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Shakespeare on ITV

How Britain's leading commercial channel tackled the Bard

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The history of Shakespeare on British television is overwhelmingly a history of the BBC, the number of original productions since their first Shakespeare broadcast in 1937 having comfortably reached triple figures. By contrast, ITV has devoted comparatively little airtime to the Bard over its first half-century, with only a dozen or so complete productions and a smattering of other programmes and documentaries.

But this relative scarcity is offset by a very high quality threshold. More often than not, ITV Shakespeare broadcasts were high-profile events, with star-studded casts and production teams. Indeed, several productions, notably the 1964 Midsummer Night's Dream, the 1970 Twelfth Night and the 1979 Macbeth, still rank amongst the finest examples of small-screen Shakespeare.

The first complete ITV Shakespeare broadcast was a live and unrecorded relay of The Comedy of Errors (tx. 20/5/1956), in a production that originally ran at the Arts Theatre in London in a version with added music by Julian Slade (of Salad Days fame). A slight wariness on the part of ITV schedulers about scheduling Shakespeare in peak-time can be detected in a short piece that ran in the concurrent TV Times (May 18 1956) in which co-star Patricia Routledge said "We have found that a lot of people who might have shied off Shakespeare have come along and absolutely adored it because of the music."

The first ITV company to show an interest in Shakespeare was Associated-Rediffusion, though several years elapsed between their first Shakespeare-themed programmes (The Crazy Gang performing an excerpt from A Midsummer Night's Dream on Music Box, tx. 1/2/1957; a programme of Shakespeare-themed songs sung by Cleo Laine in Lyrics By Shakespeare, tx. 6/4/1964) and their first attempt at a serious production. But Joan Kemp-Welch's A Midsummer Night's Dream (tx. 24/6/1964) was well worth the wait, being acclaimed at the time as an unusually imaginative production, a verdict upheld by posterity. Despite populist casting, most famously the comedian Benny Hill making his Shakespeare debut as Bottom, Kemp-Welch and adapter George Rayner resisted the temptation to simplify the text - aside from a few small cuts for timing reasons, it was presented as originally written.

Despite a critical and commercial triumph (Hill's involvement ensured a huge ratings success), the next original ITV Shakespeare production took six years to emerge. ATV was the company behind Twelfth Night (tx. 12/7/1970), and the formula was broadly similar: unlikely but surprisingly effective casting of a Shakespeare newcomer (in this case Cockney entertainer Tommy Steele as Feste, complete with songs) against the far more experienced Alec Guinness (Malvolio), Ralph Richardson (Sir Toby Belch) and Joan Plowright playing both Viola and twin brother Sebastian.

ATV would make three further forays into Shakespeare in the 1970s, all adapted from existing stage productions. The first, The Merchant of Venice (tx. 10/2/1974) was directed by Jonathan Miller and starred Laurence Olivier as Shylock - ironically making his television Shakespeare debut with the last role he played on stage (for the National Theatre). The Royal Shakespeare Company was the source of Antony and Cleopatra (tx. 28/7/1974), Trevor Nunn's intelligent reading of the play that, while understandably unable to match the spectacle of the then-recent Charlton Heston feature film (Switzerland/Spain/UK, 1972), more than compensated with a much stronger cast. Richard Johnson and Janet Suzman played the title roles, but the bulk of the plaudits went to Patrick Stewart's pivotal Enobarbus.

The second ATV/RSC entry was very different. A much weaker play, The Comedy of Errors (tx. 18/4/1978) demands more in the way of overt directorial flourishes, and Nunn more than rose to the task, reconceiving it as a full-scale musical (music by Guy Woolfenden, lyrics by Nunn himself) with much knockabout slapstick, much of it provided by the two Dromios (Michael Williams, Nickolas Grace), the punk-haired twin servants unaware of each other's existence. Unusually, this broadcast made no attempt at disguising its theatrical origins - it was filmed in front of a live audience, whose presence is constantly registered on the soundtrack as well as via occasional cutaways. Judi Dench and Francesca Annis played Adriana and Luciana, while Roger Rees and Mike Gwilym were deliberately contrasting Antipholi - an upper-class twit versus a Mafioso gangster.

That same year, John Mortimer's Will Shakespeare (tx. 13/6-18/7/1978) was a lavish, hugely enjoyable six-part series with Tim Curry in the title role. Given the absence of concrete facts about the Bard, Mortimer cheerfully fleshed out all the unproven rumours: apprenticeship with Christopher Marlowe, gay affair with the Earl of Southampton, the identity of the mysterious Dark Lady of the sonnets, and the belief that his son Hamnet's premature death gave him the emotional impetus to write the great tragedies. Each episode was based around the creation of a particular play and the imagined circumstances of its creation, though Mortimer commendably resisted the temptation to go for the obvious titles: the first was the decidedly obscure Henry VI Part III. Those familiar with the much later Shakespeare in Love (d. John Madden, 1998) will recognise the irreverent tone, though Mortimer's inventive use of Elizabethan English was surprisingly uncompromising for such a high-profile production.

