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All's Well That Ends Well (1981)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of All's Well That Ends Well (1981)
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 4/1/1981, colour, 142 mins
Directed byElijah Moshinsky
Production CompaniesBBC Television, Time-Life Television
ProducerJonathan Miller
Script EditorDavid Snodin
DesignerDavid Myerscough-Jones
MusicStephen Oliver

Cast: Donald Sinden (King of France); Celia Johnson (Countess of Rousillon); Michael Hordern (Lafeu); Peter Jeffrey (Parolles); Ian Charleson (Bertram); Angela Down (Helena); Pippa Guard (Diana)

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Poor doctor's daughter Helena seeks to win the hand of Bertram, the son of the Countess of Rousillon, but despite her success in persuading both his mother and the King of France to agree to her plans, he is unwilling to co-operate.

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Although it had had a previous television outing (BBC, tx. 3/6/1968), All's Well That Ends Well is one of Shakespeare's least popular plays, rightly described by the BBC Shakespeare series' literary consultant Dr John Wilders as "difficult and elusive". But this can be an advantage in the right hands: perhaps aware that the play would never be an audience favourite, director Elijah Moshinsky refused to soft-pedal its numerous emotional, moral and even sexual dilemmas and produced one of the series' most satisfying productions.

Moshinsky already had a strong track record in theatre and especially opera, but All's Well marked his television debut. To help acclimatise him, producer Jonathan Miller, invited him to attend the recording of the four preceding productions, and it's clear that Moshinsky derived his visual inspiration from Miller's Vermeer-influenced approach to The Taming of the Shrew (tx. 23/10/1980). However, he went much further, restaging the entire play indoors and striking up a particularly fruitful collaboration with lighting designer John Summers, who jumped at the chance to experiment with effects that more experienced directors might have hesitated at attempting. Their intricate chiaroscuro lighting plan caused numerous production headaches but resulted in what was comfortably one of the best-looking BBC Shakespeares up to then, setting a standard generally only matched by the subsequent Moshinsky/Summers productions (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Cymbeline, Coriolanus and Love's Labour's Lost).

A strong cast blended veterans (Donald Sinden, Celia Johnson, Michael Hordern and Peter Jeffrey) with relative newcomers (Ian Charleson, Angela Down, Pippa Guard), and this contrast was further heightened by their performance styles. Down's Helena is cool and cerebral, almost detached, which at least makes it easier to understand (if not accept) her rejection by Bertram (Charleson). She is also effectively counterpointed by Jeffrey's self-consciously flamboyant Parolles and especially Sinden's King, played against type as an ageing but not entirely impotent roué. Moshinsky was keen to stress the play's underlying sexuality both in these scenes and those between Bertram and Diana (Guard), the latter a rather more knowingly sensual rendition than the norm.

While BBC Shakespeare productions of the lesser-known plays generally stressed fidelity to the original text, Moshinsky and script editor David Snodin made several major changes. The Duke of Florence's two scenes were omitted, hefty cuts were made elsewhere (especially to Lafeu and Lavache's lines), and many scenes were shortened, reshuffled and even intercut with others, to create a more televisual pace.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Meditation on virginity (3:05)
2. Helen's choice (5:02)
3. Deceiving Parolles (3:53)
Charleson, Ian (1949-1990)
Hordern, Sir Michael (1911-1995)
Jeffrey, Peter (1929-1999)
Johnson, Dame Celia (1908-1982)
Lindsay, Robert (1949-)
Miller, Jonathan (1934)
Sinden, Sir Donald (1923-)
All's Well That Ends Well On Screen
BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)