Posts Tagged ‘Eileen Atkins’

Nothing Like a Dame (2018) ***

Dir.: Roger Michell; Documentary with Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith; UK 2018, 84 min.

Director/writer Roger Michell (Notting Hill) does no favours to four great actresses of the British stage and screen with his rambling documentary – even calling it a “gossip meeting”. Luckily the film is saved by the distinguished dames themselves: whose pithy wisdom and rich experiences gild Michell’s all too casual approach.

To start with, they all bemoan their “difficult times” with their (mostly) actor husbands, especially Joan Plowright, who hosts the get-together. She was married to Laurence Olivier between 1961 and 1982, and collaborated in his work at the National. When asked, in an archive clip, whether she missed out on other opportunities because of her relationship with Olivier, Plowright, there and then, politely refused to be drawn out on the subject, but today we know that the journalist’s question was very pertinent. Plowright starred in three famous Chekov plays on the stage, and acted with her future husband in John Osborne’s The Entertainer in 1957, which was filmed in 1960 by Tony Richardson: Joan playing the daughter of Olivier’s failing titular hero comedian Archie Rice. The casting was pitch perfect, since Olivier was 22 years older than Plowright. Her other film roles include Equus, Jane Eyre, The Dressmaker, but also Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers.

Eileen Atkins was forced by her mother to train as a ballerina between the ages of three and sixteen, even though she didn’t take to it. At the same time as these ballet lessons, she was performing as ‘Baby Eileen’ in Working Men’s clubs. Saved by her teachers, she not only became a great actress – her stage debut was The Killing of Sister George -but she, together with Jean Marsh, created the popular BBC series Upstairs, Downstairs, starring with her co-creator. Her TV work also included lead roles in Smiley’s People and Sons and Lovers. She was married to the actor Julian Glover between 1957 and 1966 – and he went on to marry the actress Isla Blair a day after he divorced Atkins. Her second marriage was to the producer Bill Shephard. In 1997 Atkins wrote the script to Mrs. Dalloway, directed by Marleen Gorris and starring Vanessa Redgrave. It was a great critical success, but a flop at the box-office. In 2001 Atkins starred with Maggie Smith in Gosford Park, directed by Robert Altman.

Judy Dench was sent to a Quaker school by her parents, and still is active in her faith. She is patron to more than 180 charities, many connected with film and theatre. Dench, who made her stage debut in 1957 as Ophelia in Hamlet, is by far the most outspoken of the quartet: angry about people telling her not try anything new at her age – and adamant about her own career choices. She sees ageism everywhere, and takes issue with it. Whilst she is most famous for her role as M in the James Bond movies like Skyfall, she has also starred in Iris and Philomena. With Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith she filmed Tea with Mussolini, as well as Ladies in Lavender with Smith. Dench is open about not being considered a classical beauty, and she hesitated for a long time about playing Cleopatra on stage – which she did eventually in 1987 at the National. Maggie Smith, who was tarred with the same brush by a sexist press, dominated by men, went to Ontario in the late 1970s, to play the Egyptian Queen on stage.

Maggie Smith started her career at the Oxford University Dramatic Society as Viola in Twelfth Night in 1952, aged seventeen. She later joined the National and played opposite Laurence Olivier as Desdemona in Othello and again was partnered with him in Master Builder. She tells Plowright how difficult her husband made it for her on stage. Maggie Smith won an Oscar for Best Actress in 1969 for the titular role in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, directed by Ronald Neame. She starred in Quartet and Room with a View, as well as popular features like Death on the Nile, and in the Harry Potter series, as professor Minerva McGonagall. More recently she starred in Nicholas Haytner’s feature of Alan Bennett’s play The Lady in the Van: she was a brilliant Mary Shepherd, a former convert pianist, who lived as homeless hobo in a van on Bennetts’ forecourt in Camden Town. And on TV she was prominent in Downtown Abbey in 52 episodes as Violet Crawley.

Unfortunately, Michell just skirts over everything, degrading his cast to an old-ladies ‘Kaffee Klatsch’. But even the little he leaves, is still worth watching, and even more so for devotees of this sterling British quartet. AS


EXCLUSIVE PREMIERE SCREENINGS – IN CINEMAS – WEDNESDAY 2nd MAY | Screenings include a special filmed introduction by Dame Joan Plowright and interview with Director Roger Michell | More screening info here 





The Duchess of Malfi (1972)**** Jacobean Tragedy Series BFI

Director: James MacTaggart

Script: John Webster (play)

Producer:  Cedric Messina

Cast: Eileen Atkins, Charles Kay, Michael Bryant, Gary Bond, Tim Curry, Dallas Cavell, Roy Evans, Jerome Willis, Sheila Ballantine

 UK                                             116mins           1972         Jacobean Tragedy

Circa 1612, Malfi is a Five Act Play written by John Webster and loosely based upon true events in an Italian court of the early 16th Century. It is renowned to this day for the superb complexity of the characters, particularly Bosola and the Duchess, here played by Atkins. Indeed, Michael Bryant was nominated for a BAFTA for his portrayal of Daniel de Bosola in this dramatization.

