Wednesday, 13 April 2016

377 The BBC TV Shakespeare

First  viewed : 11  February  1979

This  was  one  of  the  BBC's  greatest  projects  , the  adaptation  of  all  37  Shakespeare  plays  over  seven  seasons.  It  was  first  proposed  in  1975  by  producer  Cedric  Messina  but  it  took  three  years  to  overcome  opposition  and  get  the  fiance  together.  The   Beeb  had  in  fact  adapted  most  of  them  in  one  form  or  another  over  the  decades  but  never  as  part  of  a  continuous  series.

My  own  interest  in  Shakespeare  sprang  from  an  interest  in  school  drama  around  the  beginning  of  1976 . The  only  play  texts  we  had  in  the  house  were  in  my  mum's  1955  edition  of  The  Works  of  Shakespeare  so  I  spent  some  hours  staging  productions  using  my  Matchbox  cars  to  play  the  characters. The  one  I  spent  most  time  on  bizarrely  was  The  Life  and  Death  of  King  John  because  it  was  the  first  of  the  historical  plays  and  therefore  most  likely  to  be  interesting  to  me. Of  course  at  that  age  I  only  half-understood  what  I  was  reading  and  was  also  perplexed  by  some  of  the  bard's  dramatic  choices. I  mean  what  is  the  point  of  the  character  of  James  Gurney ? A  servant  to  Lady  Faulconbridge  he  comes  in  with  her, is  almost  immediately  dismissed , says  the  line  "Good  leave . good  Philip"  then  is  never  seen  again. I  guess  you'd  know  you  weren't  the  apple  of  the  director's  eye  if  he  said  "I  think  you'd  make  a  perfect  James  Gurney ! "

The  first  one  I  studied  at  school  was  Julius  Caesar  in  1977  or  1978  and , as  luck  would  have  it,  this  was  the  fourth  play  to  be  broadcast  in  the  first  season  so  we  stayed  tuned  after  Life  On  Earth. I  don't  remember  much  that  was  specific  to  the  production  apart  from  the  interesting  casting  of  David  Collings  as  Cassius. Collings  was  a  very  busy  actor  at  the  time  but  usually  played  good  guys  - I  knew  him  from  Dr  Who  and  Midnight  Is  A  Place  - so  it  was  a  change  to  see  him  as  a  villain.  

We  stayed  with  it  the  following  week  for  Measure  For  Measure,  probably  the  bard's  smuttiest  work . I  was  beginning  to  understand  sexual  innuendos  now  and  found  it  pretty  funny  particularly  the  performance  of  John  McEnery  as  the  fop  Lucio  whose  scurrilous  talk  gets  him  into  trouble. As  a  consequence  I  learned  the  original  meaning  of  the  word  "punk". The  cast  was  interesting  for  the  appearance  of  Jacqueline  Pearce  ( Blake's  Seven's  Servalan )   as  one  of  the  play's  trio  of  wronged  women.

I  wasn't  interested  in  the  next  and  final  play  in  the  first  season  The  Famous  History  of  the  Life  of  King  Henry  the  Eight ,  generally  regarded  as   a  superficial, propagandist  work  which  deliberately  skirts  the  major  controversies  of  the  reign.

The  second  season  started  at  the  tail  end  of  1979  with  the  two  parts  of  Henry  IV  then  Henry  V.  I  tuned  in  for  Twelfth  Night  ( 6.1.1980 )  for  Robert  Lindsay  as  Fabian  and  because  we'd  studied  it  in  English  the  previous  term  even  though  I  hadn't  liked  it  much. I  also  watched  The  Tempest  ( 27.2.80 )  which  was  pretty  familiar  to  me  as  the  first  play  in  Mum's  book. David  Dixon  played  the  spirit  Ariel. I  think  I  saw  some  of  Hamlet ( 25.5.80 )  because  I  remember  Lalla  Ward  as  Ophelia  and  Patrick  Stewart  as  Claudius  but  didn't  watch  it  from  start  to  finish.

The  third  season  started  in  the  autumn  of  1980  with  The  Taming  Of  The  Shrew . I  remember  the  publicity  buzz  around  the  casting  of  John  Cleese  as  Petruchio  but  I'm  not  sure  I  actually  watched  any  of  it.  I  remember  Warren  Mitchell  and  Gemma  Jones  as  Shylock  and  Portia  respectively  in  Merchant  of  Venice   ( 17.12.80 ). After  that,  a  volley  of  three  plays  I  had  no  familiarity  with , meant  I lost  a  lot  of  interest  in  the  series.

I  caught  a  bit  of  Troilus  and  Cressida  ( 7.11.81 )  in  the  fourth  season  because  I've  always  been  interested  in  The  Trojan  War  but  Kenneth  Haigh's  Achilles  was  so  far  from  my  conception  of  the  character  I  was  glad I  hadn't  watched  the  whole  thing.

The  fifth  season  was  mainly  taken  up  with  the  three  parts  of  Henry  VI  and  then  Richard  III  presented  in  sequence. I  came  back  to  it  towards  the  end  because  I'm  a  firm  Ricardian  and  the  Henry  VI  plays  also  benefited  from  featuring  Bernard  Hill ( as  Richard  of  York )   who'd  become  the  hottest  actor  in  the  UK  since  the  plays  were  filmed  , due  to  Boys  from  the  Blackstuff.

The  controversial   final  scene   which  had  Queen   Margaret  cackling  while  cradling  the  dead  Richard  atop  a  pile  of  the  war  dead  ( despite  her  having  died  seven  years  before  the  Battle  of  Bosworth )  was  actually  my  last  sight  of  the  series . The  final  two  seasons  were  mainly  broadcast  while  I  was  at  university  and  it  was  never  the  consensus  choice  in  the  common  room  so  I  missed  both  the  plays  I  studied  for  A  Level  ( Macbeth  and  Much  Ado  About  Nothing  )  and , rather  sadly , King  John .      

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