Douglas has been a professional food writer since 1986. He is also an award-winning actor and director in Community Theatre and has been for many years. His blog may be found at: www.urbaneguerilla.wordpress.com
Published September 9th 2018
Four old friends gossip, remember and laugh
Tea With the Dames is a documentary like no other. The recipe is very simple - take four old friends with a collective experience of over a quarter of a millennium, add a lovely setting, champagne and film the chat.
I have to say at the outset that the four dames in question - Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Eileen Atkins and Dame Joan Plowright are all in their eighties (Dame Joan is 88, the other three 83) and are the cream of acting royalty in Britain. On film and stage, they have acted in every great role, worked with every great actor since 1948 and collectively won every possible acting award.
The four Dames (Photograph courtesy of Transmission Films)
It helps to know their personal histories and careers to get the very most out of this movie. When Maggie says to Joan 'He could be tricky, your husband', you might miss the inference unless you know her husband was the late Lord Laurence Olivier, founder of Britains National Theatre and arguably the greatest actor ever produced by Britain.
As an avid reader of actors' biographies and a student of acting, I know the ladies careers well both from watching and reading.
So names dropped casually into the conversation 'Johnny said "If you had done that for me I'd be very happy"' mean little unless you know the Johnny is Sir John Gilgud, for example - footnotes would be useful.
The ladies, then and now (Photographs courtesy WikiMedia)
Of the four, Eileen is probably the least known until her recent long-term appearance as Martin's aunt in Doc Martin and Joan retired in 2014 due to deteriorating sight, but the others are still very active.
The movie is roughly directed by Roger Michell who tosses in the occasional off-camera prompt. 'tell us about your husband', to which Maggie responded 'I'm trying to think which one you mean.' Or Judi's response to Roger's 'Tell us about growing old' - a succinct 'F@@k off, Roger'.
The four have, over their 342 years of life, accumulated a vast fund of stories, anecdotes and gossip which they remind each other about and we happily eavesdrop. This is interspersed with film clips extracts for TV interviews and film of stage performances from the last seventy years, including incredible archive footage of a York Mystery Play in 1951 with Judi Dench in the chorus.
The four meet regularly at Dame Joan's home, The Malt House in Ashurst, Sussex which Lord Olivier and Joan bought in 1973 and in which he died in 1989.
The film begins with the four taking tea in The Malt House's lush and lovely garden, rapidly moves inside when it starts to rain and the ladies move to champagne.
As ,a movie it has a niche viewership. If you only know Maggie Smith from the Harry Potter movies and Judi Dench from the Bond movies, this perhaps is not for you.
As we were leaving, wreathed in smiles, I overheard someone say 'Well, not much happened, did it?' And if you're expecting car chases, it didn't.
But if you want to get a glimpse into the history of British acting through the slightly ascerbic, mildly sardonic, often very funny ramble through nostalgia seen through of the minds of four of the most talented actors we are ever likely to see, then this is for you.