Judi, Maggie, Joan and Eileen: all hail British theatre's great dames

Quirky individuality … from left, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench in Nothing Like a Dame.
Quirky individuality … from left, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench in Nothing Like a Dame. Photograph: BBC/PA

Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest. The wheeze of bringing together four of Britain’s distinguished theatrical dames – Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith – and letting them reminisce has yielded an extraordinary film which opens in cinemas next week before being shown on BBC TV under the Arena banner. Called, inevitably, Nothing Like a Dame, and directed by Roger Michell, it is both hilarious and, in its mix of present-day recollection and past footage, extremely touching. It also reminds me of the truth of David Hare’s observation that acting is ultimately “a judgment of character”.

The four dames have known each other a long time and have much in common. Between them they have played all the great roles: Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Saint Joan, the Duchess of Malfi. They have lived through radical changes in the approach to verse-speaking. And they have experienced the humdrum delights of theatrical digs: one legendary story involves an actor returning unexpectedly to pick up a script and discovering his landlady spreadeagled on the kitchen table with the milkman, only for her to shyly declare: “You must think me a terrible flirt.”

Looking at the personalities, as well as the careers, of the four actors, what strikes me is their quirky individuality: each has some essential, defining quality that makes for stardom. In the case of Maggie Smith, it is an acutely developed sense of irony that she has applied to the great high comedy roles such as Beatrice in Much Ado, Millamant in The Way of the World and Amanda in Private Lives. Her forte has always been a faint scepticism built on a fastidious use of language. You see it in the film when, as they discuss what it’s like to be a dame, Plowright observes that, as Lady Olivier, she has the difficulty of possessing a double title. “You’ll just have to grapple with it, Joan,” remarks Smith with wry coolness. But she can also pierce to the heart of a character. I’ve never forgotten how, when she played Titania at Stratford, Ontario, she made something inexpressibly moving out of the fairy queen’s grief at the death of her votaress in childbirth.

Judi Dench is no less famous for conveying the contradictions within a character. Over the course of a long career, she has played just about everyone from the anguished heroine of John Hopkins’ TV drama Talking to a Stranger to Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria on the big screen. But although she was a magnificent Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra, what I admire most is her ability to catch the silvery contrasts of Shakespeare’s comic heroines. When Beatrice in Much Ado denies that she was born in a merry hour, Dench’s voice seemed to crack as she claimed: “No, sure, my lord, my mother cried, but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born.” All of Dench’s capacity to mix bubbling mischief and plangent melancholy was caught in that line.

For all her dual titles, Joan Plowright strikes me as the earthiest of the four dames. You see that in the film when she recalls someone telling her: “You’re no oil painting, but you’ve got the spark.” That spark was evident from the start in her sensational Beatie Bryant in Arnold Wesker’s Roots and her unforgettable Sonya in Olivier’s production of Uncle Vanya: her climactic speech to the broken-hearted Vanya, full of a defiant endurance, was one of the most moving things I’ve ever heard in a theatre.

Eileen Atkins’s career encompasses everything from the classics to TS Eliot, Marguerite Duras and Samuel Beckett, and she is soon to return to the West End in Florian Zeller’s The Height of the Storm. If I had to single out any one performance, it would be her astonishing recent incarnation of Ellen Terry at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, in which she transported us in a second from Juliet’s terror to Lear’s thunder and from Rosalind’s lyrical ardour to Portia’s practical compassion. But Atkins’s defining gift is a no-bullshit emotional directness that, to borrow the words of James Agate on Jean Forbes-Robertson, I would describe as her “steel-true and blade-straight quality”.

Watching Michell’s film is like eavesdropping on the freewheeling conversation of four old friends. At the same time, it unlocks our personal memories of past performances by four great actors and reminds us of their cherishable uniqueness.