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Twelfth Night (1970)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Twelfth Night (1970)
For Weekend Play, ATV for ITV, tx. 12/7/1970, colour, 103 mins
DirectorJohn Sichel
Production CompaniesATV, John Dexter Productions
Original playWilliam Shakespeare

Cast: Tommy Steele (Feste); Ralph Richardson (Sir Toby Belch); Alec Guinness (Malvolio); Joan Plowright (Viola/Sebastian); Gary Raymond (Orsino); Adrienne Corri (Olivia); John Moffatt (Sir Andrew Aguecheek)

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ITV's second adaptation of Twelfth Night (following a 1959 production aimed at schools and shown mid-afternoon) was produced and adapted by the theatre director John Dexter, who made substantial cuts to the original play to get it to fit a two-hour slot - including commercial breaks. But what it lacks in textual fidelity (the 1980 BBC and 1988 Thames TV versions are far more complete) it more than makes up for with distinguished casting, with highly experienced Shakespearean performers Joan Plowright, Ralph Richardson and Alec Guinness playing alongside the singer-turned-actor Tommy Steele.

Although a long-term fan (he claimed to have seen the 1955 film of Richard III twenty times), Steele had never acted in Shakespeare before. Although he gives a perfectly competent performance, his Feste is a good deal younger and sunnier of disposition than usual: for the opposite extreme, see Anton Lesser's grief-haunted equivalent in the 1988 version. As a sop both to Steele's day job and his fans, he also performs three songs written for him by Mark Wilkinson, with lyrics sourced from the original text.

More complex characterisations are provided by Richardson's Sir Toby Belch, a more scheming, less buffoonish figure than usual (though John Moffat's lank-haired Sir Andrew Aguecheek is still the very definition of the ineffectual fop). More intriguingly, Plowright plays both the twins Viola and Sebastian as two halves of a curiously androgynous whole, each sporting the same urchin-cut and a broadly similar voice (lowered for Sebastian, but with little attempt at making it especially masculine). This casting, coupled with some significant cuts to the scenes between Sebastian and Antonio (their first two being fused together), serves to heavily tone down the play's latent homoeroticism.

Invited to observe a final rehearsal prior to recording, Plowright's husband Laurence Olivier cattily remarked of Alec Guinness' performance: "Marvellous, old cock! I never realised Malvolio could be played as a bore.'' This was presumably not meant charitably, but it catches the essence of Guinness' interpretation. His Malvolio is indeed a bore - a fussy, pompous little man, so caught up with overweening attention to petty rules that he trips over his nightgown after admonishing after-hours revellers and fails to notice the pranksters lurking behind the hedge as he reads the forged letter - though it's entirely typical of Guinness' self-effacing approach that such an insignificant pipsqueak becomes so compelling on screen.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Come away, death (4:51)
2. Thrusting greatness (5:06)
3. Viola and Sebastian (1:50)
Corri, Adrienne (1931-)
Guinness, Alec (1914-2000)
Plowright, Dame Joan (1929-)
Shakespeare on ITV
Shakespeare on Television
Twelfth Night On Screen