On Mother’s Day my daughter, who shares my love of theatre, treated me to a screening of Tea with the Dames, a new documentary directed by Roger Michell that records a conversation between Dames Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench, all in their eighties. Four lusty comediennes who may be losing their eyesight and their hearing, but whose resonant, velvety voices are unchanged, as familiar as those of old friends.
One of the roads I almost took in life would have led me onto the boards of the London stage. My theatrical ambition was conceived at the age of eleven, when my mother began taking me to the Old Vic Theatre, to see Shakespeare’s plays. It was there I witnessed Judi Dench’s debut as Ophelia, and later her Juliet. That husky-voice, pert-nosed girl has accompanied me down the years, popping up regularly on cinema and TV screens. As I have zigzagged between my various passions – writing, languages, the stage, music (‘Jack of all trades, master of none’), Judi has stayed true to her first love: the theatre.
The doco is a casual affair, with this great gang of girls sitting round Joan Plowright’s table, in the house she lived in with her second husband Laurence Oliver, chatting, laughing, swearing and sipping glasses of champagne. Prompted by occasional questions from the interviewer, they seem reluctant to talk about their careers, but soon the joy of reminiscing with their close friends takes over, and the anecdotes start flowing. Maggie Smith, with her ascerbic wit, has Judi Dench in fits of girlish giggles, while the astute Eileen Atkins fills in the gaps in their memories. Virtually blind and, at eighty-eight, the eldest of the four, Joan Plowright, presides over all with a quiet authority.
We were shown clips from the early stage shows, the movies, the ceremonies where they suited up for Prince Charles to hang medals around their necks, a few family photos with their children. The videos unleashed a flood of backstage gossip, mostly about Larry (Laurence Oliver), who scared them all.
There is such tenderness between these four women who have all worked hard and continuously for about sixty-five years. They have shared the same stages, played the same roles, appeared in the same films, known the same actors, and are still friends, growing old together.
The film closes with a voiceover of Judi reading, almost whispering, one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. So light, so romantic, after the cut and thrust of his plays. A call to action, to read his sonnets, take comfort and inspiration.
For a day or so, after coming out of the cinema, I was not ready to engage with the mortal souls around. I was still basking in the company of immortals. I wanted to stay buoyed by those familiar voices, those witty and wise women who have, since the 1950s, been holding up the mirror to our lives.
If I envy them, it is in their persistence, their ability to stay on one path all their lives and create a solid work of art, a legacy. No one can forget them.