michell
Running Time: 
Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith

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