2018-11-08 / Around Town

There’s Nothing Like These Dames

By Loren King


From left, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench in the documentary “Tea with the Dames” which screens Nov. 13 at the Jane Pickens Theater. From left, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench in the documentary “Tea with the Dames” which screens Nov. 13 at the Jane Pickens Theater. In this elegantly simple film, legendary British actresses and longtime friends Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith gather to talk and reminisce, as they have for decades, at the country estate that Plowright bought many years ago with husband Sir Laurence Olivier. The viewer is likely to feel like an accidental tourist who’s wandered into a rarified audience with theater royalty. You never want it to end.

Director Roger Michell occasionally tosses a question or topic from behind the camera, and the result is a far-ranging, loose and lively conversation among the friends and colleagues, who’ve all been bestowed with the title of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

They share anecdotes about their careers, their late husbands and various directors and co-stars from the British stage, punctuated by lots of laughter and very little tea.


Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. Plowright, at 88 the oldest of the group, has largely retired due to blindness but remains an engaging and eloquent presence. Atkins, Smith and Dench, all 84, are still working, the latter two now best known for their film and television roles.

Dench earned rave reviews last year for her role as Queen Victoria in “Victoria and Abdul” and next year will play Deuteronomy in the screen version of “Cats.” Smith displays the vinegary spirit that won her fame and new legions of fans as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham on “Downton Abbey.” Smith confides to Dench that she has never watched the show but may have to now. “They sent me a box set,” she says in a low voice.

Besides the entertaining conversation, the documentary includes a wealth of film clips from an era when, as Plowright recalls, young actors fresh out of drama schools went into United Kingdom repertory companies and performed the classics, from the Greeks and Shakespeare to Chekov and Shaw.

There are priceless clips that encompass much of British stage history. There’s Dench as singer Sally Bowles in the 1968 West End staging of “Cabaret” and as a fiery Cleopatra. Dench recounts that when director Peter Hall asked her to star in “Antony and Cleopatra,” she responded, “Are you sure you want a menopausal dwarf to play this part?”

We see an extraordinary clip of Smith getting struck in the face by Olivier’s commanding Othello in a 1964 performance at the National Theater, and a young, stunning Plowright opposite her more famous husband in “The Entertainer” (1960).

Atkins may be the least known of the group, but she’s just as acclaimed as an actor, as clips from “Saint Joan” at the Old Vic and “The Duchess of Malfi” for the BBC prove. Atkins, who co-created the landmark 1970s series “Upstairs, Downstairs,” shares a story about going to a Vietnam War protest with “Vanessa” in London but leaving before arrests began.

There are also delightful photos of the women with their children in tow as they visited Plowright and Olivier’s house over the years. Michell cuts from footage of Plowright and Olivier strolling the grounds arm-in-arm to the actress taking the same walk today leaning on a cane.

But “Tea with the Dames,” which originally had the better title of “Nothing Like a Dame,” is no sentimental stroll into nostalgia. All four women, despite age and various infirmities which they readily admit to and joke about, live fully in the present. With their un-butchered faces, fierce intelligence and feisty banter, they are the very definition of what it means to age gracefully, though that’s probably easier for grand dames of the British stage than it is for American movie stars.

At less than 90 minutes, “Tea with the Dames” has likely been tailored for British television. It could have been much longer. One wishes for another cup of tea or for the Champagne that appears late in the film to flow freely and to hear more tales from these unique performers. When the visit ends, one is grateful simply to have been in their esteemed company.

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