Released: 2nd May
Seen: 7th December (Catch-Up Screening)
There is a style of documentary that always feels a little bit strange to me, I call it the capture conversation documentary, these are documentaries that just put a bunch of people in a room and have them just talk. We don’t cut away, it’s not a talking head piece but it’s a film where the people on screen converse as though there isn’t a camera there and we’re a fly on the wall to this discussion. It feels odd because that kind of thing isn’t genuine, these people would never be sitting in a perfect semi-circle and decide amongst themselves to talk about films that they had been in together or about the state of industry when they were young, things that they probably haven’t thought about in ages and certainly wouldn’t be talking about in this manner. So for a film to take this idea and find a way to not only make it feel natural but to also be willing to mock the facade that they’ve put up as part of the framework of this style of documentary is something special.
Tea With The Dames is a very simple film. Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Joan Plowright and Dame Eileen Atkins have regular meetups at a lovely little cottage and this year they decided that they would let the cameras in to watch as they talk and instantly you can see that it changes a lot about the day they normally have to talk. The conversations that they have are fascinating, ranging from who got to be a dame first to who get’s all the roles nowadays (It’s Judi, and they all give her a good ribbing over it), but they’re also conversations that are so clearly started by the director that the dames can’t help but mock the format that’s been thrust upon their casual little get together. There is a truly astonishing moment where Maggie calls out the facade itself by stating, on camera, “When have we ever sat like this?” for a shot where her and Judi are sat on a sofa in a way that feels unnatural, but is how one sits when doing a documentary. It’s weirdly fascinating just seeing them trying to break free from the restraints the documentary is thrusting upon them while trying to have a normal conversation.
For a simple hour and a half, every one of our glorious dames gets to show off the quick wit that made us love them and talk about the shows that made them legends. Seeing them reflecting on plays at the Old Vic and critics who said harsh things about them is a fascinating thing. These women have been in the industry longer than most, a combined 248 years just on film, longer if we include their stage work and all of that history is slowly explored in bits and pieces. It’s fascinating when Tanya (One of the people working on the film whose name we only know because of the large nametag she wears) shows one of the dames a video of a play and asks them to talk about it and you can see that it’s the first time they’ve seen it in years, something they would not have seen were it not for this strange group of camera people trying to make a film out of a Saturday afternoon meeting with friends.
There’s also this strange way the director seems to be pushing these actresses to talk mostly about how they’re related to other famous people, large sections are dedicated to talking about how they’re all in some way able to tell a Lawrence Olivier story and there is an element of that which annoys me, but that element is soon pushed aside when the talk about Lawrence allows the dames to show off more wit, their personalities shine through even when they’re talking about other people. I do wish we’d had to talk more about them and less about their husbands (An actual question given was asking what it was like working with their husbands as though that’s somehow something we need to talk about now) but no matter what they’re talking about, you get a glimpse into how their friendship works and the personalities of these iconic actresses who we have all, at some point, enjoyed on screen or stage.
When it’s just the women chatting at a table with a drink of water or champagne (Strangely, never a cup of tea) is when this film shines brightest. Their conversations and banter are delightful, seeing how easily they make each other laugh or how quickly they can rib each other or even sweet moments when one of them helps Joan know where they are since Joan’s eyesight has gone, these little moments are fascinating and a delight to watch. You almost wish there wasn’t this facade being put up by the filmmakers who haven’t even really decided on what to name the film yet (You can see on the clapperboard that they called it Nothing Like A Dame, I’m guessing they couldn’t get the rights to the song) but without that facade we wouldn’t even be allowed in and I’m grateful that we got a chance to spend a small amount of time with these fascinating women, even though I wish there was more.
Tea With The Dames is a genuine delight to watch, full of hilarious moments and back and forths that break against the boundaries of the format. It’s a charming look into the lives of brilliant women and I only regret that I didn’t get more time. Maybe this format could work on TV, maybe some director (Who doesn’t need to make everything about the husbands) will do a show where every week they get four dames to talk about their lives and the industry they grew up in and show us that. If there aren’t enough dames, find actresses of a similar age and have them just talk about their lives like this because it was fascinating and truly something that everyone can easily enjoy.
What did you think of Tea With The Dames? Let me know in the comments below