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Introduction: The Television Revolution

Shakespeare on Screen: A Chronicle History -- page 5 | next


The Television Revolution

Shakespeare on television began inauspiciously in the winter of 1937 with a series of abbreviated BBC programs aimed at the handful of Londoners who owned home receivers. As with Sir Herbert Tree's 1899 King John movie, the fledgling television industry instinctively grasped at Shakespeare programming as a tactic for wooing the British cultural establishment. A flurry of articles in the late 1930's on Shakespearean topics in The Listener, a BBC house organ, by such luminaries as J. Dover Wilson, G.B. Harrison, and Tyrone Guthrie, all signaled a literary and theatrical bias. Moreover television's natural roots were in radio, not movies, so that cinematic art was by no means the dominant model for the pioneers of television. As had similarly been the case with the early silent films, stage actors were imported to parade before the crude television cameras of the day located in Alexandra ìPalace,î which was actually a derelict Crystal Palace. On Friday afternoon, February 5, 1937, at 3:55 p.m., the new era began with the transmission of an 11-minute scene from As You Like It (#35). It was directed by Robert Atkins with Margaretta Scott (b. 1912), a West End actress, as Rosalind and Ion Swinlay [sic] as Orlando. Later that same day, there was also a transmission of a segment from Henry V (#171), directed by George More O'Ferrall.[9] As BBC producers both Atkins and O'Ferrall were to play key roles in the subsequent expansion of Shakespeare programming on British television.

From 1937 to 1939, the BBC scheduled some 20 Shakespeare programs. Varying in length from a few minutes to nearly two hours, they were most frequently transmitted from the BBC studios at Broadcasting House but very soon the technology was in place for live recordings from London's West End playhouses. Representative titles include studio scenes based on an Embassy Theatre production of Cymbeline (#69); an abridged (100-minute) version of Orson Welles' modern dress New York Mercury Theatre Julius Caesar (#207); an abridged (60 minute) studio Othello (#445) with Celia Johnson as Desdemona and Anthony Quayle as Cassio; and a recording of a live performance in the Open Air Theatre, Regents Park, of A Midsummer Night's Dream (#397). By 1939 Dallas Bower's The Tempest (#610) was allowed one hour and forty minutes of air time for a virtually full-scale production. There was some dismay expressed by the BBC production staff about technical problems such as wandering stagehands,[10] but with Peggy Ashcroft as Miranda, Shakespeare on television seemed to be growing to maturity. World War II intervened, however, and on September 1, 1939 at the end of a Mickey Mouse film[11], with the "lights going out all over Europe," the BBC, to avoid becoming a handy navigational aid for the Luftwaffe, also switched off its lights for the duration.

In the postwar period, BBC energetically continued to transmit Shakespeare to the public, sometimes without much success but always persistently. Doubtless profiting from their pre-war experiences, producers Ian and Robert Atkins and George More O'Ferrall along with Michael Barry remained closely associated with the BBC's Shakespeare productions. For three decades beginning in 1947, British television averaged nearly three Shakespeare programs a year. In 1978, however, the great geyser of the BBC Shakespeare Plays series began to saturate the market with six plays a year. Prior to the BBC series, however, the BBC and independent television drama producers, despite such competing events as boxing and football matches, managed to squeeze out of stingy budgets some admirable and some less than admirable results. Some nominees for the "admirable" would include George More O'Ferrall's full-length two-part, meticulously planned 1947 BBC Hamlet (#98) with Sebastian Shaw as Claudius, for which the British Television Society awarded him its Silver Medal; Jonathan Miller's and John Sichel's 1969 Precision Video re-recording of the National Theatre production of The Merchant of Venice (#367) starring Laurence Olivier as Shylock; and Trevor Nunn's 1979 Thames Television Macbeth (#332) with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench. All are milestones in the history of televised Shakespeare. For example, as Michael Barry has shown, the tracking camera in O'Ferrall's 1947 Hamlet may even have helped to influence the deep focus cinematography for the 1948 Olivier-filmed Hamlet.[12]

