It’s a brilliantly wry title that riffs on Rogers and Hammerstein. In this new conversation-documentary by Notting Hill director Robert Michell, Dames Eileen Atkins, Judy Dench, Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright simply gather for a natter. There is nothing like a dame but this quartet are – pricelessly – nothing like as stately as a dame themselves. They’re a riot.
When four doyennes of British arts – each an octogenarian – gather, it is inevitable that fascinating tales and memoirs will emerge in conversation. Dench, Plowright, Atkins and Smith have known one another for over fifty years and the premise of Nothing Like a Dame is that ‘for the first time’ the friends have allowed cameras into their inner circle. It’s a terribly quaint conceit, originally spawned from an idea to interview Plowright alone, that gains an air of absolute Englishness from its setting: the cottage the actress shared with her late husband Sir Laurence Olivier.
Except, whatever the whimsical adventures each actress has encountered in so-called ‘grey pound’ cinema, their real personas are far more barbarous. Indomitable, even. They’re funny, intelligent, thoughtful and charming but best experienced through the distanced intimacy of Michell’s handheld lens. On being asked to discuss ageing, Dame Judi responds ’F**k off Roger!’ Later she will remember a similarly potty-mouthed response to a patronising paramedic, who asked after her carer following a nasty sting on the bum by a hornet.
Interspersed between the gossip, memories and laughter, archival footage displays four illustrious careers and an opportunity for reflection. Each Dame has an Olivier award in their cabinet yet there is tension bubbling beneath discussion of ‘Larry’ himself. If his widow, Plowright, holds fond memories, Smith recalls how he hit her during performances of Othello: ‘I did say it was the only time I saw stars at the National Theatre’. With discussion too of society’s aesthetic demands, wise words are shared here for the TimesUp era.
For the most part, however, this is a genial affair. The great affection shared between the friends is infectious and their humour as sharp as it is warm. Each has a genuine interest in hearing from the other, a loving passion that brings insight to the table. At any moment, giggles are liable to be replaced by pathos, which will be followed by some offsetting aside to behind the camera. It is telling what the Dames will and will not talk about but they handle refusals with grace.
As such, Michell is quite happy to let his stars lead the way. Filmed across just two days, Nothing Like a Dame is an distinctly laissez faire showpiece. If there were any doubt of the talent on screen, Dench’s concluding Tempest reading is utterly enchanting. More please.