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Grandes dames of the theatre connect past and present

Clockwise from top left: Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright. Photos: Mark Johnson Clockwise from top left: Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright. Photos: Mark Johnson
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Firm friends for decades, Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright relive career triumphs and disasters in Roger Michell’s documentary, a vivid insight into a vanished theatre world that also reflects on the industry today, as Nick Smurthwaite discovers

Older actors often complain that their younger counterparts neither know nor care about what has gone before. Once great titans of the stage, such as Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft and Edith Evans, still present in many people’s consciousness, have quickly been consigned to the mists of oblivion by a younger generation.

For anyone over 60, one of the great pleasures of watching Roger Michell’s documentary Nothing Like a Dame, which has just been released on DVD, is that it connects the past to the present. As well as celebrating the friendship and indomitable spirit of four octogenarian dames – Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins – Michell also celebrates their provenance, back catalogue and sometimes painful rites of passage, with the help of archive clips of their former glories.

We learn how director Michel Saint-Denis cruelly snubbed Dench in a 1961 production of The Cherry Orchard, only for her to be comforted by fellow cast member Ashcroft, who advised her “never to let the director see you cry”.

Atkins admits she lacked the courage to play Cleopatra when in her prime, while Smith recalls how she was knocked out, literally, by the great Olivier during a performance of Othello at the Old Vic. “It was the only time I saw stars at the National Theatre,” she rasps, with perfect timing.

Photo: Mark Johnson

The anecdotes come thick and fast, but there is also a pleasing sense of continuity. All four actors started out in the 1950s and 1960s, when the ‘big beasts’ of the pre-war London theatre, such as Godfrey Tearle, Alec Guinness and Ivor Novello, were still active. Dench recalls how she and Smith, then in their early 20s, were pursued offstage by the actor and playwright Miles Malleson when they first worked together in an Old Vic production of The Double Dealer in the late 1950s.

Smith played a supporting role in a still-remembered revival of Hay Fever in 1964 in which Edith Evans was the star. “Dame Edith had her speaking teeth and her eating teeth,” recalls Smith. “She would fetch someone to get her eating teeth. I used to think awful things about Dame Edith, and now I don’t.”

You can’t help wondering if this is because Smith long ago succeeded Evans as the grande dame of the English stage. Smith also manages to be hilariously catty at times, saying in answer to Plowright’s assertion that she finds it hard to know whether she prefers to be called Lady Olivier or Dame Joan: “You’ll just have to grapple with it, Joan.”

What is remarkable about these four is that they all managed to change with the times

When they can stop themselves giggling, the dames have some interesting observations on how acting the classics has changed over the years, and how yesterday’s naturalism looks anything but to a new generation. What is remarkable about these four is that they all managed to move – and change – with the times.

When producer Sally Angel of Field Day Productions first proposed the idea of a documentary, the actors were unsurprisingly nervous about it. “I wanted to make a film from the inside out, the opposite of a celebrity interview,” explains Angel. “It was hugely risky for them because they are not used to being on camera as themselves. The overriding priority was to make them feel safe, open and trusting.”

What brought them all to the table was the fact that Michell was on board as director. “He became the fifth dame. He spoke their language,” Angel adds.

Photo: Mark Johnson

Apparently neither Angel nor Michell were confident it would work as a film until they had finished the two-day shoot. Angel says: “It was a fishing trip. We didn’t know what we’d come back with. In my darkest moments, I was thinking: ‘It’s just four elderly ladies sitting round a table, chatting about stuff. How is that a film?’ But I think it turned out to be deceptively multilayered, and the archive footage helps enormously because it externalises what they’re talking about.”

Is it sad to see four such distinguished talents remembering their past glories? Not a bit. Not when their memories are so fond and funny and devoid of regret or self-pity. Of course there are the inevitable physical problems – hearing loss, sight loss, impaired mobility – but here are four older women whose joie de vivre, defiance and shared experience eclipses all the dreary issues that come with ageing.

Even Dench’s rueful advice to her younger self – “Don’t be so susceptible to falling in love” – left them all wreathed in smiles and arguing over whether the song It’s Never Too Late to Fall in Love came from The Boyfriend or Salad Days.

Could there be an all-male sequel? Angel says she would love to do a male version. Michell is more doubtful, because you wouldn’t ever get a group at that level of distinction who are such fast friends. But if it were to happen, Michell says his dream team would have to include Albert Finney, Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen. Knights on the Tiles perhaps? Watch this space.

Nothing Like a Dame was released on DVD on June 25

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive

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