In fact Great Britain's most extraordinary Shakespeare on television emerged in the form of three major series based on the English and Roman history plays. The first and most ambitious of these, the 1960 An Age of Kings (R2, #485-6; 1H4 and 2H4, #156-9; H5, 178-9; 1-3 H6, 185, 188, 190-2; R3, 505-6) represented the minor and major tetralogies of the English history plays in a 15-week cycle that compressed the eight plays into segments of 60 to 90 minutes each. Cinematic resources were limited (a reviewer thought the results were essentially "filmed plays"), but the talents of such RSC actors as Frank Pettingell (Falstaff), Robert Hardy (Prince Hal), and Paul Daneman (Richard III) made the series one of the best received Shakespeare programs ever transmitted on television. Three years later in the 1963 nine-part Spread of the Eagle, Director Peter Dews used the same formula with somewhat less success to present a mini-series drawn from Julius Caesar (#221-3), Antony and Cleopatra (#14-16), and Coriolanus (#59-61). Then in 1964 Peter Hall and John Barton adapted the minor tetralogy of the three parts of Henry the Sixth (#183-4) and Richard III (#509) into yet another sprawling historical epic of English kings and queens. All three leaned heavily on theatrical rather than video techniques and all suffered from under-funding but the high quality foreshadowed the future cultural hegemony of British over U.S. programming for the educated audiences of North American public television. As recently as 1988 Michael Bogdanovís The Wars of the Roses (#000) offered a spectacularly compelling saga of the Henriad with minimal sets but imaginative and resourceful acting.

In the United States, where free market philosophies made financing more difficult, television prior to World War II lagged behind Britain's. In the postwar era, though, U.S. television in general and Shakespeare on television in particular began to surpass the entire world in quantity and sometimes even in quality. Thus, so far as I know, the first U.S. transmission of a Shakespeare "event" was not a ten-minute snippet but a full-blown live broadcast of a 1948 performance of Verdi's Otello (#448) from the stage of New York's old Metropolitan Opera House. During the next decade or so, Shakespeare on television benefited from the generosity that commercial networks and sponsors accorded to live television drama in the halcyon years of the industry. Philco Playhouse, Studio One, Kraft Theatre, Omnibus, and the Hallmark Hall of Fame all offered Shakespeare to the masses. By basking in the reflected glory of Shakespeare, companies achieved an enviable image of public service. The rich rewards from lobotomizing the American public with mindless entertainment had not yet been discovered by the advertising industry.

From 1953 to 1970 the Hallmark greeting card company underwrote George Schaefer's remarkable series of televised Shakespeare plays. Maurice Evans, fresh from his triumphs in the war time "GI" Hamlet, played the title role with Sarah Churchill as Ophelia in a 1953 Hamlet (#102). He appeared again in the leading role in a 1954 Richard II (#484) that also featured Sarah Churchill, this time as the unhappy little queen; and in 1954 a Macbeth (#305) in a pioneering color transmission with Judith Anderson as Lady Macbeth. In 1956 there was a Taming of the Shrew (#593), with Evans miscast as a not very convincing Petruchio and Lilli Palmer as Katharine Minola; in 1957, a Twelfth Night (#649) with Evans as Malvolio and Rosemary Harris as Viola; and in 1960 a truly wonderful Tempest (#613) with Evans as Prospero, Lee Remick as Miranda and Richard Burton as Caliban. In 1960 Hallmark restaged Macbeth (#309) and in 1970 the company sponsored a British Hamlet (#126), directed by Peter Wood and with a cluster of big name actors, including Richard Chamberlain as the Prince, John Gielgud as the Ghost, and Michael Redgrave as Polonius. In turning to England, however, for theatrical talent, Hallmark foreshadowed the impending collapse of serious drama on American television. From now on the television audience would be split between two cultures: the plain folk of Middle America who enjoyed sitcoms and beer-sponsored ball games, and the minority of quiche-and-white-wine connoisseurs who preferred Masterpiece Theatre on public television. It was a replay in North America on a massive scale of the division in Elizabethan London between the public audience at the Globe and the "private" audience at Blackfriars playhouse.

Hallmark did not, however, own a monopoly on televised Shakespeare in North America, though it may have seemed that way. In the 30 years between 1949 and 1979 (when the BBC Shakespeare Plays series began to dominate the genre), there were nearly 50 major televised Shakespeare programs broadcast in the United States. As early as 1949 NBC transmitted a brief scene from Henry V featuring Sam Wanamaker. At CBS in 1949 Worthington Miner produced for Studio One, a Julius Caesar (#210) starring Robert Keith, and in 1951 a Macbeth (#301) starring Charlton Heston and Coriolanus (#58) starring Richard Greene. In 1956 an audience estimated, perhaps with some exaggeration, at 25,000,000 watched a colorized Olivier Richard III (#503) on television on the same day that the movie was being theatrically released. Importing British Shakespeare on television continued to be a national habit, as, for example, with the 1959 CBS showpiece, the Old Vic Hamlet (#107), starring John Neville. Three made-in-the-USA Shakespeare productions, all of them simply recordings of stage performances, did manage to make a heavy splash on the national scene. Two of them emanated from the workshops of Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival: a 1977 King Lear (#263) starring James Earl Jones, and an "Americanized" 1973 Much Ado (#428), directed by A.J. Antoon with Sam Waterston as Benedick and Kathleen Widdoes as Beatrice. By shifting the time frame for the play to Teddy Roosevelt's America and by employing such cinematic devices as slow and accelerated motion and Keystone Kop antics, Antoon re-appropriated Shakespeare's text for American audiences. The third memorable production was the American Conservatory Theatre's 1976 Taming of the Shrew (#602) in which William Ball's San Francisco company displaced traditional Commedia tropes into a cinematic farce of slapstick routines and Mickey Mouse sound effects. The presentation was, however, frankly theatrical, not telegenic, in the sense that even the offstage audience was made a part of the mise-en-scène. By the close of the seventies, then, television remained a passive recorder of theatrical productions rather than a dynamic innovator of fresh ways to put Shakespeare on screen. Moreover the sponsorship of major corporations insured that no director would commit any creatively irresponsible acts likely to upset the community norms. It was Shakespeare made safe for the millions.

The inauguration in 1979 by BBC and Time/Life Inc. of all 37 plays (36 in the Folio plus Pericles) in a six-year series called "The Shakespeare Plays," marked a watershed in the history of Shakespeare on screen. In hindsight it can be seen that the plan was flawed. The logistics of recruiting actors, designing sets and costumes, and finding creative directors, all within the constraints of a six-year timetable, inevitably put the BBC production staff under fearful pressure. To expect total success under those circumstances would be unreasonable. A major policy decision to exclude American actors from the casting badly hurt sales to North American schools, whose students did not vibrate to unfamiliar British actors. lf there were defeats, however, there were also victories. Certainly the series revolutionized the teaching of Shakespeare. Great numbers of skeptical classroom teachers began exploring the dynamics of screening a scene on the classroom television monitor as a supplement to a reading of the text. The death knell was at hand for the days when dear old Professor Chips hogged the limelight by reading all the parts aloud himself, while his hapless students squirmed and silently abjured Shakespeare for life.

The series got off to a slow start in North America (the order of presentation in the U.K. being quite different, Romeo and Juliet [#563] being the inaugural transmission there) with a lackluster Julius Caesar (#233), whose studio Rome and bedsheet costuming indicated a decision to play it safe at all costs. There was estimable acting in Richard Pasco's Brutus, Keith Michell's Antony, and especially Elizabeth Spriggs's Calphurnia but the rhetorical paralysis that often afflicts this play could not be overcome even on television.

In quick succession there followed a spritely out-of-doors As You Like It (#42), filmed at Glamis Castle, Scotland, with Helen Mirren as Rosalind; a dismal Romeo and Juliet (#563) that, try as it might, could not get out from under the shadow of the Zeffirelli film; a king-centered Richard II (#492) that became a rostrum for the sinewy talents of Derek Jacobi as the unhappiest of monarchs; a highly successful Measure for Measure (#350); and a surprisingly appealing Henry VIII (#196). Director Desmond Davis' Measure for Measure was the season's hit. Kate Nelligan's Isabella and Tim Piggott-Smith's Angelo, with strong support from John McEnery (Mercutio in the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet) and Kenneth Colley as the godlike Duke Vincentio, offered a familiar tale of sexual harassment well suited to a medium so congenial to soap opera. John Stride, who was the ubiquitous Ross in the Polanski film version of Macbeth, also brought the infrequently performed King Henry VIII to life.

The second season (1980) began with John Gorrie's Twelfth Night (#659.1). A repeat performance of Richard II then served as prologue to the First and Second Parts of Henry IV (#166, #167) and Henry V (#171). The season ended with an inert Tempest (#620), starring Michael Hordern and directed by John Gorrie again. It was a plastic island dead even the cry of seagulls. Trevor Peacock's Feste was the star of Twelfth Night, and, while the sets could not match the extravagant 1955 Lenfilm version directed by Yakov Fried, sensitive performances by Sinead Cusack as Olivia and Felicity Kendal as Viola, re-created some of the magic of Illyria.

The subsequent televising of the major tetralogy of the English history plays gave viewers a rare opportunity, as with An Age of Kings, to see the four plays virtually uncut. Jon Finch as Henry Bolingbroke portrayed the various stages of his unjust exile by Richard II, his usurpation of the crown from Richard II (Derek Jacobi), his ascension to power, and finally his deathbed repentance before the final journey to Westminster's Jerusalem Chamber. The mysterious skin disease, perhaps eczema, that plagued Bolingbroke, and almost homeopathically begins to make the audience itch, serves as a metaphor for the diseased body of king and state. As the "guilt" beneath the "gilt" of the crown surfaces, tension between father and son (Prince Hal is played by David Gwillim) escalates. The great reconciliation scene toward the close of Henry IV Part Two allows each actor a full opportunity for catharsis. In the rejection scene during the coronation procession, Anthony Quayle as Falstaff divulges the inner pathos of the fat warrior, and the tavern sequences, so reminiscent of the domestic tableaux of the seventeenth-century Dutch painters, introduce a garrulous Brenda Bruse as Mrs. Quickly and a blowsy Frances Cuka as Doll Tearsheet (in contrast with the youthful Jeanne Moreau in Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight). A drawback was that the commitment to realism throughout the tetralogy even when the scenes were obviously unrealistic, as in the lists at Coventry, alienated the audience. The tiny television screen also tended to shrink the epical Henriad down in scale so that David Gwillim as the "mirror of Christian princes" seemed to be wearing the borrowed robes of Laurence Olivier. His best efforts could not authenticate the soldierly rhetoric of King Henry V (#182).

Nothing revolutionary happened in the beginning of the third season in late 1980 with a Hamlet (#140), starring Derek Jacobi, which suffered from the same demon that had haunted nearly all the previous productions. Unable to decide whether it was theatrical or telegenic, the representation succeeded in being neither. Few concessions were made to a camera, though the bare mise-en-scène either acknowledged the impossibility of realistic strategies or betrayed the strains on the budget. Derek Jacobi gave his usual brilliant readings but for those who had only recently seen him as Richard II it was sometimes hard to tell whether he was Hamlet or the self-pitying Plantagenet monarch. The characters acted but did not interact. It was a Hamlet without Hamlet, so to speak, but Claire Bloom was a memorable Gertrude and Richard Emrys a fine First Player. An interesting metatheatrical touch was to have Hamlet directly enter into the performance of the mouse trap as a foil to Lucianus, the nephew of the player king.

The producer of the series in the first two years had been Cedric Messina, a veteran BBC professional. In the third year he was replaced by Jonathan Miller who had the advantage of profiting from his predecessor's experience. The most notable change was an explicit policy that each production should reflect the practices of Shakespeare's own time by costuming the players in contemporary rather than in period costumes. Shakespeare's players, as is testified to by the Longleat sketch of Titus Andronicus, except for the principals, mainly wore Elizabethan dress on stage. The way to reconstruct those dress codes and the mise-en-scène of Shakespeare's time was to emulate the style of painters contemporaneous with Shakespeare. This same idea had already been explored in the first season with Desmond Davis' Measure for Measure, when the designer (Odette Barrow) drew on 17th-century Dutch painters for the costumes. Now, however, it was to be promulgated as official doctrine.

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Thus in Antony and Cleopatra (#23), the work of Veronese provided the inspiration for costumes and sets, while Colin Blakely and Jane Lapotaire in the principal roles reduced the sprawling drama to the size of a geriatric love duet for the television screen. In All's Well that Ends Well (#3), when Helena is seated at the clavichord with a mirror on the wall above her, she closely resembles the lady in Emanuel de Witte's "Interior with a Woman at a Clavichord." Beyond that, director Elijah Moshinsky and lighting designer John Summers figured out how to light the set so as to enrich the really spooky performance of Angela Down as Helena. An acerbic Ian Charleson as a grumpy Bertram and the ubiquitous Michael Hordern, who magically seemed to pop up in so many BBC plays, made the production as successful as the first season's problem play, Measure for Measure. Director Jack Gold's Merchant of Venice (#370) drew on Titian as a backdrop for a stony-faced Portia (Gemma Jones), who in true post-structuralist style subverts her own speech on mercy at the trial of Shylock (Warren Mitchell). Gold's camera also nicely pinpoints the spiritual desolation of both Jessica and Antonio, who at the end are left apart from the other, far happier, more integrated, citizens of a Wasp-ish Belmont.

One does not need great expertise in art history, though, to appreciate all of Dr. Miller's innovations. Considerable leeway remained for the genius of individual directors such as Jane Howell, whose Winter's Tale (#673) used minimalist, expressionistic sets and symbolic costumes (a bearskin hat and cloak for Leontes as a prefiguration of the famous bear in the third act). And Dr. Miller himself created a truly offbeat Taming of the Shrew (#603) when he cast John Cleese of Monty Python notoriety as a puritanical and deadly serious Petruchio. Cleese's prune-faced Petruchio contrasts so vividly with the blowhard depicted by Richard Burton in the Zeffirelli film as to make the two versions ideally suited for classroom analysis and comparison.

The pace slowed somewhat in the fourth season (1981-82) with only four plays: Othello (#472), Timon of Athens (#632), A Midsummer Night's Dream (#412), and Troilus and Cressida (#638). The two satirical plays, Timon of Athens and Troilus, brought Elizabethan esoterica within the range of mass audiences. Jonathan Pryce as the curmudgeonish and indubitably crazy Timon progressed from the excesses of generosity to the deficiences of misanthropism. In Troilus, Charles Gray, a workhorse BBC actor, who in 1979 had played the title role in Julius Caesar and the Duke of York in Richard II, was cast as Pandarus, while the Incredible Orlando [sic] was the spiteful Thersites. Director Elijah Moshinsky, an emerging video auteur, in his Midsummer Night's Dream, followed the tactics of his earlier All's Well by borrowing design ideas from the Dutch masters. One shot of the "rude mechanicals" perched on a bench inside a tavern mirrored Hans Bols's "Members of the Wine Merchants' Guild," while a touch of whimsy made Cherith Miller as Helena with her granny glasses and stick figure a triumph of adolescent misery. The season's most ambitious but not most rewarding production was Othello (#472). With Anthony Hopkins as the Moor, Bob Hoskins as Iago and Penelope Wilton as Desdemona, Director Miller brought his usual bundle of surprises to the production. Low-keyed, almost humdrum, at the beginning, Hopkins' Moor erupts in a Vesuvian blast when Hoskins' demonic, insinuating, cackling Iago finally unhinges him in the third act. Even if a mere coincidence, the linkage of the names, "Hopkins" and "Hoskins," hints at the production's stress on the Doppelganger relationship between hero and villain.

In the fifth season (1982-83), six more plays rolled off the BBC assembly line. An understated King Lear (#267) marked the third time, no less, that Director Jonathan Miller, and actors Michael Hordern (King Lear) and Frank Middlemass (Fool) had worked together on Shakespeare's supreme tragedy. The grizzled, somewhat dyspeptic, grumpy old man who emerged as the king was then hardly a casual invention. Miller and Hordern de-mythologized King Lear by showing how his wicked daughters, with entire logic, might indeed have found the old man a pain in the neck. Instead of the flamboyant, ranting King Lear of a Frederick B. Warde (#246) or a "Sir" in The Dresser (#273), this king looked more like almost anybody's father on the verge of Alzheimer's disease. This undermining of the conventional image of the king as Jove-figure made the father-daughter bond notably more poignant. Since Hordern appeared as King Lear at virtually the same time as the Granada TV Olivier King Lear (#271), the two treatments make fine visual texts for comparison. Competing with Lord Olivier is hardly anyone's desire, but Hordern's rather cynical old man compares favorably with the more romantic image projected by Olivier. Both actors were self-referentially playing an aged star at the end of lengthy stage and film careers. The way that they chose to do Lear was the way that they had lived out their professional lives: Hordern as a skilled and reliable journeyman actor, and Olivier as a mercurial and spectacular superstar. Needless to say, following BBC institutional policy of catering to the schools, of the two versions the Hordern/Miller remains more faithful to Shakespeare's Quarto and Folio texts.

The Cymbeline (#73) that followed allowed the highly successful Elijah Moshinsky to demonstrate afresh his talent as an auteur of TV Shakespeare. It also brought the distinguished Shakespearean actress, Claire Bloom, back on the screen as the malevolent queen, while Robert Lindsay as Iachimo played out his erotic desires for Helen Mirren as Imogen. The following month saw Ben Kingsley as a paranoid Mr. Ford and Richard Griffiths as the scapegoated Falstaff in a Merry Wives of Windsor (#385). The season's triumph, however, was the sleeper of the entire Shakespeare seriesóJane Howell's wonderful production of the minor tetralogy of the English history plays, 1-3 Henry VI (#186, #187, #193) and Richard III (#513). The BBC plays got better as the directors began to discover the best strategies for presenting them, but Jane Howell completely abandoned the stodgy realism that had put audiences to yawning in favor of a visually exciting expressionism. With mirrors and with the aid of a children's play set inspired by, of all things, an "adventure playground" in Fulham, Howell's illusory battles became gorier than the real thing. Ron Cook as Richard Duke of Gloucester and Julia Foster as the "She- wolf of France," outdid each other in their portrayals of nasty royal personages. At the same time, as a person of the twentieth century, Howell managed to rearrange matters so that this saga of division and rebellion implicitly condemned warfare while glorifying it.

The sixth season (1983-84), which was to have marked the coda, was not quite the end as four plays still had yet to be released. Shaun Sutton had by then replaced Jonathan Miller as producer and each year the series seemed more capable of solving the insoluble problems of putting Shakespeare on the small screen. With sponsorship from Exxon Corporation, Morgan Guaranty Trust Company, and the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, as well as public broadcasting stations, the season in North America included Coriolanus (#67), The Comedy of Errors (#55), Two Gentlemen of Verona (#667), Pericles (#482), and Macbeth (#336).

The way that Alan Howard played Coriolanus opposite Mike Gwilym's Aufidius hinted at an erotic emotional bond between them, while veteran Shakespearean actress, Irene Worth, was Volumnia, mother of the "boy of tears." Both Comedy of Errors and Two Gentlemen of Verona delivered the farce and romance expected of them, though the sets for Errors with a huge built-in map of the Mediterranean right out of Ortelius' atlas, seemed the more brilliantly adapted to the medium. Pop singer, Roger Daltrey, doubling as the Dromios, in Errors made a big hit with American students, because they could more readily identify with him than with actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company. Starring Mike Gwilym in the title role, director David Jones's Pericles with its soft Mediterranean lighting and rapid reversals in fortune captured the flavor of the Greek romance tradition. Trevor Peacock as Boult and Amanda Redman as Marina in the brothel scenes, and an unusually high frequency of dissolves to support Gower's narrative commentary, added visual bite to this strange and exotic tale. Again it was the tragedy that dominated the season. Nicol Williamson and Jane Lapotaire as Macbeth and his Lady thoroughly mined the subtext for imaginative readings. Lapotaire's handling of the "unsex me here" soliloquy will surely go down in acting history as anything but unsexed. Nicol Williamson, as in the Tony Richardson Hamlet, again brutally assaulted the text until it confessed its innermost secrets. No actor could be more energetic in the quest for truth.

The final group of four plays from the BBC series was released in the U.S.A. in 1984-85: Elijah Moshinsky's Love's Labor's Lost (#283), Stuart Burge's Much Ado about Nothing (#432), David Giles's King John (#240), and Jane Howell's Titus Andronicus (#633). The first, Love's Labor's Lost, broke with the BBC house style when Director Moshinsky put his cast in 18th-century instead of Elizabethan or Jacobean dress. The Much Ado about Nothing gave pioneering television director Stuart Burge, who had directed Maurice Evans in the Hallmark Shakespeare of the fifties, a chance to put Shakespeare on television once again. David Giles did something unusual with King John in casting a British comic actor, Leonard Rossiter, in the title role, though the anomaly was lost on American audiences. By rediscovering the possibilities for gothic chills in Shakespeare's strange Senecan tragedy, Titus Andronicus, Jane Howell marched off with the season's honors. It is a Rocky Horror Picture Show and yet more than that. It manages to lend a great deal of credibility to the incredibility of the Ovidian/Senecan rhetoric in Shakespeare's weird but compelling Roman history play.

Prior to, concomitant with, or subsequent to the BBC series were such notable extraterrestrial TV productions as Trevor Nunnís 1974 RSC Antony and Cleopatra (#21), starring Janet Suzman as an unforgettably mercurial Egyptian queen; and two New York Shakespeare Festival productions: a 1973 King Lear (#263) with James Earl Jones as the choleric old king, and a 1982 Midsummer Nightís Dream (#413) with Diane Venora as Hippolyta. In 1990, a New York Shakespeare Festival Hamlet (#000), starring Kevin Kline was presented on public television stations. More recent televised Shakespeare has included a 1998 Masterpiece Theater King Lear (#000) with Ian Holm and Victoria Hamilton; a 2000 Hamlet (#000) directed by and starring Campbell Scott; and a 2002 U.K. modernization of Othello (#000), in which the Moor becomes a high police official in London.

Even as the BBC series marked a watershed in the history of Shakespeare on screen, other scenarios began to be written. For one thing the possibilities for easy video recording of Shakespeare on stage began to be exploited more and more, and organizations such as the New York City Lincoln Center Library TOFT (Theatre on Film and Tape) collection, the Folger Library, and the embryonic Globe Bankside Centre in London, began collecting videotapes for their archives. Indeed the concept of "video as archive" as opposed to "video as creation" has created a new category of screened Shakespeare. Presumably one day researchers will be able to study the history of Shakespeare in production on a video screen, though the stringent rules of actors and musicians' unions often make the taping of a commercial theatrical production so restrictive as to be impracticable.

Commercial groups have also begun to market full-scale video productions, which had never or rarely been transmitted on public television, directly to the schools. These include, for example, R. Thad Taylor's 1979 videotape of a lively Merry Wives (#383) starring Gloria Grahame as Mistress Page at the Los Angeles Globe playhouse. Another video series has been prepared for release through Encyclopedia Britannica by Bard Productions, Ltd., with the intention of allowing students to see popular American actors from the soaps in Shakespeare. So far the titles include Macbeth (#340), Richard II (#494), Antony and Cleopatra (#27), and The Tempest (#627). Certainly the Richard II, starring a well-known television star, David Birney, is impressive. When Bolingbroke interrogates Bushy and Green, the "caterpillars of the commonwealth," the scene is more of a good old fashioned American police third degree than a lecture by the stern headmaster. There is also a Macbeth (#333) directed by Sarah Caldwell, which has been transmitted regionally on television. In fact the best of this new VCR genre is the 1987 Cambridgeshire post-modernist Hamlet (#154) that, with only four actors, deconstructs and then reconstructs Shakespeare's text in the idiom of a pyschodelic rock/video. Its re-envisionment of the text springs from an honest drive to use the camera not just for recording a play but for artistry in its own right.

Still another thriving sub-species of the Shakespeare on screen genre lies in the appropriation of bits, pieces, and segments of Shakespeare by the scenarists for popular television shows. Difficult to track down because they are not listed separately in the television guides, and therefore not fully covered in this volume, are Shakespearean episodes in such commercial programs as Cheers, Frasier, and Star Trek. These kinds of flash appearances stem partly, no doubt, from the fact that Shakespeare is in the public domain and therefore a cheap source for material. They also validate, however, how deeply he is embedded in the general culture, and how thoroughly domiciled he has become in pop circles.


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[9] Transmission data from mimeographed Programme as Broadcast, 1937. BBC Written Archives Centre, Reading. [Back]

[10] "Floor Mistakes," Internal Circulating Memo, BBC WAC TS/508 6 Feb. 1939. [Back]

[11] Gordon Ross, Television Jubilee: The Story of 25 Years of BBC Television (London: Allen, 1961): 59. [Back]

[12]"Shakespeare on Television," BBC Quarterly 9.3 (Autumn 1954): 146. [Back]

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