The third and final Nunn/RSC broadcast was a stripped-down, intentionally minimalist Macbeth, this time made for Thames Television and sourced from an already acclaimed 1976 stage production, which was given a deliberately claustrophobic translation to the small screen. Riveting performances by Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in the title roles were enhanced by tight framing, usually in extreme close-up, the background receding into a black void. With almost no visual distractions (though some memorable aural touches: Macbeth's recently-used daggers clinking as his hands shake in fear; Lady Macbeth's unearthly scream during her sleepwalk), attention was firmly focused on the text, bringing some of Shakespeare's most vivid verbal imagery to unforgettable life, and ITV's strongest Shakespearean decade to a memorable close.

Thames also made three productions aimed specifically at schools. Macbeth (tx. 4/11-2/12/1970), King Lear (tx. 24/9-5/11/1974) and Romeo and Juliet (tx. 29/9-17/11/1976). As those dates suggest, each play was repackaged as a six-part serial (five parts in the case of Macbeth) and broadcast during school hours, as few schools would have had video recorders back then - though they were subsequently compiled into single productions. Romeo and Juliet was also Joan Kemp-Welch's last Shakespeare production for television.

Despite the excellence of its 1970s output, ITV has largely neglected Shakespeare since then, with just three productions in over twenty years.. Granada produced a lavish, all-star King Lear, which turned out to be Laurence Olivier's swansong, but it was shown on the newly-launched Channel Four (tx. 3/4/1983). Five years later, a fine Twelfth Night (tx. 30/12/1988) was sourced from Kenneth Branagh's acclaimed Riverside Studios production - Branagh himself did not appear, but Richard Briers' Malvolio, Frances Barber's Viola and especially Anton Lesser's world-weary Feste offered ample compensation.

This remains the last blank-verse ITV Shakespeare broadcast to date, though 2001 saw an imaginative rethink of Othello by the prolific Andrew Davies. Normally a costume drama specialist, here Davies updates both action and dialogue to the present day, with John Othello becoming the Metropolitan Police's first black head. Memorably intense performances by Eamonn Walker in the title role and Christopher Eccleston as rival Ben Jago (i.e. Iago) make it regrettable that Davies' original proposal, a three-play series that would also have featured Jimmy McGovern's Hamlet and Paula Milne's Romeo and Juliet, was not commissioned in full.

However, despite the paucity of original full-length productions, ITV has regularly devoted airtime to Shakespeare-related documentaries, usually via London Weekend Television's long-running arts strand The South Bank Show. A far from exhaustive list would include coverage of Jonathan Pryce's Royal Court Hamlet (tx. 1/6/1980), Laurence Olivier - A Life (tx. 17/10/1982); a programme tracing the performance history of King Lear (tx. 11/1/1987); a behind-the-scenes look at Peter Hall directing Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest for the National Theatre (tx. 24/4/1988); a look at the enduring popularity of Hamlet (tx. 2/4/1989); a profile of Vanessa Redgrave that included footage of her Cleopatra and Cordelia, the latter opposite Sir Michael Redgrave's Lear (tx. 9/10/1994); a programme on Shakespeare in general (tx. 23/1/2000), and footage of Nicholas Hytner directing Michael Gambon as Falstaff for the National Theatre's Henry IV (tx. 1/5/2005).

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Antony and Cleopatra (1974)

Antony and Cleopatra (1974)

Trevor Nunn's imaginatively stylised RSC production

Thumbnail image of Comedy of Errors, The (1978)

Comedy of Errors, The (1978)

Trevor Nunn's acclaimed RSC musical production

Thumbnail image of King Lear (1983)

King Lear (1983)

Laurence Olivier's farewell to screen Shakespeare

Thumbnail image of Macbeth (1979)

Macbeth (1979)

Riveting RSC-sourced production starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench

Thumbnail image of Merchant of Venice, The (1974)

Merchant of Venice, The (1974)

Jonathan Miller's production starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright

Thumbnail image of Midsummer Night's Dream, A (1964)

Midsummer Night's Dream, A (1964)

ITV adaptation of the Shakespeare play, with Benny Hill as Bottom

Thumbnail image of Othello (2001)

Othello (2001)

Contemporary update, with Othello as the Met's first black head

Thumbnail image of Twelfth Night (1970)

Twelfth Night (1970)

Acclaimed television adaptation with Ralph Richardson and Alec Guinness

Thumbnail image of Twelfth Night (1988)

Twelfth Night (1988)

TV version of Kenneth Branagh's acclaimed stage production

Thumbnail image of Will Shakespeare (1978)

Will Shakespeare (1978)

Tim Curry stars in John Mortimer's rollicking biographical portrait

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