Starting out a love story, as so many Jacobean tragedies do, it all inevitably goes Pete Tong by the end, as the Duchess marries secretly beneath her and her two brothers set out exact their revenge for this unholy transgression.


Webster has a rare staying power, this play in particular has had many and varied productions throughout the intervening centuries and by the most feted actors of their day, surviving the fall from favour with audiences for it’s bloody and violent content, only to be revived again decades later. It is still appreciated today not only for Webster’s extraordinary and timeless characterisation, but also his undeniably powerful use of the language;

Whether we fall by ambition, blood or lust,

Like diamonds we are cut with our own dust.

Broadly, a play concerning corruption- of power and of the mind as much as of society, of cruelty and of the place of women in society at that time. By meddling with any given intractable Law, one invoked The Wrath and things would inevitably be put right, albeit with much bloodletting and grievance along the way.

Eileen Atkins and Charles Kay (giving a rather unnerving though inadvertent impression of Peter Sutcliffe) as her twisted brother are the stand out performances and the language is brought alive by the entire cast. It must however not be forgotten that this is a ‘Play Of The Month’ and is styled such, rather than a more naturalistic production that we may now be more used to on our screens.

It falls down a little on the sound; without the use of radio mics, the sound suffers somewhat, muffled and indistinct in places, due to the limited manner of recording. The costumes however are excellent and the production is augmented by filming on location rather than a set, which also allowed the director to open it out to include exteriors.

So overall, a faithful interpretation of the original play, albeit inevitably shortened for TV and a rare treat to step back in time, if not to 1520, then at least to 1972 and see a different generation in the fire of their youth tackling an ageless story with vigour and aplomb. AT


Jacobean Tragedy on the Small Screen series

A series of six Classic plays adapted for television and screened at the BFI South Bank 25th March until 29th April 2013:

Women Beware Women   1965               25 March
Hamlet At Elsinore             1964               1 April
The Duchess Of Malfi        1972               10 April
Tis Pity She’s A Whore       1980               18 April
The Changeling                   1993               26 April
Compulsion                          2009              29 April

[youtube id=”uKBodtX7n4w” width=”600″ height=”350″]

Q & A with Curator John Wyver as MC, Director Greg Doran and actress Dame Diana Rigg, who played Bianca in Women Beware Women.

Greg Doran is the current Artistic Director of the RSC.

Curator John Wyver is employed to document all the plays on TV, as funded by AHRC and University of Westminster. He has produced Hamlet, Macbeth and Julius Caesar and won a Bafta and in International Emmy for his work.

JW- can I start with you, Greg. How do you feel Thomas Middleton suits television?

GD: Very well.. there’s a simplicity that suits TV more than the denser texts with longer sentences…

JW: Dame Diana, how was it for you?

DR: I feel relieved. I’ve never seen it before, but I was relieved, (director) Gordon Flemyng made us zip through the text and pick up cues. The wit and irony is all there… I was pleased. And relieved.

JW:- Do you recall making it?

DR: No. [laughter] In those days, it was the early days and there were no retakes. We just ran with it.

JW: What was the sense of being at the RSC at that time and then doing television?

DR: Well, TV at the time was considered very much the poor cousin.

JW: Was it a difficult decision to do?

DR: t was a job. And you were being paid considerably more than at the RSC. Of course, it’s never about money for an actor, it never is but… it was a job and TV was a new thing. But now of course, it has changed and rightly so.

JW: What did you make of seeing yourself?

DR: I was pleased with my performance… We got through it. It was well directed.. I was very young. I was 24.

DR: I wondered how much they had cut.

JW: – well, quite alot.. there’s Nothing of the Cardinal. The religious aspect is almost entirely missing. Many speeches are half or a third of there length and Mackie modernised the language, but he has kept the ideas and the substance…

GD- I can see why the play gained its moment in the 60’s. The women’s parts are fantastic. Bianca, Livia and Isabella… The RSC had revised the play in 1962 and did a season of plays there. Then there was a TV version and then in 1969, it was revived again. I think it is regarded as one of the Great Jacobean plays. But the simple reason is that there are so many plays that are good, but not done, simply because they are not done. [laughter]

DR- I’m fascinated by this quantum leap between Shakespeare and Middleton- a huge leap into something how and why did they get there?


