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Twelfth Night (1988)

Courtesy of FremantleMedia

Main image of Twelfth Night (1988)
Thames for ITV, tx. 30/12/1988, 157 mins, colour
DirectorPaul Kafno
Stage DirectorKenneth Branagh
Production CompanyThames Television
ProducerPaul Kafno
DesignerBunny Christie
MusicPaul McCartney, Patrick Doyle

Cast: Frances Barber (Viola), Richard Briers (Malvolio), Anton Lesser (Feste), Christopher Ravencroft (Orsino), James Saxon (Sir Toby Belch), James Simmons (Andrew Aguecheek), Caroline Langrishe (Olivia)

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Adapted from Kenneth Branagh's much-praised Renaissance Theatre Company stage production, the 1988 Twelfth Night was ITV's first new Shakespeare production in almost exactly a decade, the Ian McKellen/Judi Dench Macbeth having been shown in early 1979. It was also the last for some thirteen years, and the last blank-verse ITV broadcast to date, as the 2001 Othello featured modern dialogue.

Though obviously filmed in a studio, the entire play (the text is more or less complete) is performed outdoors, in a snow-shrouded landscape appropriate to both the setting of the play and to the chilliness of the overall mood. This is established from the start with Orsino's strikingly desolate rendition of the famous "if music be the food of love" soliloquy. Though the expected laughs are still there, many of the characters have a hunted look about them, as though constantly aware that they are living a lie, either literally or emotionally. This is particularly true of Frances Barber's Viola, Caroline Langrishe's Olivia (when the latter declares love for the former, it's impossible to miss the pain etched across both their faces) and above all Anton Lesser's Feste. A world apart from Tommy Steele's happy-go-lucky scamp in the earlier ITV adaptation (tx. 12/7/1970), this world-weary clown can barely keep his tears reined in.

The cast list suggests that this production is following in the footsteps of previous ITV Shakespeare productions in its use of sitcom stalwart Richard Briers (best known for The Good Life, BBC, 1977-79) as Malvolio. In fact, Briers was a very experienced Shakespearean stage actor, and was the fortunate beneficiary of Branagh's determination to re-establish him as such - he would go on to play Bardolph in the director's Henry V (1989), Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing (US/UK, 1993) and Polonius in Hamlet (US/UK, 1996). His Malvolio is a delight, segueing seamlessly from self-righteous pomposity at inappropriate revelry to truly grotesque self-delusion as he proffers love to his mistress while clad in yellow stockings (the latter peculiarly vivid against the white background).

Although Branagh himself does not appear, and Paul Kafno took over the directing reins for the television adaptation, in retrospect this can be seen as the first stage in what would become the most remarkable run of Shakespeare films since the heyday of Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles - Branagh's big-screen Henry V would be released within a year of the broadcast.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. The food of love (1:47)
2. The better fool (4:04)
3. Be not afraid (3:46)
4. Malvolio's delusion (2:19)
Branagh, Kenneth (1960-)
Briers, Richard (1934-2013)
Shakespeare on ITV
Twelfth Night On Screen