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Will Shakespeare (1978)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Will Shakespeare (1978)
ATV for ITV, tx. 13/6-18/7/1978
6 x 50 min episodes, colour
Directed byMark Cullingham, Robert Knights, Peter Wood
Production CompaniesRAI, ITC
Produced byCecil Clarke
Written byJohn Mortimer
MusicRichard Hill

Cast: Tim Curry (Will Shakespeare); Nicholas Clay (Earl of Southampton); Ian McShane (Christopher Marlowe); Meg Wynn Owen (Anne Shakespeare); Paul Freeman (Dick Burbage); Ron Cook (Jack Rice); John McEnery (Hamnet Sadler)

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The life and times of the playwright William Shakespeare.

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Although there have been countless adaptations of his plays, dramatisations of the life of William Shakespeare himself have been much rarer - not least because of the lack of concrete information about him. There have been two British feature films, the much-derided The Immortal Gentleman (d. Widgey R.Newman, 1935) and the much-lauded Shakespeare In Love (US/UK, d. John Madden, 1998), but the most ambitious biographical portrait to date is this six-part television series by John Mortimer.

Given the paucity of established facts, Mortimer drew heavily on assorted legends (an apprenticeship with Christopher Marlowe; an ambiguous, possibly gay relationship with the Earl of Southampton), though he had to invent the famous 'dark lady' of the sonnets outright. In Mortimer's version, she was Mary, wife of Mr Justice Fleminge, who began an illicit affair with Shakespeare after being impressed by both Romeo and Juliet itself and Will's own dashing performance as Tybalt. This gives Mortimer the chance to introduce a class element, emphasising that Shakespeare, as a mere playwright/actor, was several rungs lower on the social ladder.

Mortimer based each episode around the creation of a single play, showing how Shakespeare drew upon his own real-life experiences (notably the death of his eleven-year-old son Hamnet leading directly to the despairing tone of the mature tragedies). As Shakespeare, Tim Curry pulls off the almost impossible task of breathing life into an icon and turning him into a human being whose faults and foibles are just as crucial to his work as his astonishing gifts - one of Mortimer's main concerns being to humanise him.

Nicholas Clay's Southampton is a charismatic, overwhelmingly masculine figure, explicitly contrasted with the slender, sensitive Will, while Mortimer has a lot of fun imagining what the (real-life) men of Shakespeare's company must have been like: the all-round virtuoso Dick Burbage (Paul Freeman), in-house comedian Will Kempe (Derek Royle) and Jack Rice (Ron Cook), the leading specialist in women's roles. Not least amongst the series' fascinations is the way that it attempts to imagine what an authentic Elizabethan performance might have looked like.

A big-budget production made, like the previous year's Jesus of Nazareth, in collaboration between Lew Grade's ITC and Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI), Will Shakespeare is conceived on a grand scale, its reconstruction of the taverns and theatres of Elizabethan London being particularly vivid. In this it is fully matched by Mortimer's language, which has the whiff of authenticity without being overly scholarly, lest it scare off peaktime audiences.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
Complete episode - 'Of Comfort and Despair' (50:01)
Curry, Tim (1946-)
Morell, André (1909-1978)
Mortimer, Sir John (1923-2009)
Henry VI On Screen
Richard III On Screen
Romeo and Juliet On Screen
Shakespeare on ITV