The BBC Shakespeare

Back in the late 70s and early 80s, the BBC broadcast new productions of all the Shakespeare plays. At the time, it wasn’t too well received: as I remember, even before the first play was broadcast., the critics – who didn’t, I guess, realise how quickly and how ruthlessly high culture would become sidelined out of existence from mainstream broadcasting – openly sneered at the whole idea. And, it must be said, the first broadcast – a disastrously dull version of Romeo and Juliet – seemed to confirm the most pessimistic of outlooks. It was dutiful, very traditional, unimaginatively directed and shot, and, to a television audience that would soon be thrilling to the visual splendors of Granada TV’s lavish adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, the production values seemed cheap, and the visuals merely bland. It was hardly an auspicious start. 

The productions that followed were distinctly better, but hardly anyone seemed to notice: the whole enterprise had already been branded a failure – a stodgy, self-conscious piece of “heritage broadcasting”. However, the BBC was committed to the project, and, almost apologetically, they continued. What had initially been scheduled for peak hour viewing on Sunday evening was, after a while, scheduled for weekdays, as well hidden away as possible. After a while Jonathan Miller took charge of the project from Cedric Messina, directing a few himself; but one could almost hear a collective sigh of relief from the BBC as the series came, at long last, to an end. Never, never again! 

So how does the series look now in retrospect? Surprisingly good, to be honest. Well, some of it still looks dull and stodgy (I’m afraid that Romeo and Juliet does not improve with time); and it is a fact of life that nostalgia often adds a layer of glamour even to that which is best forgotten. But looking back, even some of the earlier productions, before Jonathan Miller took over, look … well, they look rather good. One can but wonder, for instance, why the critics of the time failed to admire a quite superb performance of Measure for Measure, with Kate Nelligan and Tim Piggott-Smith outstanding as Isabella and Angelo.  Or why they failed to be charmed by a conventional but utterly wonderful production of Twelfth Night, with a cast including Felicity Kendal, Sinead Cusack and Alec McCowan. It is also hard to see why the quite superb productions of the two Henry IV plays (preserving on film Anthony Quayle’s justly famous portrayal of Falstaff) passed by unnoticed. I suppose that by the time these were broadcast, the series had already been written off as an embarrassment. 

And things certainly improved further with Jonathan Miller: the productions were still conventional, but there was now more of an attempt at interpretation, rather than a mere dutiful laying out of the goods, as it were. Unfortunately, some of productions of the bigger works were little better than mediocre: Hamlet was merely so-so, and King Lear, despite some good moments, looked under-rehearsed.  Miller directed the latter himself, and, as in his previous BBC production of the play, made the surprise choice of Michael Hordern – an actor better known for lighter, comic roles – as Lear: Miller no doubt had his reasons, but I’m not quite sure this piece of casting paid off: while Hordern does a thoroughly professional job, he does not convey the sense of tragic grandeur which – pace Jonathan Miller – does seem to me an essential feature of the play. 

Othello, also directed by Jonathan Miller, remains controversial, but for me, it is magnificent. Antony Hopkins was possibly the last white actor to black up as Othello in a mainstream production, and while some find this offensive, I can’t say I do: if we can still accept white tenors blacking up to sing Verdi’s Otello (and we do), I don’t see what the problem is here. Antony Hopkins gives a sustained outpouring of passion that leaves me gasping for breath, and Bob Hoskins’ portrayal of a sociopathic Iago is frightening. Penelope Wilton looks not quite young enough for Desdemona, especially in close-up, but given what she makes of the role, I, for one, am quite happy to overlook that. 

But generally, it was the lesser-known works that came off best. I don’t think, for instance, that it’s possible to find anywhere a finer production of All’s Well That  End Well. And director Elijah Moshinsky made an excellent job of that very strange late play, Cymbeline.

Best of all, perhaps, were the productions directed by Jane Howell. Titus Andronicus is not exactly one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces, but it’s hard to imagine it done better; The Winter’s Tale is every bit as dramatic and as moving as it should be; and her production of the tetralogy of the three Henry VI plays and Richard III is my nomination for the best drama I have ever seen on television. No, really – it is. 

