Review / ‘Tea with the Dames’ (M) ****

Dames, from left, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench.

THE Sovereign needs good reason to confer titles, usually following peer group recommendations.

Unless you were in Britain and lucky enough to see any of four titled English actresses on stage, only in a cinema or on TV could you have become acquainted with Dame Maggie Smith, Dame (actually, already a Lady since her husband became Lord Olivier) Joan Plowright, Dame Eileen Atkins and Dame Judi Dench.

On an afternoon in an English garden in 2017, Roger Michell filmed “Tea with the Dames”, in which those dames talked among and about themselves, each other, their triumphs and their occasional goofs. Its only other people are production crew and Lady Joan’s guide (her eyes have failed her). There’s no screenplay, no apparent direction from Michell, only total freedom for a quartet of octogenarian women who’ve travelled the same fascinating, often uneasy, path in public view to give the world pleasure, satisfaction, comfort and great memories to recall. They were having fun and we may not see their like again.

There was a fifth Dame, Edith Evans (1888-1976, in film from 1915) immortalised by, if nothing else, her classic delivery of two words from Oscar Wilde. Yes, from “Starlight TV” in 1960, it’s Lady Bracknell (often played by a man but not in this case) asking Mr Worthing about a handbag. It’s moments like that when the moving image comes into its own. Without it, we couldn’t enjoy that or any of the other great theatrical moments that Michell’s film remembers.

Screening in the US as “Nothing Like A Dame” (a cultural barbarity presumably to avoid frightening the natives!), “Tea with the Dames” is charming, informative, intimate and great fun. It includes TV clips from visits to the Queen to receive their titles. I saw it at a preview. I intend to see it again just ‘cos it’s here!

At Palace Electric from June 7.

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