TV blog: Nothing Like a Dame

Benjie Goodhart / 30 May 2018

Lifelong friends Dames Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith get together in this feature-length documentary from Notting Hill director Roger Michell. Plus the best of the rest of this week's TV.

Nothing Like a Dame, Saturday 2 June, 9pm, BBC Two

I don’t normally review Saturday night television. This is partly because it’s almost always absolute dross – light entertainment talent shows, game shows, and dating shows. Or, if it’s BBC Two, it goes in the other direction, with an obscure and highbrow arts programme about the cultural significance of Tibetan flute music on the Dadaist artistic movement. It’s also because the blog comes out on a Friday, and previewing something on a Saturday renders it almost immediately obsolete. But every now and again, a programme comes along that simply demands to be previewed, and I am delighted to say that this feature-length documentary is quite simply one of the highlights of the year on television.

They have 337 years, seven husbands and six children between them, and more awards than they know what to do with. The four grand Dames of British acting, Dame Eileen Atkins, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Joan Plowright and Dame Maggie Smith, are all in their 80s, and their friendships stretch back through the decades.

This 80-minute documentary, directed by Roger Michell (director of Notting Hill) has the very simplest premise – the four ladies sit around and chat. But somewhere along the line, alchemy happens.

The chat takes place at Joan Plowright’s rural bolthole in verdant Sussex, where all four have spent many happy weekends over the years. Occasionally the ladies split off into pairs, or speak to the camera alone, but the vast bulk of the film is the four of them sitting around a table, sipping iced water (and eventually champagne – “Why didn’t someone think of this hours ago?” laments Dame Maggie) and simply talking about their lives. Much of their conversation also takes place over the most fantastic old footage. As you can imagine with four of the nation’s most celebrated actresses, each with a career going back 60 years or more, there is no shortage of footage, but the stuff that has been unearthed is quite wonderful.

The four discuss everything, from ambition to fear, via love, critics, growing old and being stung on the bottom by a hornet. And they have an awfully good way with words. When Eileen Atkins admits she kept turning down the role of Cleopatra because she didn’t have the confidence to do it, Maggie Smith is the Dowager Countess of Grantham personified when she responds: “Neither did I. That’s why I did it in Canada.” Meanwhile Dame Joan recalls what Dame Judi said when offered the role. “You said [to the director] ‘Are you sure you want a menopausal dwarf to do it?’”

They spend an awful lot of time giggling, these four. They could be naughty schoolgirls, give or take the odd laughter line here and there. They talk about the experience of acting with their husbands (each married a fellow thesp at least once). Most poignant is Judi, whose husband Michael Williams passed away in 2001, and who is still much adored. Dame Joan, of course, was married to the biggest beast of them all, the great Lord Olivier, and she admits that it was both an absolute joy and an enormous challenge.

Perhaps the funniest moment (against no little competition) comes from Judi Dench, recalling an encounter last year with a young paramedic who had come to assist her (that unfortunate hornet attack). “What’s our name?” he asked, to her huge irritation. And then “Have we got a carer?” “F*** off! I’ve just done eight weeks in A Winter’s Tale at the Garrick!” And lastly, as they sip champagne and ruminate on growing old, they reveal what advice they would give to their younger selves. Since we’re in the business of advice, here’s mine: Don’t miss this. It’s a quiet triumph.

Countryfile Royal Special: Balmoral, Sunday 3 June, 7pm, BBC One

I don’t have happy memories of The Cairngorms. I went there on a school walking trip, aged 13, and it didn’t go terribly well. After a day trudging up some humungous, godforsaken great lump of rock in the middle of nowhere, we were walking back to the youth hostel. I decided to go on ahead of the others, who were dawdling and wasting time doing things like ‘enjoying the scenery’ and ‘chatting’, so that I could watch the start of an England football match on the telly. The only problem was, I got lost.

This wasn’t lost as in I went the wrong way for ten minutes and had to get a lift back up the road. This was lost lost. This was stumbling round in a forest as night fell, screaming for help, convinced I was about to be savaged by the deadly haggis that I’d been assured roamed these hills. Finally, through the pitch black night, I saw a light through the trees, abandoned the path and stumbled through the undergrowth until I came across a house. I knocked on the door, it was answered, and I burst into tears.

Moments later I was being comforted and looked after by a kindly headmaster and his wife, who made me beans on toast and popped me in front of the telly. He then rang the youth hostel, and told them that the wee lassie they were missing had turned up. Wee lassie!! I might have had slightly long hair, and my upper lip wasn’t necessarily of the stiffest variety, but all the same, it was a mortal blow at the end of a rough day.

