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 .