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Romeo and Juliet (1978)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Romeo and Juliet (1978)
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 3/12/1978, colour, 167 mins
DirectorAlvin Rakoff
Production CompaniesBBC Television, Time-Life Television
ProducerCedric Messina
Script EditorAlan Shallcross
DesignerStuart Walker
MusicJohn Tyler, London Early Music Ensemble

Cast: Patrick Ryecart (Romeo); Rebecca Saire (Juliet); Celia Johnson (Nurse); Michael Hordern (Capulet); John Gielgud (Chorus); Joseph O'Conor (Friar Laurence); Laurence Naismith (Prince Escalus); Anthony Andrews (Mercutio); Alan Rickman (Tybalt)

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The tragic tale of two star-crossed lovers in 14th-century Verona, their romance doomed by the longstanding blood feud between their respective families.

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The first broadcast of the seven-year, 37-play BBC Television Shakespeare project, Romeo and Juliet was chosen because of its extreme familiarity and perceived audience-friendliness. Aside from an aborted and unscreened Much Ado About Nothing, it was also the first production to be recorded - and, crucially, it was made before producer Cedric Messina had secured American funding without which the project might not have been viable.

Consequently, it is easy to see why Messina and director Alvin Rakoff ended up playing things as safe as they possibly could. This Romeo and Juliet is the epitome of tasteful heritage Shakespeare, its studio-built Verona primarily pleasing to the eye, and the performances emphasising the text (cut by nearly a sixth) above all else. Because it was specifically designed to reach as wide an audience as possible, it seems churlish to berate it just for lack of adventurousness - but a more pointed criticism was that it marked no noticeable advance on the equally conservative Shakespeare productions that Messina had been making for the BBC's Play of the Month over the previous decade.

That said, while acknowledging that many of the criticisms were amply justified, Romeo and Juliet does have several virtues of its own. Though the performances of Patrick Ryecart and 14-year-old newcomer Rebecca Saire in the title roles are somewhat bland, they are offset by more striking characterisations from current and future stars. Anthony Andrews is a curiously mannered Mercutio (though he does at least show a welcome spark of individuality), but television debutant Alan Rickman is so good as Tybalt that his scenes threaten to unbalance the production as a whole (Basil Rathbone achieved a similar feat in the 1936 Hollywood version). Michael Hordern is perfectly cast as a fussily pompous Capulet, while John Gielgud's brief appearance as the Chorus seems to have been designed to ensure that his matchless diction would open the BBC Shakespeare cycle as a whole.

But the real star is the veteran Celia Johnson as the Nurse, who adds genuine depth and pathos to a part usually played for cheap laughs. In particular, her admonishments to Juliet about men are given an inescapable poignancy by the fact that under the wrinkles the face of the lovestruck Laura in Brief Encounter (d. David Lean, 1945) is still clearly visible. Unconventional casting would ultimately prove to be one of the BBC Shakespeare project's most striking features.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Queen Mab (2:57)
2. The ball (5:10)
3. Banish├Ęd! (3:46)
Andrews, Anthony (1948-)
Gielgud, John (1904-2000)
Hordern, Sir Michael (1911-1995)
Johnson, Dame Celia (1908-1982)
Knight, Esmond (1906-1987)
Messina, Cedric (1920-1993)
Rickman, Alan (1946-)
Walton, Sir William (1902-1983)
BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)
Romeo and Juliet On Screen