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Richard III On Screen

Film and TV adaptations of Shakespeare's historical tragedy

Main image of Richard III On Screen

Shakespeare's second-longest play after Hamlet was also one of his earliest, with scholars believing it to have been written in 1591, at the same time or shortly after the Henry VI trilogy, to which it is a sequel. However, thanks to the appeal of the title character, one of the most compelling villains in the whole of English literature, the play has become much better known than its predecessors and is more frequently performed as a single drama.

The first British screen adaptation of Richard III was a 22-minute silent condensation made in 1911 by F.R.Benson as part of a series of similar films made to promote his stage company. The play's major scenes are presented as thirteen silent tableaux (the first two from Henry VI Part III, to help set the scene) shot from a fixed camera position, each introduced with an explanatory title that includes a brief quotation from Shakespeare. Prior familiarity with the text is essential in order to make much sense of it.

The second British cinema version was very different. Made in 1955 in Technicolor, and based on an already renowned stage production, the text was still heavily cut, but in compensation Laurence Olivier gave a performance that is generally considered definitive. Less cinematic than Olivier's earlier Henry V (1944) or Hamlet (1948), with the camera only venturing outside the studio for the final battle scenes, it more than compensates with a superb cast that includes Olivier's fellow theatrical knights John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Cedric Hardwicke.

Richard III made his television debut on 9 April 1937, when selected scenes were broadcast live (and unrecorded). The first substantial television version was made in 1960, and happily still survives, albeit only in a poor-quality telerecording. An Age of Kings was a fifteen-part BBC series that presented the history plays in chronological order, with parts fourteen ('The Dangerous Brother', tx. 3/11/1960) and fifteen ('The Boar Hunt', tx. 17/11/1960) making up a 135-minute reduction of Richard III. A prestige production at the time, it stands up surprisingly well today, with Paul Daneman's chortling Richard finding rich humour in his villainy.

In 1965, the BBC broadcast the Royal Shakespeare Company's The Wars of the Roses, originally staged by Peter Hall in 1963. Essentially a televised stage production as opposed to a full-scale reimagining for television, the 145-minute Richard III (tx. 22/4/1965) nonetheless garnered considerable praise, especially for Ian Holm (Richard) and Peggy Ashcroft (Queen Margaret). The cycle was repeated as an eleven-part series the following year, with Richard III split into four episodes ('The Prophetess', tx. 24/2/1966; 'Richard of Gloucester', tx. 3/3/1966; 'Richard the King', tx. 10/3/1966; 'Henry Tudor', tx. 17/3/1966).

The second version specifically conceived for television was broadcast on 23 January 1983 as part of the mammoth BBC Television Shakespeare project. Directed by Jane Howell (who had previously helmed the Henry VI cycle, broadcast the same month) and running nearly four hours, this is the most complete filmed version of the play to date, with Ron Cook as a soft-spoken Richard who relies more on wheedling than aggressive power-playing.

An accompanying documentary in the Shakespeare in Perspective series, broadcast the same day, saw dramatist Rosemary Anne Sisson discussing and defending Shakespeare's treatment of historical events. A fortnight later, theatre director Michael Bogdanov presented a two-part Richard III workshop (Channel 4, tx. 2/2 and 9/2/1983) as part of the Shakespeare Lives series, in which scenes from the play were performed, dissected and discussed with an audience at the Camden Roundhouse, who collectively explored the question of whether it was merely the story of one man's villainy or a study of power politics in general, as relevant to the present day as to Shakespeare's era. The actors included Clive Arrindell, Yvonne Bryceland, Joss Buckley, John Darrell, John Labanowski, Daniel Massey and Bill Wallis.

One of the theatre's great Richards, Antony Sher, never committed his interpretation to film, but his voice can be heard on the soundtrack of the Shakespeare: The Animated Tales adaptation (tx. 2/11/1994), alongside that of Eleanor Bron (Duchess of York) and Tom Wilkinson (Buckingham). Novelist Leon Garfield cut the text to 26 minutes, retaining most of the key scenes and lines and plugging the gaps with unobtrusive narration read by Alec McCowen. Natalia Orlova's visual conception is similar to that of her earlier Hamlet, with the camera panning across and focusing through multiple layers of glass paintings. The colour scheme is muted but for vivid splashes of red (Richard's hat and cloak, spilled wine and blood), with most shots dominated by looming shadows, vertiginous towers or circling carrion crows. Although no substitute for the full play, it offers a gripping introduction for beginners, conveying a much more vivid sense of the original's oppressive clamminess than the similarly truncated F.R.Benson version.