As a result, I perhaps haven’t warmed to the area as much as I might. But I must say, many more programmes like this, and I’ll be sorely tempted to give it a second chance. Lordy, but it’s beautiful. I mean, I know pretty much the one prerequisite of being a cameraman on Countryfile is being able to shoot nice footage of this sceptered Isle, but this really is spectacular.

This year, Countryfile is celebrating its 30th birthday, while it’s 65 years since the Queen’s coronation. To mark these two events, Countryfile is showing three royal specials, about the Queen’s rural homes. Last week was Windsor (although as we’d seen every single facet of life at Windsor scrupulously pored over on 24-hour network news coverage for weeks beforehand, there was only so much to learn). Next week is Sandringham. But Balmoral, with its soaring, majestic landscape, its endless skies, its wild mountains and ancient forest, and with its special place in the monarch’s heart – yeah, Balmoral is where the action is at.

Scotland has held a place in the Queen’s heart since her childhood summers spent at her mother’s home of Glamis Castle where, according to the local estate manager, “they would have come here and led an ordinary life.” Perhaps in the mountains of Scotland it’s normal for every house to come with a 14,000 acre estate. It would certainly explain why I had to walk so ruddy far that night before I stumbled across a house.

By all accounts, Balmoral is where the Queen is at her happiest. I think I’d probably value a spot of bucolic solitude, too, if every time I opened my curtains, there were 20,000 Americans taking photos of my front door. The programme tells the story of Balmoral, and of the Queen’s other Scottish sojourns, such as those round the coast and its islands aboard Britannia. Every story is illustrated not just with stunning footage, but with the most wonderful old home video film as well, much of which must have come from the royal archive.

The enduring impression is the love the Queen and her family have for the area, for the house, for the land, and for the animals who live there. Which is easy enough for her to feel – I bet she’s never been stranded, alone, in the forest, in pitch darkness, listening to the mournful howl of that dread beast – the hungry haggis.

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The best… and the rest:

Saturday 2 June

The British Soap Awards, 8pm, ITV: Phillips Schofield presents the awards. As I last saw a soap in about 1997, my attention shall be elsewhere.

Live International Rugby Union: Wales v South Africa, 9:20pm, Channel 4: I don’t know what’s weirder, rugby in Washington or rugby on Channel 4.

Sunday 3 June

Britain’s Got Talent: The Final, 7:30pm, ITV: Declan Donnelly presents a cavalcade of dancers, singers, musicians, magicians, novelty acts and dancing dogs, the winner of which will perform at the Royal Variety Performance. At home, the Queen silently weeps.

Frankie Goes to Russia 1/2, 9pm, BBC Two: The love-him-or-hate-him Scottish comedian travels to Russia to examine life in the country ahead of this summer’s World Cup.

Monday 4 June

Suffragettes with Lucy Worsley, 8:30pm, BBC One: Marking 100 years since (a few) women were first allowed the vote in this country, the historian presents a feature-length look at the sacrifices and battles along the way.

The Queen’s Coronation in Colour, 9pm, ITV: Alexander Armstrong presents colour footage of the coronation that took place 65 years ago. You’ve doubtless spent much of the ensuing decades wondering what Trevor McDonald, Len Goodman, Michael Crawford and Alison Steadman made of the day. Well, dear viewer, wonder no more…

Tuesday 5 June

Our Girl 1/8, 9pm, BBC One: Return of the drama about a female soldier serving on the front line, starring Michelle Keegan. More of whom later in the week…

Bride & Prejudice, 9pm, Channel 4: New factual series looking at families who don’t necessarily approve of the marital choice of one of their number. Can the happy couple win them round before the big day? Tin hats may be required before the end.

Wednesday 6 June

Great Rail Restorations with Peter Snow 1/5, 8pm, Channel 4: There is nothing better than watching a former workhorse restored to its glory, doing exactly what it was made for. So it’s great to have Peter Snow back on our screens. (Boom-tish!) In this series, he visits projects across the country where teams of restoration experts are restoring historic railway carriages.

Who Do You Think You Are? 1/8, 9pm, BBC One: Michelle Keegan (told you!) uncovers stories from her past encompassing evacuation from Gibraltar, poverty in Manchester, and a link to the Suffragette movement.

Grenfell: The First 24 Hours, 9pm, ITV: Documentary to mark the first anniversary of the tragedy, hearing from the survivors as they explain what happened, minute-by-minute, on that dreadful night.

Thursday 7 June

Live International Football, 7:30pm, ITV: Coverage of Britain’s last friendly before the World Cup. Might be best to keep your powder dry, considering (a) the number if football matches on over the forthcoming weeks and (b) the number of hungry divorce lawyers out there…

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