Nothing Like A Dame is a daring film featuring Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins just chatting

Old women? Talking? No men around? It’s amazing it got made at all.

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In the golden age of repertory theatre, when pretty much every actor worked in it, the landlady was a semi-mythological creature, sometimes adored, more often abhorred. Everyone had their stories. Take Timothy West, who came home late one night and opened the kitchen door only to find his landlady flat out on the table in the throes of wild sex. Their eyes met. “Oh, Mr West,” she said. “You must think I’m such a flirt.”

In Roger Michell’s daring documentary film, Nothing Like A Dame (9pm, 2 June), this particular anecdote was relayed – not for the first time, you imagine – by Eileen Atkins, her lips set firmly in an expression of suppressed delight. Even as she was speaking, you could tell she was eagerly anticipating the response of her three fellow theatrical dames (Judi, as in Dench; Maggie, as in Smith; and Joan, as in Plowright) – and sure enough, there came back the sound of semi-hysterical laughter. Why do I describe a film in which four 80-something women do nothing but jaw on together for 80 minutes as daring? The clue’s in the question. Old women? Talking? No men around? The world of television, let alone cinema, where this film had a release lasting all of about ten seconds, simply does not believe in such things. It’s amazing it got made at all.

It was, perhaps, on the long side. Then again, its slow unfurling allowed us to imagine we were eavesdropping. Here was fame, but here, too, was intimacy. Subjects that were discussed: Shakespeare, then and now; husbands, the difficulty of working with; critics, the ghastliness of. Also, the vexed question of beauty. “We are not in the first rank of beauties,” Plowright said to Atkins, sounding not unlike (a dead dame) Edith Evans – though whenever images of their younger selves flashed up, you begged to differ. Four such extraordinary faces, so sexy and animated.

Is getting old hard? All of them want to work till the end, even Plowright, who’s now blind. But will people let them? “What’s our name?” enquired a paramedic who arrived to treat Dench after a hornet stung her on the bum. “Do we have a carer?” She wasn’t happy. “Fuck off!” she said. “I’ve just done eight weeks in The Winter’s Tale at the Garrick Theatre.”

The film was shot at the house Plowright and Laurence Olivier bought in Sussex when he was artistic director of the Chichester Festival Theatre. Ah, yes. Dear, dear Larry. He did somewhat haunt proceedings: a difficult man, as even Plowright admitted (something else to which she also cheerfully owned up was that when, as a girl, she’d seen him in Hamlet, she’d thought him rather a ham). In the old days, Smith recalled, the house had a dumb waiter, which Plowright and Olivier’s small son, Richard, liked to use to “deliver” things.

One day, the keys to Larry’s drinks cabinet disappeared – quite a tense moment, one gathered. Seeing Richard looking furtive, Larry slipped into Archie Rice at his most persuasive. “Where are the keys to daddy’s num-nums?” boomed the great theatrical knight. Alas, Smith didn’t tell us whether they were ever found. Seconds later, and they were on to the Sixties – for them a largely unnecessary invention. “Perhaps we swung a bit early,” said Dench, pink-cheeked. They were all so alive: more proof that work, should you be so lucky as to love what you do, will keep you younger, for longer, than any fitness regime.

By the time you read this, praise will already have been heaped on the final episode of A Very English Scandal (9pm, 3 June). Still, let me add my own green carnation to the cellophaned pile. For me, this is the best, most enjoyable drama the BBC has screened in many years, mainly because (one senses) someone, somewhere, clearly thought: oh, sod the box-ticking, let’s just make this series about a now largely forgotten politician and his awful establishment friends. It was not gritty or – ugh – relevant, not in any of the obvious ways. But in the hands of its brilliant writer Russell T Davies, petroleum jelly, Clement Freud and cod in parsley sauce exploded like balloons on the end of a large pin (or prick). Just three episodes long and yet, how I am going to miss it. 

Nothing Like a Dame (BBC Two)
A Very English Scandal (BBC One)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 08 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Nuclear Family