Nothing Like a Dame review: Mess with Maggie Smith at your peril

All good fun and dames: (from left) Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench - Mark Johnson
All good fun and dames: (from left) Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench - Mark Johnson

Can there be any sight more English than Dames Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright sitting bickering in a garden overlooking the Sussex countryside? This charming documentary, commissioned for BBC Two and now bumped up into a limited  cinema release, is a fly-on-the-wall chat between the four old friends. The only thing missing is a bit of English rain, but not for long: they’re soon sheltering in the home Plowright once shared with Laurence Olivier, her late husband.

We’re treated to much of their between-takes laughter, faffing about and (in Smith’s case) mock-scorn for the filmmaking team. It’s a bit like one of those nature documentaries where the lioness attacks the hidden camera. Someone tries to put make-up on Smith, and is immediately batted away – “God almighty, leave me alone!” All this is intercut with scintillating archive material from their careers; highlights include Smith in a moustache for The Recruiting Officer, and a green-faced Dench as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It’s the first time the four actresses have shared the screen, though all bar Atkins appeared in the 1999 film Tea with Mussolini as the “Scorpioni”, a group of artsy English grandes dames whose stinging wit made them the scourge of pre-war Florence. There are echoes of that here; one almost feels sorry for fluffy Notting Hill director Roger Michell, a rabbit among the scorpions. His meek attempts to steer the conversation don’t always go down well. Might Dame Judi perhaps say something on the subject of ageing? “F--- off, Roger.”

Inevitably, the topic does come up. Dench, Smith and Atkins are 83; Plowright is five years their senior, and – movingly – rather frail since losing her sight. Though there is some grumbling about physical complaints (Smith offers around her hearing aids like bonbons), they’re in agreement that the worst part of old age is being patronised. After recently being “stung on the bum by a hornet”, Dench was treated by a smug young paramedic. “ ‘What’s our name?’ he cooed. ‘And have we got a carer?’ ” She’s still seething at the memory, and rightly so.

One minor revelation is learning that Smith’s main influence as a young actress was Kenneth Williams. Watching clips of her mimicking his Carry On drawl, it makes perfect sense; both are irresistible raconteurs. Dench may be granted the most screen time here, but Smith has the best one‑liners. When she played Desdemona to Olivier’s Othello, he accidentally knocked her out: “It was the only time I saw stars at the National Theatre.” She’s never watched herself in Downton Abbey, and has no plans to – despite being given the six-series box set. “I won’t last long enough to see the wretched thing, will I?”

In a breezy chat, the quartet are mostly unwilling to dwell on unpleasant subjects, so Michell uses archive footage to spell out the subtext. Dame Joan admits her marriage to “Larry”, 22 years her elder, was “a bit of a nightmare sometimes”. Cut to Olivier asking her, in a scene from The Entertainer: “What would you say to a man of my age, marrying a girl of about… your age?” Smith admits it was “tricky” working with her hard-drinking husband Robert Stephens, prompting a clip of them onstage in Noël Coward’s Private Lives: “Shall we get roaring, screaming drunk?”

In a rare moment of vulnerability, all four admit they still feel afraid each time they perform. But as Dench puts it: “Fear is petrol.”

Nothing Like a Dame premieres in cinemas nationwide on May 2 with a special introduction from Joan Plowright, before a limited release on May 4. Tickets and information;