“It’s quite nice being told to eff off by Judi Dench”: the director of Nothing Like a Dame on uniting four legendary actors

Dames Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench appear on screen together for the very first time

(BBC)

I’d like to go on for ever,” says Judi Dench, confiding in her friends Maggie, Joan and Eileen, who, as well as being among the finest actors of their generation, also all happen to be dames. “Well, so would I,” replies Maggie Smith, giving Dench one of those looks. “But you always get asked to do things first.” For a second, Dench can only gulp in surprise, then the room of dames breaks into raucous laughter.

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There are many such moments in BBC2’s boisterous, elegiac documentary, which eavesdrops on four very grand acting dames: Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins, Dench and Smith. They’ve been friends – and occasional rivals – since the late 1950s. What’s remarkable is that this is the first time all four have shared the screen. (The closest call was in 1999 when Smith, Plowright and Dench were in Tea with Mussolini.)

Nothing like a Dame was shot over two days at the West Sussex home Plowright shared with her late husband, Laurence Olivier. Roger Michell, director of Notting Hill, had a simple approach – he sat the dames down, pointed a camera and invited them to talk. “Occasionally, I’d shout, ‘Let’s talk about that.’ And usually I got told to f*** off. But it’s quite nice, being told to f*** off by Judi Dench.”

Even so, little is off limits as the four women talk about their careers, marriages and the approach of death. “You can tell when it’s a sensitive area,” says Michell. “But there was no point where they said, ‘We’re not going to talk about that.’ Even when it’s their husbands.”

When Dench reveals she was recently “stung on the bottom by a hornet”, the tale is very funny but also a poignant commentary on the indignities of ageing. Plowright is blind now and, at 88, the eldest of the four. The others are all 83. “They’re very old, wise people,” says Michell, “but also very young. That’s the paradox; they seem eternally young.”

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Nothing like a Dame is on Saturday 2nd June on BBC2 at 9pm

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