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Julius Caesar (1979)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Julius Caesar (1979)
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 11/2/1979, colour, 160 mins
DirectorHerbert Wise
Production CompaniesBBC TV, Time-Life Television
ProducerCedric Messina
Script EditorAlan Shallcross
DesignerTony Abbott
MusicMike Steer

Cast: Richard Pasco (Marcus Brutus); Charles Gray (Julius Caesar); Keith Michell (Marcus Antonius); David Collings (Cassius); Virginia McKenna (Portia); Elizabeth Spriggs (Calphurnia)

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

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Broadcast during the controversial first series of the BBC Television Shakespeare cycle, this Julius Caesar was Cedric Messina's second television adaptation of the play, the first having been made for the Play of the Month slot ten years earlier (BBC, tx. 13/4/1969). That version was distinguished by an outstanding cast; this one's virtues are that its production values are superior, the direction generally more aware of the specific possibilities of the television medium for illuminating the play, and at forty minutes longer than the earlier version it comes close to presenting the full text (in the event, just thirteen lines were considered redundant, making it one of the most complete productions in the whole BBC canon).

Although Herbert Wise would appear to be the ideal director for this project, having only recently helmed what is still the BBC's greatest Roman epic, I Claudius (1976), he himself pointed out that Julius Caesar is as much an Elizabethan play as a Roman one (the play's anachronisms are notorious, suggesting that Shakespeare had no interest in strict historical accuracy), and he was far more inclined to treat it as a television thriller. He also moved away from the dominant realism of the first BBC Shakespeare series by adopting an approach that he called 'stylised naturalism', with the stress on simplicity.

Although nowhere near as stripped-down as Thames's near-contemporary production of Trevor Nunn's famous Macbeth (ITV, tx. 4/1/1979), Wise's production has a similar fondness for often very tight close-ups, sometimes to the point of rendering elements of a scene deliberately ambiguous - for instance, in the first long conversation between Cassius and Brutus, the latter's face is cropped so that it is impossible to read his initial reaction to Cassius' allegations about Caesar. Wise also makes unusually extensive (for the BBC Shakespeare) use of voice-over soliloquy, with occasional words bursting forth as though the man who thought them cannot hold them in.

The cast is appreciably less starry than the 1969 production, though this has the effect of focusing attention more on the text than the performance. Charles Gray, a BBC Shakespeare regular, has real gravitas as Caesar, his cruelly downturned mouth conveying the great general's more ruthless side. If Richard Pasco is a somewhat anaemic Brutus, David Collings is a persuasively self-righteous Cassius and Keith Michell a measured Mark Antony, less concerned with rabble-rousing than with delivering the appropriate response to Caesar's death.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Brutus and Cassius (4:13)
2. Portia's concern (3:34)
3. The assassination (4:10)
Julius Caesar (1969)
Gray, Charles (1928-2000)
BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)
Julius Caesar On Screen