Titled Nothing Like A Dame on its initial release for English audiences, the new highly entertaining documentary from director Roger Michell has finally crossed the Atlantic, but with a new and more literal moniker. Stateside cinemas and those who can stream it for the home will see it as Tea with the Dames, for that’s exactly what it is.
Four dames of the English stage, screen, television, and radio regularly gather together to drink tea and to talk. It was Dame Joan Plowright’s idea that on one of those occasions, cameras should be invited to record the conversation. It took time to arrange, but on one somewhat cloudy afternoon that would eventually give way to rain, in 2017 it finally happened.
The location is Plowright’s country home, the one she shared for years with her late husband, Sir Laurence Olivier. Until the drizzle finally begins and everyone, cast and crew, moves inside, seated around the white garden table surrounded by the well-groomed trees and bushes is Plowright and her three close friends, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Eileen Atkins, and Dame Maggie Smith. And once tea is served, the conversation begins.
The energetic gab-fest runs the gamut of subjects, from personal anecdotes of the theatre, incidents with directors on the stage, concerns, fears, memories (some cloudier than others), what it was like to work with their late husbands, what they think of reviews, and how it feels to be awarded Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for services to drama. “It doesn’t make any difference,” says Dench. “You can still swear.”
While it’s true that America will be more familiar with Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, all four ladies deserve to be equally revered. PBS viewers may recall Aitkins as Aunt Ruth in the TV comedy/drama Doc Martin, while moviegoers may recall Plowright as the hilarious grandmother Nadja in the 1990 black comedy from Lawrence Kasdan, I Love You To Death, and as the crusty Mrs. Fisher in the delightful Enchanted April. But while all four ladies have enjoyed success in TV and on the screen, it’s their work in the theatre that dominates memories and conversation, and with good cause.
Punctuated from time to time with archival clips of performances culled from stage, film, and TV, the conversation begins with reminiscences of earlier times. As a minor, after dancing three times a week at working men’s clubs, finally, at the age of ten, Atkins performed in her first play. “I told my mum I didn’t want to dance,” she explains. “I want to do this other thing.” Maggie Smith recalls how she based a lot of her earlier line deliveries from hours of watching famous comic actor Kenneth Williams from the Carry On film series. “I pinched from him all the time,” she admits.
While the conversation flows quickly from subject to subject, as casual conversations among close friends do, occasionally you’ll hear the off-screen voice of director Michell suggesting subjects, such as do the ladies still suffer from stage fright. “On the way to the theatre,” explains Atkins, “I always ask myself, would you like to be run over now?”
For Maggie Smith, fear came in the shape of Laurence Olivier once he became director of London’s National Theatre. “I was more nervous of your husband than the critics,” she tells Plowright. “Everyone was. We were terrified.” When performing as Desdemona to Olivier’s Othello, Olivier slapped Smith across the face with such ferocity, it practically knocked her out. “It’s the only time I saw stars at the National Theatre,” she laughs.
After seeing a priceless clip of a young Judi Dench as Sally Bowles in the original London cast of Cabaret, there follows a whole series of sixties TV clips from all four ladies, backed by The Rolling Stones’ Not Fade Away, culminating once again with a shot of a youthful Dench as a juvenile delinquent spitting in the face of police officer Brian Blessed in TV’s cop drama Z-Cars. This flows into a sequence of news clips showing an anti-Vietnam march in Trafalgar Square, lead by fellow performer and social activist, Vanessa Redgrave. The ladies remember the day. “Vanessa was arrested,” recalls Dench, “Then remembered she had a matinee.”
The subject of Maggie Smith’s success in TV’s Downton Abbey inevitably arises, but when asked a question about the series, Smith admits she doesn’t really know much. “I’ve never seen it,” she confesses, adding that the studio even gave her a box set of the complete series. “I suppose one day I’ll have to watch the wretched thing.”
As a film documentary, no new ground is broken. The whole affair is a straightforward recording, smartly edited, of a day’s long conversation among friends, talking shop. There’s a brief moment of archival footage showing Plowright and Lord Olivier walking the grounds of their country garden together which then cuts to present-day with Plowright covering the same steps but this time arm in arm with her caregiver. In 2014, she announced her retirement from her career due to poor eyesight. Plus her hearing is declining. “One of my hearing aids has just gone,” she suddenly announces. “What are we talking about?”
If there’s a drawback it’s that the conversation doesn’t last longer. Running for a scant 83 minutes, the documentary ends all too quickly. When the off-screen voice of director Michell asks what advice would they give to their younger selves, they conclude, “When in doubt, don’t.” The film ends with a series of clips showing the array of awards, the Golden Globes, the Tonys, the Emmys, the Oscars and the BAFTAs that each of the four dames have won, set against another Rolling Stones recording, Honky Tonk Women.
It’s not hard to believe that on those days when the cameras are absent, the conversation among the four friends may be considerably more personal and private, leading us to realize that because of the presence of a director and a whole crew off-camera, what we’re watching is in itself a form of performance. But nevertheless, while nothing of any controversial nature is covered with no juicy behind-the-scenes gossip taking place, Tea with the Dames remains an enlightening way of spending afternoon tea, listening to four thoroughly engaging ladies talking of what they know. And when, after a lengthy pause, Maggie Smith suddenly looks up and declares, “I have nothing left to say,” you know it’s time to go.
MPAA: NR Length: 83 Minutes