Like Brit? No, not that Spears person who's been in the headlines lately for reasons that wouldn't get the rest of us mentioned in the local newspaper. No, I'm talking British. Actually, British actors. Specifically, three British actors who have won Oscars and whose careers include such a long history of outstanding work in BBC productions that they're getting their own shelf in the DVD stores.
This week Warner Brothers Home Video, working hands-across-the-water with the BBC, brings a touch of class to our home viewing with the BBC Oscar Winners Collection, three boxed sets celebrating Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Helen Mirren. (Make that Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, and Dame Helen Mirren, as each of them has been given the equivalent of a knighthood, which is right up with the Oscars on the coolness scale.) Each multidisc boxed set collects an impressive range of strong performances from the early work of these three stars.
In the three-disc Maggie Smith at the BBC, we can enjoy the formidable (and now familiar across generations thanks to the Harry Potter films) British stage and screen star as Portia in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (a 1972 Play of the Month production co-starring Frank Finlay as Shylock); as Epifania Fitzfassenden in George Bernard Shaw's sprightly comic satire The Millionairess (also from 1972, and look for Charles "Blofeld" Gray and -- calling old-school Doctor Who fans -- Tom Baker among the cast); as an alcoholic wife of a vicar in the powerful Bed Among the Lentils, one of six filmed monologues from writer and director Alan Bennett's 1987 BBC miniseries, Talking Heads; and finally as eccentric, wealthy Southern matron Violet Venable in Tennessee Williams' Suddenly, Last Summer, a 1993 production co-starring Natasha Richardson and Rob Lowe.
The productions have been restored and remastered for DVD. The set also hands us a few bonus goodies. New for this collection is a half-hour documentary tribute, Maggie Smith: A Portrait, with biographer Michael Covenay, directors Richard Eyre and Alan Bennett, and actor Simon Callow. In Acting in the '60s (45 mins.) Smith discusses her long career on stage. Also here is a 1973 segment with Smith appearing on chat-show host Michael Parkinson's program, and a two-hour radio play, William Wycherley's The Country Wife, with Smith starring alongside Bernard Hepton and Jonathyn Pryce.
Judi Dench is one of the most celebrated stars of stage and screen. She is the winner of an Academy Award, two Golden Globes, an unprecedented seven Olivier Awards, and numerous BAFTAs. And she's "M" in the James Bond series, which speaks for itself, doesn't it? At the BBC, she has appeared in a dazzling range of material from sitcoms to Shakespeare. A recent poll voted her the best British actress of all time; another designated her most popular person in England after the Queen.
So The Judi Dench Collection is an especially impressive eight-disc set that delivers eight films, one serial, three interviews and three radio plays. We get two versions of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard (from 1962 and 1981), and Dench plays a pregnant nymphomaniac in 1966's four-part Talking to a Stranger. Lighter fare is the rare French farce Keep an Eye on Amélie from 1973. Dench stars as a hospice nurse to two adversarial patients in 1981's Going Gently. She's the tragic dowager who must euthanize her grown son in a modernized 1987 production of Henrik Ibsen's scandalous Ghosts, co-starring Kenneth Branagh and Michael Gambon. In Make and Break (with Robert Hardy, 1987) a successful manufacturer, driven by the compulsion to use and consume everything around him, is forced to turn his eyes upon himself during one climactic night at a trade fair in Germany. Parents' lives are shattered when their teenage son develops schizophrenia in 1990's Can You Hear Me Thinking? (co-starring her husband, Michael Williams). And she's an alcoholic World War II survivor in 1991's Absolute Hell.
The DVD extras start with three radio plays: With Great Pleasure (1991), Are You Still Awake? (1994), and Amy's View (2000). Judi Dench sings "Send in the Clowns" and discusses her 1996 Olivier-winning performance in Sondheim's A Little Night Music. We get her candid 2002 sit-down with Notes on a Scandal director Richard Eyre, and the fluffy Judi Dench: Favorite Things from 1985.
Helen Mirren at the BBC includes 1974's The Changeling, 1975's The Apple Cart, 1975's Caesar and Claretta, 1975's The Philanthropist, 1975's The Little Minister, 1977's The Country Wife, 1979's Blue Remembered Hills, 1981's Mrs. Reinhardt, and 1982's Soft Targets. The set also adds a newly recorded interview with Mirren. In a feature review here at Film.com, MaryAnn Johanson describes this set as offering "amazing examples of what TV at its best can do; even though most of these are studio-bound and shot on video (as most BBC productions were in the '70s and early '80s), they're still totally gripping. They're also essential for understanding Mirren's talent as we see it today. She's made a career of portraying smart, strong, ambitious women, and this is where it all began."