The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Tea, Rain and Good Company: Tea with the Dames

Written by: Bianca Garner, CC2K Staff Writer

They are perhaps the most well-loved, admired and treasured actresses in all of the British movie and theatre industry. Most of you have seen at least one of their films, or plays, or TV programs. The ladies are all Dames: Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Eileen Atkins, and Dame Joan Plowright. These fine, talented performers are among the most celebrated of our time, with a vast number of iconic performances, decades of wisdom, and numerous Oscars, Tonys, Emmys, and BAFTAs between them. They have played Queens, star-crossed lovers, MI-6 spies, and working-class mothers. In fact, it would be easier to list who they haven’t played! These four women have been a huge part of British culture and they have featured in so many popular features, such as Maggie Smith appearing in the “Harry Potter” series.

Tea with the Dames, is the viewer’s chance to join these four incredible women as they discuss their lives and professional experiences across theatre, television and film. Directed by Roger Michell (My Cousin Rachel), the documentary also includes a range of astonishing archive material.

The four old friends joke around and share memories with each other during this fly-on-the-wall chat.  It’s the first time the actresses have shared the screen, though all bar Atkins appeared in the 1999 feature Tea with Mussolini, a movie about group of English Dames whose wit makes them difficult to deal with in pre-war Florence. The party is taken inside when it starts to rain, but the weather can’t spoil these ladies’ fun and they continue to share their memories about acting, as well as fighting for equality among their male peers.

There is some wonderful footage on Dench and Smith in-between takes as they laugh and joke with each other like two naughty schoolgirls. Smith delivers some mock-scorn for the filmmaking team, and she tells a young photographer off for distracting her with to many photographs. It’s great to see Smith being so fierce and full of energy. She is an inspiration to every woman out there as she’s not afraid to speak her mind and put people in their place. For example, when someone tries to put make-up on Smith, she immediately bats them away, exclaiming “God almighty, leave me alone!”

Michell attempts to steer the conversation, although his comments can be a little distracting at times as they don’t always go down well. When he asks Judi to comment on the subject of ageing, he is met with her sharp and witty reply, “F— off, Roger”. Hearing a Dame curse is one of the funniest moments of cinema you will see all year.

Of course, the subject of aging is one that the Dames encounter regularly. Dench, Smith and Atkins are 83. Plowright is five years their senior, and is in a rather frail state since losing her sight, although she still engages with the conversation. There are some grumblings about physical complaints, but they’re in agreement that the worst part of growing old is being patronised. After recently being “stung on the bum by a hornet”, an arrogant young paramedic treated Dench. “ ‘What’s our name?’ he asked. ‘And have we got a carer?’”. She’s still seething at the memory, and it just goes to show how ignorant some young people can be.

Tea with the Dames is a fantastic documentary, which allows the viewer to be part of a conversation among good old friends. The film is honest and moving in a way that I don’t think a straight biographical documentary could have been. Here, these four women get a chance to speak their minds. They give some great advice too, which we should all take to heart: the four admit they still feel afraid each time they perform. However as Dench puts it: “Fear is petrol”. She’s right of course, fear is fuel, and we shouldn’t let it hold us back.

Tea with the Dames is best enjoyed with a spot of tea and a jam scone!

Rating: 4 Stars out of 5