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Winter's Tale, The (1981)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Winter's Tale, The (1981)
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 8/2/1981, colour, 185 mins
DirectorJane Howell
Production CompaniesBBC Television, Time-Life Television
ProducerJonathan Miller
Script EditorDavid Snodin
DesignerDon Homfray
MusicDudley Simpson

Cast: Jeremy Kemp (Leontes); Robert Stephens (Polixenes); Anna Calder-Marshall (Hermione); Margaret Tyzack (Paulina); David Burke (Camillo); John Welsh (Archidamus); Cyril Luckham (Antigonus); Rikki Fulton (Autolycus)

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The production which established the most decisive break between the self-consciously 'realistic' approach of the first two series of the BBC Television Shakespeare cycle (1978-80, produced by Cedric Messina) and the more intellectualised approach of Jonathan Miller, Jane Howell's The Winter's Tale (tx. 8/2/1981) was one of the most daringly stylised productions of the entire project, its stripped-down approach to design and staging working particularly well on television.

Production designer Don Homfray (who had already moved towards a minimalist approach with Rodney Bennett's production of Hamlet the previous year) reduced the sets to a couple of cones, a tree (which Howell said was a deliberate homage to Samuel Beckett's similarly Spartan Waiting for Godot) and a plain wedge-shaped background with a passage cut through the centre, and the changing seasons were conveyed by shifts in the colour of the sets and lighting (stark white for winter, green and fertile for spring). Although the costumes are broadly in line with the Elizabethan/Jacobean era, no specific period is suggested, thus emphasising the play's universality.

Jeremy Kemp's imposing Leontes, dressed in black and with a temper as fiery as his russet beard, his festering jealousy and its associated paranoia make Othello seem reasonable by comparison, and his wanton victimisation of his wholly innocent wife Hermione (Anna Calder-Marshall, who would later play one of Shakespeare's most notorious victims for Howell in the BBC cycle's Titus Andronicus, 1985) dominates the play's first half, with Robert Stephens' jovial Polixenes and Margaret Tyzack's morally self-righteous Paulina quite unable to get him to see sense. Welcome relief is provided in second half, both by the joyously bucolic celebration of spring, and a delicious cameo by Scottish comedian Rikki Fulton, whose roguish Autolycus frequently involves the audience in his conspiratorial asides as he plots to relieve yet another hapless victim of his possessions.

Howell is largely faithful to the original text, which has undergone just five cuts, only the removal of Act IV's Dance of the Twelve Satyrs being especially substantial. The production retains Shakespeare's most famous stage direction, "Exit, pursued by a bear", though Howell wisely gets this over with as quickly as possible after having had to resort to special effects fakery when a real bear proved impossible to obtain.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Consulting the oracle (3:21)
2. Exchanging garments (4:15)
3. The living statue (4:23)
Stephens, Robert (1931-1995)
BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)
The Winter's Tale On Screen