Nothing Like A Dame

Did you know Maggie Smith has never watched any of Downton Abbey? They even gave her a box set but she still hasn’t got round to opening it.

That’s just one of the many, cheeky and joyful revelations to come out of Nothing Like A Dame, a ripe treat of a film that’s just like popping over for tea and a tipple with four of the greatest and most British actresses you could possibly wish for: Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins – the Dames.

To call it a movie is a bit of a stretch, but then it’s too intimate to be a documentary, even though it’s bejewelled with glorious archive clips of the ladies in action during their youth and in some of their famous TV and movie roles later on. Ultimately, it’s the British theatre that courses through their blood and the anecdotes they tell are all treasurable and quite often hilarious. 

“When you’re a Dame,” says Maggie, “nothing much changes – you can still swear.” Adds Dame Judi : “In fact, you can swear more.” 

Orchestrating this remarkable session of “hanging out” with theatrical royalty is director Roger Michell, a bit of a theatre luvvie himself and the man behind films including Notting Hill, Venus and My Cousin Rachel. It turns into one of the most loveable films of the year – and certainly one of the funniest.

You can hear Roger off screen, asking simple questions, gently steering the conversation. “Tell me about Cleopatra,” he says, inspiring a thread of conversation about actress confidence, beauty and fear.

It’s warming and humbling to see these great performers remember how scary some roles can be, how daunting the task ahead sometimes looms. Cleopatra (and they all pronounce it with the longest middle ‘a’ you can imagine: Clay-oh-pahhtra) filled them all with dread. “I didn’t want anyone to see me, so I did it in Canada,” admits Maggie. Recalling her legendary 1987 performance of the role at the National opposite Anthony Hopkins, Judi confesses she told the director Peter Hall when he cast her as Shakespeare’s great beauty: “You don’t really want a menopausal dwarf running around your stage, do you?”

The ladies giggle and snort and stroll down memory lane. It’s often delightfully naughty. “Oh the men don’t like playing Antony because they realise halfway through that Cleopatra’s the star,” says Eileen Atkins. “Alan Bates told me that.” Tongue visibly rolling in cheek, Maggie snips: “Hmm…that’s only because Alan wanted to play Cleopatra.”

Sally Angel was the producer who brought it all together, an idea sparked from a conversation with Plowright’s daughter Tamsin. “We talked over many hours, years maybe, about how to film Joan’s life and legacy and then one day, Joan just said: ‘Why don’t I invite some friends over?’”. 

Angel, whose most recent producing credit was on the remarkable Holocaust documentary Night Will Fall, says her interest is in memory and testimony. “I wanted to see what evolved when we achieved a certain intimacy,” she says. “I wanted to observe almost anthropologically and what came out was a vulnerability, a sense of kindness, friendship and kinship. We didn’t have to underline it, it was just there. Most of all, though, it was frankly the most hilarious couple of days I’ve ever spent.” 

Early on, we learn that Maggie got a lot of her quippy humour from Kenneth Williams, the Carry On star with whom she starred in some early stage plays. You can’t look at her the same way after you hear that, and see her great impression of him.

With Joan Plowright at the table – now blind, sadly, although I must admit I had no idea she was even still alive – the conversation does turn to her late husband Laurence Olivier. The chat, after all, is taking place in the country cottage where Olivier and Dame Joan used to live, not a grand residence but full of gabled charm. It’s actually a bit awkward, because although he was clearly admired – they all stress the importance and impact his films of Hamlet and Henry V had on them, on the nation in fact – the girls seem to have rather disliked the man. “We all had a difficult time with him, Joan,” says Maggie.

Plowright comes across as the sensible one, and you do feel for her. She looks in rude health, but her sight has gone and her hearing needs two aids. Turns out, most of their sight is on the wane (“the scripts have to be enormous type and Maggie implores Jude to get a hearing aid, too. Ageing isn’t something these women have fought and yet it must be a constant theme in their work, affecting the parts they get over such long careers. 

As if to remind us of the passing of time, the film is shot through with archival reminders of the girls as minxy soubrettes, chorus girls, or Shakespearean maidens. “I wasn’t a conventional beauty,” recalls Atkins. “But they said I was sexy.”

And so they all were, because great acting is sexy. I was particularly thrilled to see some of Judi’s Sally Bowles, from the original West End production of Cabaret, singing the saucy Don’t Tell Mama that’s only in the stage version.The real shame is we don’t get to see them  in their pomp, live on the stage (I did see Judi’s Cleopatra, actually, and I can feel the charisma of it still) where many of their finest moments must have been. Instead we get a lot of those BBC Shakespeare productions from the late 60s and early 70s, which now look very stylised, almost hippie-ish.

There are some recollections of having fun in the 60s, although the girls remain quite coy about what they might have gotten up to. One memory is of a famous protest against the Vietnam war, with renowned political activist and actress Vanessa Redgrave. “I sat down with Vanessa in Trafalgar Square,” says Judi. “Yes, me too,” says Maggie. “She got herself arrested then remembered she had a matinee…”

Prompted by Michell, the topics also take in reviews  – don’t read them, you only remember the bad ones – days in rep, failing memory, film sets (clips include Tea with Mussolini, Harry Potter, Bond films, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Gosford Park), childhoods and first performances… and funeral arrangements: apparently, Miriam Margolyes has got hers all arranged already.

The question that stops them all in their tracks is: tell me about working with your husbands. For the first time, there’s some kind of silence. It’s broken by Maggie, of course, who eventually pipes up: “My first thought is: which one?” But it sets them all off on a certain sad tack of memory, for Robert Stephens (“yes, we were a golden couple”), or Michael Williams (“Mikey” Judi calls him) and Julian Glover for Eileen Atkins. Their eyes redden and it’s very touching and poignant. You can hear the rain falling outside, the sound of time passing.

Says producer Sally Angel: “It’s fascination how memories changed throughout the day, how one memory inspires another. So it was about conversation and trust and how you somehow feel the whole story of these lives. These are extraordinary women and they’ve outlived everyone from that theatrical era, particularly the men but they do know each other so very well, each other’s work, children, husbands. I was amazed and touched by the range of emotions all that shared experience brings out.”

Fascinating, too, is the fact that here in the age of Facebook and social media, is an entire film practically composed of conversation. “It shows how we mustn’t lose the art of conversation, I suppose,” reflects Sally. “And the importance of older people, how inspirational they can be in sharing their passions and memories.”

Indeed, the chat could be going on anywhere, at a golf club, in a bar, at the working men’s club – how different it might have been with four blokes, or even a mixed group. No, this is about women, and amazing women, all in their 80s but with the same energy they had in their youth. It’s just the hearing and eyesight that’s gone a bit.

The film’s tone picks up again. A montage of archive, a snippet of Maggie berating the on-set photographer, another girlish giggle from Judi and a sensible, respected rejoinder from Dame Joan about the difference between acting and reality.

They’re wonderful company, all different in their way. The film doesn’t hammer its points home yet somehow we explore the mysteries of acting, the vagaries of memory, the bonds of love and friendship over time, and the depths of the human heart.

Someone gets the champagne out towards the end, and you wish they’d done it sooner, because you can sense tongues loosening. But that would have been a very different sort of film, and maybe we’d have had to cut some out to keep things respectful and dignified, which is probably how they should be.

After all, these are Dames.