What makes Dame Helen Mirren, Dame Judi Dench and Emma Thompson so irresistible?

Barry Norman hails the First Ladies of Film ahead of Sunday night's Bafta ceremony

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What makes Dame Helen Mirren, Dame Judi Dench and Emma Thompson so irresistible?
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I was about to say that whatever happens when the Baftas are handed out on Sunday night it’ll be a big occasion for three of Britain’s grandes dames and national treasures but on second thoughts I think I’ll revise that. In the first place only two of them (Judi Dench, 79, and Helen Mirren, 68) are actually Dames (DBEs) while the third, Emma Thompson, being a mere stripling of 54, is simply an inevitable Dame-in-waiting. Besides, I reckon all three would cringe at the thought of being described as national treasures. 

What they are is highly independent women who just happen to be, in their individual styles, among the very finest actresses not only in Britain but in the world as their records attest. 

Dench has been nominated for a Bafta 26 times (11 wins) and for an Oscar seven times (one win). Mirren has 11 Bafta nominations (four wins) and four Oscar nods (one win) and Thompson’s track record reads seven Bafta nominations (two wins) and two wins out of five Oscar nominations. 

Bung in numerous Golden Globe, Emmy and other nominations and wins between them they’ve acquired enough prizes to stock a warehouse. Sunday night is certain to add to that because Mirren will take home the coveted Bafta Fellowship and both Dench (Philomena) and Thompson (Saving Mr Banks) are hot contenders for the best actress award. 

I know all three of them, Dench and Thompson rather well, Mirren not so much, and what strikes me about them is how splendidly down to earth they are. 

Dench, for instance, has been described by the director Richard Eyre as “our greatest actress” and, with due respect to the other two, i’m not about to argue with that. 

Early in her career she was advised to concentrate on the stage (where she rapidly achieved huge success with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre) and was far too modest to consider herself a potential movie star. Indeed, she was 62 before she played a leading role in a film - Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown, for which she was Oscar nominated. 

I talked to her just before she went to the ceremony in 1998. No, she didn’t think she would win (though she should have) and frankly didn’t care. (Helen Hunt won.) The only thing that excited her, she said, was that she would meet the likes of Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford and I realised the woman was starstuck by people she could have acted off stage or screen without breaking sweat. 

But then she has never taken herself seriously. When Peter Hall asked her to play Cleopatra in Anthony and Cleopatra at the RSC she at first turned him down, saying scornfully that at 51 she would look like a “menopausal dwarf”. Of course she didn’t and of course she won another theatrical award.  

Even now she says she feels insecure and never happy with a performance and is intent only on doing better next time, which is why whether she is playing M in the Bond movies or a cameo role in something daft like Pirates of the Caribbean: on Stranger Tides she remains eye-catchingly good. 

Yet her first love is still the theatre where, she says a performance is ever changing as opposed to a film, which is “like some dead thing, crystallised for ever”. 

Mirren is very different, rather more regal as befits one who has played the present Queen on film and stage. She is not, you feel, someone you’d want to mess with, but rather someone who goes her own way regardless of what others think. In her early days she was renowned for apparently getting her kit off at every opportunity. Indeed she is said to have appeared naked in at least eight films, most recently in Calendar Girls, when she was 57. 

It didn’t bother her. Nudity, she says, is “liberating”, so not for her the sweet old lady roles that used to be the lot of any actress over 40. Indeed, there has always been a welcome sharpness about her performances, whether as the young “sex bomb” of the RSC, the no-nonsense DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect or Her Majesty in The Queen. 

She was born Ilyena Lydia Vasilievna Mironov, granddaughter of a Russian aristocrat, and perhaps this background accounts for some of her somewhat un-British disregard of convention and other people’s opinions.

Thompson is the most all-round gifted of the three, having uniquely won Oscars both as actress (Howards End) and writer (Sense and Sensibility). Like Dench she has a warm, almost motherly quality. At the Cannes Film Festival one year she approached me anxiously, saying: “Are you alright? You look pale. Come and sit down. Can I get you a cup of tea?”

This, I can tell you, is not the kind of consideration you get from most movie stars. 

Her range of adaptability are considerable - she can be acerbic (as PL Travers in Saving Mr Banks), beautiful (Much Ado About Nothing), grotesque (Nanny McPhee) or touching and vulnerable (Professor Trelawney in the Harry Potter films). 

When she was married to Kenneth Branagh the couple were sneeringly dubbed “luvvies” by the tabloid press but in fact there is nothing remotely luvvie about either of them. In fact Thompson, like Dench and Mirren, appears totally unaffected by her own fame and success. 

What helps make all three such remarkable actresses are intelligence and an innate honesty - because they obviously believe in the characters they are playing, so do we. 

Plus, of course, they have that all-important something called star quality, which Ellen Terry, the actress and aunt of John Gielgud, once described as “that little something extra”. 

Nobody, I think, has ever come up with a better definition but whatever it is, Dench, Mirren and Thompson have it in spades. 

Mirren, as we know, is already a winner on Sunday night; whether Dench or Thompson will join her remains to be seen. But win or lose it won’t make much different to either of them. 

According to the latest figures various film, stage and TV outfits have rewarded the three of the jointly with 218 nominations and 179 wins. That being so, what’s another bauble here or there?

The British Academy Film Awards Sunday, 9:00pm BBC1