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Julius Caesar (1969)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Julius Caesar (1969)
For Play of the Month, BBC, tx. 13/4/1969, colour, 120 mins
DirectorAlan Bridges
Production CompanyBBC TV
ProducerCedric Messina
Original playWilliam Shakespeare
DesignerSpencer Chapman

Cast: Robert Stephens (Mark Antony); Frank Finlay (Brutus); Maurice Denham (Julius Caesar); Edward Woodward (Cassius); Anthony Bate (Casca); Decius Brutus (Alan Rowe); Raymond Mason (Cinna); Ann Castle (Portia); Gwen Cherrell (Calpurnia)

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The events leading up to the assassination of Roman emperor Julius Caesar, and the chaotic aftermath.

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Although the BBC was no stranger to productions of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar - the first had been made over thirty years earlier, at the very dawn of the television medium - this was its first production in colour, which led to some controversy at the time because this had the inevitable side-effect of emphasising the blood-soaked violence of Caesar's assassination. Made for the Play of the Month classic drama strand, it was cut to fit a two-hour timeslot, though it still gave a good account of the original text: it helps that this is one of Shakespeare's shorter plays, and probably the simplest of his tragedies in terms of its plot-driven linear narrative.

Unlike many earlier BBC productions of the play, director Alan Bridges gives Julius Caesar a broadly realistic, gimmick-free treatment. Although obviously staged in the studio on a fraction of the resources available to the near-concurrent feature film (d. Stuart Burge, 1970), the impression of ancient Rome is convincing, its mighty columns conveying the weight of a civilisation that is too important to entrust to just one man.

Maurice Denham is an authoritative Caesar, but the standout performance is by Robert Stephens as Mark Antony, low-key until he mounts the steps to give his "Friends, Romans, countrymen" oration, but electrifying from then on. He stresses the bitter sarcasm of the repeated refrain "Brutus is an honourable man", Shakespeare's elegant iambics splintering into jagged shards as he whips the crowd up into a frenzy. If anything, his reading has so much passion that it unbalances the second half: once Stephens has unleashed his rhetorical forces, the more introspective Frank Finlay and Edward Woodward tend to fade into the background.

This is unfair on Finlay in particular: his brooding Brutus is very effective at catching the character's profound sorrow at the course of events, regardless of what he sees as their inevitability and even necessity. Woodward's overly neurotic, hair-trigger Cassius is less successful (the Sunday Times tartly commented that "he was more like Cassius when playing Callan"), but it does at least show an original interpretation of a role normally played ice-cold. The other conspirators are less well delineated than in the later BBC Television Shakespeare version (tx. 11/2/1979), which also offers a more comprehensive account of the text and a more effective translation into television terms. However, this is an above-average BBC Shakespeare production for its time.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. The conspirators (4:18)
2. Calpurnia's dream (4:59)
3. Friends, Romans, countrymen (2:41)
Julius Caesar (1979)
Denham, Maurice (1909-2002)
Finlay, Frank (1926-)
Stephens, Robert (1931-1995)
Woodward, Edward (1930-2009)
Julius Caesar On Screen