Has there been any time when Judi Dench has not played a fierce spinster with a quick tongue and snappy lines to match? Perhaps yes, but it’s undeniably become what she’s specialized at. Think about it, from her widowed Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown, to her witty Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love (which won her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress), Dench has perpetuated a style of acting traditionally attributed to other grand dames of British acting. Dench’s late fame as a screen actress gave worldwide audiences the obviously silly impression that perhaps she was never young, which is why it’s a pleasure to discover her work in A Fine Romance.
This clever television show was created by Bob Larbey, the mastermind behind As Time Goes By and debuted in 1981. The plot centers on two middle aged singletons played by Dench and her late husband Michael Williams. She plays Laura Dalton, a severe but warm-hearted translator who has all but given hope on finding a husband, until her sexy younger sister (played by a wonderful Susan Penhaligon) and her husband (Richard Warwick) decide to set her up with their gardener friend Mike Selway (Williams). Like Laura, Mike is socially awkward, shy, and has no real experience with women. On the very first episode, they arrange for them to meet during a party and from the start chaos and hilarity ensue.
During its remarkable but very short four seasons, the show followed Laura and Mike as they went from reluctant lovers, to having their very first sexual encounter and finally realizing that they might have always been meant to be together. The plot is enhanced by how it ingeniously segues from episode to episode, making for an addictive watching experience. While there are no real cliffhangers, we are always curious about knowing where will Laura and Mike go to next, whether it’s a pub or a mask exhibition at a local art gallery.
As played by Dench (who seems to have based every future performance on her work here) Laura is a strong woman who rejects the idea of having her happiness reduced to finding a man and adjusting to social expectations. The show should be admired for the way in which its women defy social conventions while seemingly wanting nothing else than to fulfill them. In the series, Dench not only perfects her acid line delivery, she also demonstrates her incredible abilities as a physical comedienne, not to mention how great she is at self-deprecation. Even if she’s never “sexy” in the traditional way, there’s something undeniably charming and attractive to the audience about the way in which Laura conducts her life.
Williams is equally great, his messy hair and rugged face reminding us of Ralph Bakshi’s take on Bilbo Baggins. As awkward as he is kind, Mike surprises us episode after episode with an endless wisdom that perfectly matches Dench’s cleverness. It might be a cliché to say so, but because of them being together in real life (Williams sadly passed away in 2001) their chemistry is palpable. There they are, two unconventional looking actors, who not only make fun of their appearance, but manage to turn their characters’ story into one of the most beautifully realized in British television.
Larbey’s insightful writing, which addresses everything from ageism to the pros and cons of parenthood, was the perfect platform for Dench and Williams to riff on each other and allow us to see chemistry being created right in front of our eyes. Perhaps because of its rather short duration, there is not a single episode in the series that feels out of place or redundant. With each new chapter, we discover elements that make Laura and Mike more and more human. It’s almost impossible not to recognize ourselves in them.
Among the production notes included in this wonderful DVD set (containing all the episodes in a smaller package than the one that had been released previously) Larbey confesses that when he was writing the show he realized that the only people he wanted to make it with were Dench and Williams. He tells how he assumed that an actress of such importance as Dench would never want to be in a sitcom, and yet she said yes, allowing for this fine comedy of errors to be possible. Whether you’re rewatching this because you love it, or if you’re just discovering it for the very first time, it’s impossible not to fall in love with Laura and Mike and against all odds, actually crave to have such a wondrous romance as theirs. This might’ve never been Larbey’s original intent, but his compassion and respect for these two oddballs, make them as fine a couple as TV has ever seen.