Like its two predecessors, the third British cinema version (1995) was adapted from a successful stage version, though its origins in a Richard Eyre-directed RSC production are all but invisible as the film's director Richard Loncraine comprehensively reinvents the play as a cross between The Godfather (US, d. Francis Coppola, 1972) and Triumph of the Will (Germany, d. Leni Riefenstahl, 1934), with Richard as ruler of an imaginary Fascist Britain in the 1930s. Purists were enraged by the liberties taken with the original text, cut more severely than any version since 1911, but it was hard to deny the film's visual verve and narrative drive, helped immensely by Ian McKellen's barnstorming performance in the title role.

As for citations of the play in films and TV programmes, the second episode of John Mortimer's biographical series Will Shakespeare, 'Alms for Oblivion' (ITV, tx. 20/6/1978) revolves around the writing and premiere of Richard III, the latter event nearly curtailed when theatre seamstress Mistress Rice (Irene Sunters) dies of the plague after completing the construction of Richard's hump. Since this would mean mandatory closure on health grounds, the resourceful Will and his comrades have to smuggle the body out of the theatre and dispose of it while still treating it in accordance with Christian tradition - the latter insisted upon by the dead woman's son Jack (Ron Cook), who also bags a meaty role in the play in compensation for these indignities. The role in question is Lady Anne, amusingly enough (at least with hindsight), since Cook would play Richard himself for the BBC five years later. (Here, Richard is Dick Burbage, Shakespeare's favourite actor, as incarnated by Paul Freeman).

Theatre of Blood (d. Douglas Hickox, 1973) includes a Richard III reference, with Vincent Price's vengeful actor giving one of his critic tormentors the same treatment meted out to Richard's brother, the Duke of Clarence, by drowning him in a butt of Malmsey. A decade later, Peter Cook played Richard in the first episode of The Black Adder (BBC, tx. 15/6/1983), with dialogue at least partially derived from Shakespeare.

There have been at least two attempts at rehabilitating the real-life Richard III. The Trial of Richard III (LWT, tx. 4/11/1984) saw him put on trial in a modern courtroom, with the jury acquitting him on the grounds of insufficient evidence. More recently, Richard III: Fact or Fiction (Channel 4, tx. 3/1/2004) saw Tony Robinson exploring and debunking many of the accepted myths and concluding that Richard's legitimate claim to the throne may have been stronger than anyone else's (including his older brother Edward IV, now believed to have been illegitimate). A similar rehabilitation exercise was carried out by Terry Jones in his 'The King' episode of Terry Jones' Medieval Lives (BBC, tx. 8/2-29/3/2004), which also defended Richard II's similarly maligned reputation.


1911, d. F.R.Benson
1955, d. Laurence Olivier
1995, d. Richard Loncraine

BBC, tx. 9/4/1937, excerpts
BBC, tx. 3/11/1960, An Age of Kings part 14: 'The Dangerous Brother', d. Michael Hayes
BBC, tx. 17/11/1960, An Age of Kings part 15: 'The Boar Hunt', d. Hayes
BBC2, tx. 22/4/1965, The Wars of the Roses, part 3, d. Peter Hall
BBC2, tx. 23/1/1983, BBC Television Shakespeare, d. Jane Howell
BBC2, tx. 2/11/1994, Shakespeare: The Animated Tales, d. Natalia Orlova

Other References
Theatre of Blood (d. Douglas Hickox, 1973)
Will Shakespeare, episode 2: 'Alms for Oblivion' (ITV, tx. 20/6/1978)
The Trial of Richard III (ITV, tx. 4/11/1984)
The Black Adder, episode 1: 'The Foretelling' (BBC, tx. 15/6/1983)
Richard III: Fact or Fiction (Channel 4, tx. 3/1/2004)
Terry Jones' Medieval Lives: 'The King' (BBC, tx. 8/2-29/3/2004)

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Richard III (1911)

Richard III (1911)

Truncated silent version of Shakespeare's play

Thumbnail image of Richard III (1955)

Richard III (1955)

Laurence Olivier's definitive version of Shakespeare's great history play

Thumbnail image of Age of Kings, An (1960)

Age of Kings, An (1960)

Ambitious history of medieval British royalty, adapted from Shakespeare

Thumbnail image of Tragedy of Richard III, The (1983)

Tragedy of Richard III, The (1983)

Near-complete BBC version of Shakespeare's tale of villainy

Thumbnail image of Will Shakespeare (1978)

Will Shakespeare (1978)

Tim Curry stars in John Mortimer's rollicking biographical portrait

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