Based on Harwood’s original text, adapted and directed by Richard Eyre, the film tells the story of one fateful night, backstage in a small regional theatre during World War II, as a troupe of touring actors stage a production of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
The cast also includes Emily Watson as Her Ladyship, Sarah Lancashire as stage manager Madge and Edward Fox (who co-starred as Oxenby in the 1983 feature film adaptation of The Dresser) as company stalwart Thornton. The role of Oxenby in the new version is filled by Tom Brooke, alongside Vanessa Kirby as Irene.
“Bombs are falling, sirens are wailing, the curtain is up in an hour, but Sir (Hopkins) who is playing Lear (and is one of the last of a dying breed of great English actor-managers), is nowhere to be seen,” according to production notes. “As the company tries to decide what to do, Sir unexpectedly arrives at the theatre, disorientated and exhausted. A battle of wills ensues, as his long-suffering dresser Norman (McKellen), fiercely resists the insistence of the stage manager Madge (Lancashire) and Sir’s partner Her Ladyship (Watson) that the show be canceled, resolutely contending that Sir will be ready to go on.”
The idea of the TV film came from executive producers Colin Callender and Sonia Friedman. Callender explains, “Sonia and I went to see Ronnie (Harwood), to say that we weren’t trying to re-make the wonderful Peter Yates film, but that we wanted to re-visit the days of Play for Today in England or Playhouse 90 in the US. The single drama was the staple of the genre in those early golden days of television, with many writers and directors coming from the theatre. In England, in particular, the genealogy of television drama is the stage and so it’s a joy to revisit that.”
The Dresser premiered on Broadway in 1981 starring Tom Courtenay and Paul Rogers. The 1983 film starred Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay.