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Taming of the Shrew, The (1980)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Taming of the Shrew, The (1980)
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 23/10/1980, colour, 126 mins
DirectorJonathan Miller
Production CompaniesBBC Television, Time-Life Television
ProducerJonathan Miller
Script EditorDavid Snodin
DesignerColin Lowrey
MusicStephen Oliver

Cast: John Cleese (Petruchio), Sarah Badel (Katherine), John Franklyn-Robbins (Baptista), Simon Chandler (Lucentio), Anthony Pedley (Tranio), Frank Thornton (Gremio), Susan Penhaligon (Bianca)

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Baptista seeks to marry his daughters off, but while Bianca has no shortage of admirers, the aggressive, troublesome Katherine provides a greater challenge...

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The opening broadcast of the BBC Television Shakespeare's third series, The Taming of the Shrew was the first production supervised by Jonathan Miller after he took over from Cedric Messina as series producer. While Messina's conservative, broadly 'realistic' approach sought to simplify Shakespeare for the masses, Miller assumed a more intelligent and literate audience. Accordingly, he adopted a much more stylised visual conception based around great paintings of the era in which the play was set - the patterning and symmetry of Vermeer's interiors were the chief inspiration here.

Miller was also more adventurous with casting. Not only had John Cleese never performed in Shakespeare professionally before, he was not particularly enthusiastic about most of the performances that he'd seen, and took some persuading from Miller that the BBC Shrew would not be, as Cleese feared "about a lot of furniture being knocked over, a lot of wine being spilled, a lot of thighs being slapped and a lot of unmotivated laughter."

So despite Cleese's reputation as a manic physical comedian in the then recent Fawlty Towers (BBC, 1975/79), the production takes a cool, cerebral approach inspired by Miller's view of Petruchio as an early Puritan (the movement had its roots in Elizabethan England). Cleese's Petruchio is nothing like the traditional swaggering bully: despite some Basil Fawlty-like ear-tweaking of his servant at the start, his demeanour changes noticeably when he meets Katherine (Sarah Badel).

Instead of seeking to dominate her from the off, Petruchio appreciates her independence of spirit, and therefore decides to mould rather than tame her, demonstrating to her what effect her behaviour has on others, but at the same time letting her laugh at herself. This approach was emphasised by Badel's performance of a woman essentially driven by simultaneous fears: either of ending up with a man she doesn't respect (and therefore cannot love) or of never marrying at all, remaining on the sidelines while her younger sister Bianca (Susan Penhaligon) garners all the attention.

It's not a feminist reading - Miller acknowledged that this would be a distortion of the original text (presented mostly intact, the biggest cut being the removal of the opening Christopher Sly 'Induction') - but it does offer a convincing method of shifting its focus towards something more palatable for present-day audiences. This interpretative (and casting) gamble paid off handsomely, with the production regularly singled out as the most fondly-remembered of all the BBC Shakespeares.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. My super-dainty Kate (4:42)
2. Unreverent robes (1:59)
3. A paltry cap (5:12)
Fawlty Towers (1975, 79)
Cleese, John (1939-)
Miller, Jonathan (1934)
BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)
The Taming of the Shrew On Screen