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The Rhythm Method

Fifty years after swinging their way through the war, the Blonde Bombshells reunite for a last gig -- but their Muse seems to have gone AWOL.

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Cherchez les femmes: Blonde Bombshells, from left, Joan Sims, Judi Dench, and Billie Whitelaw.  

Considering who's in it and who wrote it, The Last of the Blonde Bombshells (Saturday, August 26; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; HBO) should have knocked our bobby socks off. It settles instead for front-porch-swing, sepia-tinted flashbacks, and the syncopated pitty-pat of nostalgia and desire. But given the entertainment alternative -- summer movies for certified morons -- it has at least some heart and beat. Although we may have hoped for transcendence, we should be grateful for a last hurrah. Or even a cheerful hiccup.

Who's in it? Dame Judi Dench, for one, who discovers at her husband's cremation that 50 years of marriage ("no surprises anymore") were not nearly as much fun as playing tenor sax in wartime London with the blonde-wigged Bombshells, a not-quite-all-girl band. Sir Ian Holm, for another, who was the band's cross-dressing drummer and serial lover. Olympia Dukakis, for a third, who has wed too often and drunk too much but leaves a castle in Scotland to play trumpet like a Satchmo. Plus Leslie Caron, who quit the band for the French Resistance but returns in time to pluck her double bass at the inevitable Bombshells reunion; Cleo Laine, still scat-singing for her supper after all these decades and still refusing to rehearse; June Whitfield, who's taken her trombone to the Salvation Army; Joan Sims, who talks off-color to her lowdown piano keys; and Billie Whitelaw, the alto-sax player who must be sprung from prison.

Not to mention all the youngsters -- Romola Garai, Grant Ibbs, Lucy Voller, Kate Maberly, Ria-Belinda Mundell, Patricia Valentine, Saskia Vale, and Laura Crossley -- who are called upon to impersonate these nonpareils in flashbacks to a 1944 when everybody was supple, heedless, and hep; and the delectable Millie Findlay, as the 12-year-old granddaughter who books Dame Judi's Bombshells for her school dance, right after the usual heavy-metal meltdown.

Who wrote it? Alan Plater, perhaps best known to American viewers as the Fortunes of War teleplaywright, but cherished by me for his 1989 "Masterpiece Theatre" adaptation of the Chris Mullin thriller A Very British Coup -- three of the best hours ever on television. In Coup, socialists (in the person of Ray McAnally) and music (mostly Mozart) took over England (all too briefly), and actually tried to deliver on campaign promises to disarm nuclear warheads, get rid of American bases, and improve social services instead of slashing them. But however loyal to his women and his principles, however sly on the telly, a steelworker from Sheffield was no match for the CIA, the mad-dog press, and the permanent British shadow ministries of secrecy, fear, and privilege. Looking back, I'm almost as nostalgic as Dame Judi. Remember when socialism and the Labour Party were still acquainted?

Plater seems not to have overexerted himself this time out -- although Dame Judi and Sir Ian do make it clear that part of the wartime fun, of which they are mildly ashamed, was dancing through the dread. And there's a nice witty reference at the reunion to Brigadoon. And I suppose that the gerontocracy's kicking up its heels can be construed as a symbolic approximation of all that working-class vitality in A Very British Coup. Anyway, you will want to stick around to see whether Sir Ian adds another trophy rose to his much-decorated drum kit. And in the meantime there will be Cleo Laine to listen to, an amazement of mad arpeggios.


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