So, a mixed bag, but at its best, a magnificent achievement that is not likely to be repeated because the ambition that gave birth to this series no longer, one suspects, exists. Last night, we watched the BBC Shakespeare production of Antony and Cleopatra, a play that, in certain moods, I consider my favourite work in the canon. It is another one Jonathan Miller decided to direct himself, but, like the series itself, is something of a mixed bag. Among its plus points are the visuals: although it’s by no means a lavish production, Miller gives as luxurious colours and textures, suggesting the overflowing exuberance of a canvas by Rubens. Colin Blakeley was an unorthodox but inspired choice for Antony, Emrys James is all one could ask for from Enobarbus, and the late Ian Charleson was about as good an Octavius as I have seen: he presents Octavius – quite rightly, I think – as a man naturally passionate, but who has to subdue those passions to assume his immense responsibilities, and who, unlike Antony and Cleopatra, has visions of a time of “universal peace”. 

Jane Lapotaire’s Cleopatra, I must admit, I don’t find quite as convincing. Of course, it’s the most difficult role in the play, as it’s virtually impossible to live up to the descriptions we are given of Cleopatra, and to convey a sense of “infinite variety”. But she does speak her lines well, and her performance of that glorious final scene is magnificent. However, I must take issue with some of Jonathan Miller’s directorial choices – and, especially, with some of the cuts. Now, I am not a purist in this respect: most Shakespeare plays can survive a few judicious cuts. However, what makes this play so particularly moving is the way the sense of the sublime that we witness in the final scene develops from the human fallibility we had seen earlier. Human beings, we are made to feel, are complex and multifaceted and ever-changing and endlessly malleable, and what we sense as the “sublime” is but an element contained in this mass of messy contradictions that is humanity. However, in this production, thanks largely to the cuts, the sense of the sublime at the end seems merely superimposed: there is a discontinuity between the very flawed  human being Cleopatra we see through most of the action, and the godlike queen we see at the very end. Cleopatra is denied those scenes that would have established this sense of continuity: she is denied the scene with her treasurer, for instance, or that marvellous moment where, even at the point of death, we catch that glimpse of the Cleopatra we had formerly known when she refers to Octavius as an “ass unpolicied”: these cuts are particularly grievous. The Cleopatra we see at the end and the Cleopatra we had seen earlier do not seem here to be the same person, and the sense of flawed humanity developing into something beautiful and noble is, as a consequence, lost. 

Most unforgivable of all is a cut of a mere two words – “Ah, soldier!” 

Towards the end of the play, the Roman soldiers return to the monument to find Cleopatra dead (she has committed suicide), and her attendant, Charmian, on the point of dying. As she dies, she says:

It is well done, and fitting for a princess
Descended of so many royal kings.
Ah, soldier!

The first two lines are taken, virtually word for word, from North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives: Shakespeare obviously knew a good thing when he saw it, and was happy to re-cycle. But then, he adds two simple words – “Ah, soldier!” – and the whole thing is magically lifted into a different sphere. Just two simple words.

Here is what TS Eliot has to say about it:

You cannot say there is anything peculiarly poetic about these two words, and if you isolate the dramatic from the poetic you cannot say there is anything peculiarly dramatic either, because there is nothing in them for the actress to express in action; she can at best enunciate them clearly. I could not myself put into words the difference I feel between the passage if these two words “ah, soldier” were omitted, and with them. But I know there is a difference, and only Shakespeare could have made it.

Well, if even old TS couldn’t put it into words, I’m certainly not going to try. There comes a point where one can do no more than merely stare and wonder. But how anyone could be so insensitive to cut those two words out, I really cannot imagine. No doubt Jonathan Miller has his reasons, but they’re hard to discern.

 So, like the series in general, a mixed bag. But for all that, I’m so glad I watched it!

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Marita on August 4, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    This series (or at least some of it) had been bought by one of the Dutch TV channels. By the late 70’s I had acquired a taste for Shakespeare and Dutch TV could be seen in Belgium so I was looking forward to seeing them. Unfortunately it clashed with Dallas on our Flemish TV channel. My mum and sister were devoted fans of Dallas which meant I was outnumbered and ended up sitting in a corner, inwardly cursing Dallas and everybody watching it, while trying to read. Live could be difficult before video.


  2. I was a student when they were first shown, and I didn’t get to see them all as our hall of residence had only two televisions, and Shakespeare plays weren’t high on students’ lists of priorities! The complete DVD set is good value, I think, as there are some excellent productions in there. I don’tthink I’ll ever see the Henry VI plays and Richard III done better.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: