Making its debut with Romeo and Juliet on 3 December 1978, and concluding nearly seven years later with Titus Andronicus on 27 April 1985, the BBC Television Shakespeare project was the single most ambitious attempt at bringing the Bard of Avon to the small screen, both at the time and to date.
Producer Cedric Messina was already an experienced producer of one-off television Shakespeare presentations, and was thus ideally qualified to present the BBC with a daunting but nonetheless enticingly simple proposition: a series of adaptations, staged specifically for television, of all 36 First Folio plays, plus Pericles (The Two Noble Kinsmen was considered primarily John Fletcher’s work, and the legitimacy of Edward III was still being debated).
The scale of Messina’s proposal, far greater than that of previous multi-part Shakespeare series such as An Age of Kings (BBC, 1960) and Spread of the Eagle (BBC, 1963), required an American partner in order to guarantee access to the US market, deemed essential for the series to recoup its costs. Time-Life Television agreed to participate, but under certain controversial conditions – that the productions be traditional interpretations of the plays in appropriately Shakespearean period costumes and sets, designed to fit a two-and-a-half-hour time slot.
The running-time requirement was swiftly jettisoned when it became clear that the major tragedies in particular would have suffered severely, but other artistic restrictions remained largely in place throughout. Although later productions under Messina’s successors Jonathan Miller and Shaun Sutton would be more experimental, Miller was unable to persuade first-choice directors such as Peter Brook and Ingmar Bergman to take part, and Michael Bogdanov resigned from Timon of Athens (eventually tx, 4/16/1981, with Miller himself directing) after his modern-dress interpretation was considered too radical a departure.
This gave the BBC Television Shakespeare cycle the reputation of being overly staid and conventional, which was not always deserved. Though Messina’s own productions (1978-80) were largely conservative, Jonathan Miller (1980-82) revamped things both visually (thanks to a design policy of sourcing sets and costumes from great paintings of the era in which the play was set) and in terms of direction and casting, in some cases using popular actors with little or no Shakespeare experience (John Cleese as Petruchio, Bob Hoskins as Iago) to attract new and younger audiences.
Under Miller, directors such as Jack Gold, Jane Howell and Elijah Moshinsky were encouraged to be more adventurous, with Howell in particular adopting such a stylised approach for The Winter’s Tale (tx. 8/2/1981) and the Henry VI/Richard III cycle (tx. 2-23/1/1983) that they pushed the definition of “traditional” to the limit, but also garnered the series some of its best reviews. Miller’s aesthetic policies continued under Shaun Sutton (1982-85), who brought the project to a belated close.
Whatever its artistic reputation, there was no doubt that the BBC Television Shakespeare was a commercial triumph, breaking even financially by 1982 (ahead of expectations) and fully justifying Messina’s gamble. Its success was helped by the rapid growth of video recorders in schools, creating a secondary market that was much bigger than initially predicted – though the initial decision to sell the plays only as a complete set provoked complaints from people who baulked at paying the substantial asking price because they were after a smaller selection or individual titles. The BBC eventually released some of the more popular titles separately, but it was not until late in 2005 that the entire series was available individually on DVD at a competitive price.
Although the BBC Television Shakespeare project as a whole met with a mixed reception, it had several positive virtues. Chief among them was the fact that its completist remit meant that several of the more obscure plays received their first television adaptation, and in most cases the BBC version remains the only one. Happily, such productions as Henry VIII (tx. 25/2/1979), Cymbeline (tx. 10/7/1983), Pericles (tx. 11/6/1984) and Titus Andronicus were considered amongst the cycle’s most impressive achievements, with Henry VIII subsequently voted the best production of all by the Shakespeare Association of America.
A complete list of BBC Television Shakespeare productions is as follows:
Series One (producer: Cedric Messina): Romeo and Juliet (tx. 3/12/1978), Richard II (tx. 10/12/1978), As You Like It (tx. 17/12/1978), Julius Caesar (tx. 11/2/1979), Measure For Measure (tx. 18/2/1979), Henry VIII (tx. 25/2/1979)
Series Two (p. Cedric Messina): Henry IV Part One (tx. 9/12/1979), Henry IV Part Two (tx. 16/12/1979), Henry V (tx.23/12/1979), Twelfth Night (tx. 6/1/1980), The Tempest (tx. 27/2/1980), Hamlet (tx. 25/5/1980).
Series Three (p. Jonathan Miller): The Taming of the Shrew (tx. 23/10/1980), The Merchant of Venice (tx. 17/12/1980), All’s Well That Ends Well (tx. 4/1/1981), The Winter’s Tale (tx. 8/2/1981), Timon of Athens (tx. 16/4/1981), Antony and Cleopatra (tx. 8/5/1981)
Series Four (p. Jonathan Miller): Othello (tx. 4/10/1981), Troilus and Cressida (tx. 7/10/1981), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (tx. 13/12/1981)
Series Five (p. Jonathan Miller, Shaun Sutton): King Lear (tx. 19/9/1982), The Merry Wives of Windsor (tx. 28/12/1982), Henry VI Part One (tx. 2/1/1983), Henry VI Part Two (tx. 9/1/1983), Henry VI Part Three (tx. 16/1/1983), Richard III (tx. 23/1/1983), Cymbeline (tx. 10/7/1983)
Series Six (p. Shaun Sutton): Macbeth (tx. 17/10/1983), The Comedy of Errors (tx. 24/12/1983), The Two Gentlemen of Verona (tx. 27/12/1983), Coriolanus (tx. 21/4/1984), Pericles (tx. 11/6/1984)
Series Seven (p. Shaun Sutton): King John (tx. 24/11/1984), Much Ado About Nothing (tx. 30/11/1984), Love’s Labour’s Lost (tx. 5/1/1985), Titus Andronicus (tx. 27/4/1985)
The BBC also produced Shakespeare in Perspective, an accompanying series of 25-minute personal introductions to individual plays by an eclectic range of presenters from the literary (Anthony Burgess, Dennis Potter, Jilly Cooper) to the scholarly (Germaine Greer, Frank Kermode, Michael Wood) to the celebrity (Roy Hudd, George Melly, Barry Took). These usually took the form of straight-to-camera addresses from assorted locations with some connection to the play, which were intercut with extracts from the accompanying BBC Shakespeare production, usually screened later that evening.
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 27/2/1980, 125 mins, colour
Directed by John Gorrie
Production Companies BBC Television, Time-Life Television
Producer Cedric Messina
Script Editor Alan Shallcross
Designer Paul Joel
Music Joseph Horovitz
Cast: Michael Hordern (Prospero); Pippa Guard (Miranda); Warren Clarke (Caliban); David Dixon (Ariel); Nigel Hawthorne (Stephano); Andrew Sachs (Trinculo); Derek Godfrey (Antonio)
An elderly magician, Prospero, lives on an almost deserted island with his daughter Miranda, servant Ariel and slave Caliban – but their lives change after the men who exiled Prospero are cast ashore following a tempest.
If any production best underscores the limitations of producer Cedric Messina’s scrupulously ‘realistic’ approach to televising Shakespeare, it may well be this generally lacklustre adaptation of what should by rights be a magical experience. This BBC Television Shakespeare production certainly has its moments, and is bolstered by some strong performances, but its broadcast only a few months after the release of Derek Jarman’s far more imaginative feature film did it few favours.
Paul Joel’s set designs, with the island dominated by impossibly sheer rocky outcrops (they were inspired by Gustave Doré’s famous etchings for Dante’s Inferno), are initially striking, but after a superbly staged and appropriately tempestuous opening, director John Gorrie ultimately does little to exploit their visual potential. Despite the potential offered by the television medium, special effects are kept to a minimum, and are generally only used to let Ariel and assorted spirits dissolve into the air. Some set-pieces convey a genuine sense of the fantastical, notably Ariel’s appearance as a giant bird-like master of ceremonies, producing and then whisking away a feast on the seashore, but they are disappointingly few and far between, and David Dixon’s androgynous performance lacks the necessary puckishness.
Chief among the production’s assets is Michael Hordern’s restrained and dignified performance as Prospero, making wonderful use of his naturally careworn features and tremulous to suggest that his time on the island has been largely a draining one, for all the power of his magic. Warren Clarke is almost typecast as a shaggy Caliban (with an unnervingly prominent spine breaking through the hair), and his triple-act with Nigel Hawthorne’s Stephano and Andrew Sachs’ Trinculo provides most of the choicer comic moments. The casting of real-life brother and sister Pippa and Christopher Guard as the lovers Miranda and Ferdinand underscores the essential chasteness of their romance – Prospero voices his concerns in some detail, but he would appear to have little to worry about.
Despite its stature, The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays, and accordingly the text is presented almost in full.