JW- Is it a big leap?

GD:-I think it is familiar, but why they resonate is that they have a similar world view. The gunpowder plot was a [game-changer]. If you can destroy parliament and the entire royal family in one fell swoop… I think we were tipped into a sense of dislocation. In Shakespeare, you get the ‘abyss’, he makes us stare into it, but Middleton gives us a sort of punk reaction. And that’s what we get in the final scene (of Women Beware Women)- How many can we kill and in how many different ways? In a way it has similarities to Hamlet, but with it; an esprit.

DR: It crosses every single line. Crosses class lines, incest… fascinating. You don’t need to flesh Jacobean drama. Get on with it.

JW: And the excess of the drama itself..?

DR: Well, what have we got theses days? We’ve got Tarantino… still massive emotions, gallons of blood..  you have to handle excess with exquisite taste.

GD:- Moral sententia; we enjoy wickedness and plotting and how that plays off each other at the end…

DR:- Parables wrapped up in hyper-drama and it is exquisitely written. The director got on with it and the wit was presented to you, no one dwelt on it, it was there and if you wanted to pick it out it was there for you.

JW:- Is there a way of doing this for contemporary audiences now? Is there something missing from TV now?

GD:- Well there’s no reason why they can’t be. They do resonate; a sense of being in a society that has lost its moorings. There are alot more of these plays that we haven’t rediscovered. There is not always a valid reason for why they haven’t been done. Comedies are harder to do than tragedies. In tragedies, the wit comes over very well. Comedies need a sense of communal celebration, which can be missing from TV rather than in theatre performance.

JW:- opening out to the audience. Any comments or questions?

Audience: Middleton was very good at intimate dialogue between men and women…

DR:- Women had not had a place on the stage for very long… this period gave women all the qualities fully-rounded characters that were missing before.


JW- …even though they were still being played by boys at this time.

Audience: Turning to the camera works very well for the asides… an intimacy that TV really does well. We hardly see this on TV now.

DR: Miranda does it. In a different context. But very well- Turns to the camera and goes ‘this is shit’. [laughter]

Doran- House of Cards did it very well too, Urquhart does it very well, confiding in the camera.

Audience:- Great to see the three-camera technique used. You could actually rehearse back then. Now, there’s a minimal rehearsal, as there’s no time. There may be more takes, but they usually only happen for technical reasons, rather than for the actors. Years ago you could have an initial reading with the whole cast there. I say bring that back, that process of the three camera filming!

DR:  The tracking shots were So impressive. Alot of them, particularly at the beginning. That opening bravura shot of the actor walking along and picking up the other couple.

JW- also the use of depth of frame; characters close up in the frame and others in the deep background was very good.

Audience- The pacing was excellent. Was that an atypical narrative?

JW:  We think of television of that moment as rather crude and hopefully we can see a richness there that we can see and celebrate…

DR:- It was an achievement of its kind and in its time, but it still has relevance now.

AT- Greg, do you feel that soaps have somehow in recent years gone down the direction of these old melodramas? I mean, these days when an actor is leaving the soap, they always set them on fire or blow them up…

Doran- Yes, I think so too. I was watching (Women Beware Women) thinking this could be an episode of EastEnders. But they might do well to go back to these old Masters and learn from them in terms of writing…







In conversation with Filmuforia, Curator John Wyver then had this to say concerning the season:-

I’m both a producer of art programs and of ‘performance’ films, but I’m also interested in the history of TV and of theatre plays on TV, documenting all of them since 1930 and this BFI season came out of that.

Last year in conjunction with the BFI, we did the Greek tragedies, which went really well, lots of interest and good audiences. So this was really a follow up. I was interested in exploring the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, even though there weren’t alot of them.

I want to highlight some of the great work done putting these wonderful plays on TV. I want to celebrate that. I’m interested in having them more available to people. Be it academic, as plays, as television… I feel discussions of theatre-produced plays tend to be strongly remembered and extensively written about, but when on television, they get overlooked and not written about, or studied so much and I wished to redress this balance.

It’s just a very different form of TV… not better, but different.
There’s a strength in capturing and portraying performance across 20-30 minute takes and I am interested in the link that is there between quite theatrical TV and say, the RNT doing theatre plays transmitted live onto cinema screens.

There is however, a very small body of plays that are available, which is why I picked what I picked. I’m trying to procure some DVD releases, but it is quite difficult with rights issues with the BBC and it all takes a long time. But that’s why we’re here…

Part of the academic research is to build a database of the work that exists and raise the profile on TV. It’s all about trying to get more awareness of the richness of these works both as TV and as plays.

I just want more people to see them and know about them, so thank you for your interest in helping us to spread the word. AT


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