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Last of the Blonde Bombshells, The (2000)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Last of the Blonde Bombshells, The (2000)
Working Title/BBC for BBC1, tx. 3/9/2000
80 min, colour
DirectorGillies MacKinnon
ProducerSu Armstrong
ScreenplayAlan Plater
CinematographyRichard Greatrex
Original ScoreJohn Keane

Cast: Judi Dench (Elizabeth); Ian Holm (Patrick); Billie Whitelaw (Evelyn); Joan Sims (Betty); June Whitfield (Annie); Olympia Dukakis (Dinah); Cleo Laine (Gwen); Leslie Caron (Madeleine); Millie Findlay (Joanna); Romola Garai (young Elizabeth.)

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A recently widowed grandmother plans a successful reunion concert of the 'Blonde Bombshells', an all-girl dance band that she played in as a 15-year-old in World War Two. During the planning, she renews her friendship with its only male member.

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World War Two saw young women taking on many non-traditional roles. One was as musicians in dance bands, such as that led by Ivy Benson. This provides a natural subject for Alan Plater, whose passion for jazz is evident from highly individual works such as Misterioso (BBC, tx. 25/7/1991) and his Beiderbecke trilogy (ITV, 1985, 1987, 1988).

In Bombshells, swing music provides a powerful indicator of time, place and emotion. It is the playing of Hoagy Carmichael's 'Stardust' that triggers Elizabeth's wartime memories. Playing the jazz saxophone is liberating, and Duke Ellington's 'It Don't Mean a Thing...', as performed by Gwen (Cleo Laine) in a modern jazz club setting, is positively joyful. Period songs are also cleverly used to evoke the past in the frequent 1940s flashbacks, as with the swing vocal version of 'Loch Lomond' that accompanies Patrick's drive to Scotland.

With his emphasis on character and dialogue rather than plot, Plater needs to be well served by actors, and here Judi Dench and Ian Holm excel. Bombshells is enjoyable for its strength in casting, and as an affectionate tribute to British actresses of a certain age (there is a wonderful valedictory performance from Joan Sims). But other Bombshells are merely sketched in - Madeline is 'French resistance'. We also learn from Patrick's history that you don't have to be a girl to be a 'Blonde Bombshell' - this is a mere construct with the application of a blonde wig, a pretty red frock and make-up.

The upbeat ending, with its 'inspirational' storyline (emerging as a Rocky for the 3rd Age), is untypically Plater, and Olympia Dukakis, her Scottish castle and bearded, kilted manservant (referencing Mrs Brown, d. John Madden, 1997) seem to be included for the US audience, suggesting the influence of HBO on script development.

The 1940s nostalgia of Bombshells is mainstream, like the recent Mrs Henderson Presents (d. Stephen Frears, 2005), and lacks the bold originality of Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective (BBC, 1986). But while it appears mainstream on the surface, Bombshells is also quietly subversive in its treatment of gender roles, raising questions of how oldies 'should' behave according to their offspring, and their sexual desires. As one Bombshell observes, 'Old people are just young people who have been around a bit longer'. At 70, you are too old to die young - which is not a bad philosophy of life.

Roger Philip Mellor

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Video Clips
1. Grandma's little secret (3:08)
2. Growing old disgracefully (2:08)
3. Betty remembers (4:19)
4. Third Age bombshells (2:32)
Dench, Judi (1934-)
Holm, Sir Ian (1931-)
MacKinnon, Gillies (1948-)
Plater, Alan (1935-2010)
Sims, Joan (1930-2001)
Whitelaw, Billie (1932-)