It is a challenge to convey just how good The Dresser is. But I'll have a go at it.
The Dresser (Friday, Super Channel, 9 p.m., and on-demand after first airing) stars Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins. Based on the acclaimed and much-loved stage play by Ronald Harwood, and adapted and directed by Richard Eyre, it is deliciously funny and moving. It is also profoundly about why people perform and create art. And it is heartbreakingly accurate about actors and the theatre.
McKellen plays Norman, the "dresser" to Hopkins as Sir, an ancient, dilapidated Shakespearean actor of great renown who is, literally, at the end of his tether. Sir's company is about to stage King Lear.
It's during the Second World War and bombs are raining down on England. Sir has had a hard day. He went missing, undressed in the street and ended up in hospital. It is Norman's job to coax and cajole him into playing Lear.
The play was filmed before, and Peter Yates's 1983 movie version brought an Oscar nomination for Albert Finney as Sir, with Tom Courtenay playing Norman. This version declines to do as Yates did, which is open up the stage play, expand it a bit and bring the outside world into the claustrophobic world of backstage at a provincial theatre.
This one sticks where it is set, mainly in the dressing room of Sir, the cramped corridors outside and, eventually, the stage, where Hopkins, as Sir, gives a stunning, demented rendition of Lear.
On one level, the play is simple enough – it is about the loyalty of Norman and how that is taken for granted by Sir. That element was emphasized in the earlier film, but this one – made for the BBC and the Starz channel – digs deep into what motivates Sir and his company to act, to keep going even as air-raid sirens tell them and their audience to leave the theatre and take shelter.
It broods on the small, illuminating moments. Such as Sir, for all his decrepitude, being aroused by a young actress in a minor role. And then her interest in his attention and flattery. The moment when she sneaks into his dressing room, just to have that intimacy with a legend, is both sad and savagely funny.
The key line in the entire production is when Sir, having being cajoled into taking the stage, sees the others actors hesitate when a bomb falls nearby. "By Christ, no fascist Bolsheviks will stop me now!" he roars. And then, after one last hesitation, he takes the stage.
Around Sir and Norman, the others fret, sometimes pouring cold water on the ego-driven insistence of Sir that the show must go on. Sir's wife (Emily Watson), who is called Her Ladyship by the company and "Pussy" by Sir, is ready to throw in the towel on Sir and possibly their marriage. "One Lear, more or less, in the world won't make a difference," she says. "Who cares whether he acts tonight or not?"
The stage manager, wonderfully played by Sarah Lancashire (the indestructible cop Catherine on Happy Valley) is wary of going ahead. "We have to face the facts," she says. But the fact is that Sir declares, "I decide when I'm ready for the scrapyard. No one else."
It seems for a time that for the scrapyard he is bound. He has performed Lear 227 times and panics now when he cannot remember the first lines of the play. "The night I first played Lear, there was a thunderstorm," he sighs. "Now, they send bombs. How much am I supposed to endure?"
And then there is the extraordinary moment when he inhabits Lear. It is astonishing to watch Hopkins in these scenes. Playing a demented actor playing a demented king. Such is Sir's intensity that he frightens the other actors.
Hopkins is beyond majestic. This is a performance to wipe away memory of the two unnecessary and overcooked turns he did as Hannibal Lecter after The Silence of the Lambs. The power of his performance here is outrageous.
McKellen has the more subtle role, and he is more subdued than Tom Courtenay was, and it works. He is less the brittle fusspot and more the strained, secretly disappointed but silver-tongued partner obliged to stand in the shadow of the great man.
The Dresser is a must-see. Cannot be recommended highly enough.
By the way, Allarco Entertainment, the Edmonton company that owns the Super Channel network, is in financial difficulty and has been granted bankruptcy protection. It has always struggled, first against competitors who pre-bought vast amount of movies and series to stop Super Channel from launching with pre-eminent movies and series, and then against the rise of Netflix.
It's expensive and would benefit from being cheaper. But it would be disappointing to see it disappear, as it does air some extraordinarily good productions.