Nothing Like A Dame: 'Mags,' 'Jude' et al dish deliciously about stage history

By Jim Slotek

Rating: A

It’s hard to imagine a lovelier fly-on-the-wall experience than Nothing Like A Dame – a documentary that basically intrudes on a regular, wickedly-funny get-together of four octogenarians who’ve been friends since they were barely more than precocious schoolgirls.

That the women in question are all Royal Dames – Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins – makes this a piece of history. Their recollections of stage experiences in the Old Vic and Royal National Theatre, and of legends like Sir John Gielgud and Plowright’s own late husband Lord Laurence Olivier (and of adventures like getting arrested at protests with their friend Vanessa Redgrave) are priceless. They were clearly all forces of nature in their own right.

Dames Smith, Plowright, Atkins and Dench in Nothing Like A Dame

Dames Smith, Plowright, Atkins and Dench in Nothing Like A Dame

But director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) does more than record ancient gossip over tea and champagne. Over the course of the film, we see the mesh of personalities that bonds them. 

Smith is by far the wickedest wit and Dench is her most appreciative audience (I feel as if she’s been doubling over laughing at her best friend’s snaps for a half-century). Atkins is the most easygoing (and in vintage film-clips, the most physical onstage and deemed the “sexiest”) and Plowright, the oldest at 88, seems the most doted on, partly because of the blindness that has overtaken her, and partly by association with Olivier.

The country house Plowright and Olivier shared is the site of their regular weekends. And the laughter begins almost immediately. Plowright remembers their days at Olivier’s National Theatre and Smith’s “merry war” with her husband, who’d tried to bully her. 

Maggie Smith’s sharp tongue came into play when she played Desdemona opposite Olivier’s Othello in the mid-‘60s. We hear he’d been harshly criticizing her pronunciation of vowels. On seeing him in blackface, she remarked, “How now, brown cow?” We’re also told that at a point where Othello slaps Desdemona across the face, Olivier actually connected. “I did say that was the only time I saw stars at the National Theatre,” she recalls, acidly.

Michell’s terrific collection of archival footage accompanies many of the recollections – encompassing girlhood, stage fright, stage triumphs, marriage (some successful, some not), table reads of Shakespeare, babies and on-set adventures (including Franco Zeffirelli’s 1999 Tea With Mussolini, which co-starred Smith, Dench and Plowright).

And of course, there’s THE footage of their respective investitures – variously being honoured “for services to drama” by Prince Charles or by the Queen herself.

But the atmosphere is less than Royally formal, as “Mags,” “Jude” and pals hold forth on their experiences. (They all still, for example, vividly remember each being savaged by the long-deceased London theatre critic Caryl Brahms).

And when the subject turns to age – quite poignantly, eventually – Smith greets Michell’s introduction of the subject with an only half-joking, “Oh f--- off, Roger!”

There’s nothing like these Dames, at least.

Nothing Like A Dame. Directed by Roger Michell. Starring Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Joan Plowright and Dame Eileen Atkins. Opens Friday, Nov. 30 at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Theatre and across the country over the next week.