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Merry Wives of Windsor, The (1982)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Merry Wives of Windsor, The (1982)
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 28/12/1982, colour, 167 mins
DirectorDavid Jones
Production CompaniesBBC Television, Time-Life Television
ProducerShaun Sutton
Script EditorDavid Snodin
DesignerDon Homfray
MusicDominic Muldowney

Cast: Richard Griffiths (Sir John Falstaff), Prunella Scales (Mistress Page), Judy Davis (Mistress Ford), Ben Kingsley (Frank Ford), Alan Bennett (Justice Shallow), Elizabeth Spriggs (Mistress Quickly), Richard O'Callaghan (Slender)

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The roguish Sir John Falstaff attempts to seduce both Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, but finds both women are more than a match for him.

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Despite an unusually strong cast and a script that restores much of the bawdy comedy of the original 1602 Quarto that was censored from the 1623 Folio, this BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation of Shakespeare's only English comedy is generally a disappointment, sluggish instead of sprightly, and with an oddly low-key Falstaff (Richard Griffiths) at its centre.

Director David Jones regarded the play as "a realistic documentary about what life was like in a small town in Elizabethan England", and designer Don Homfray duly provided him with a meticulous studio recreation of Tudor Windsor. Jones takes care to delineate the various social strata that make up the town: the established Pages, the nouveau riche Fords, the well-connected foreigner Dr Caius, and Falstaff and his gang, supposedly sophisticated Londoners who regard Windsor as an easy target but find out, as Jones put it, that it's "surrounded by asbestos".

Although a promising approach on paper, it too often fails to cohere on screen. Judy Davis and Prunella Scales, as the Mistresses Ford and Page, impress the most, investing their numerous conspiratorial conversations with a keen sense of how their plans will impact on their surrounding menfolk. Ben Kingsley plays Ford in a near-hysterical key throughout, his jealousy tinged with full-blown paranoia. This is certainly not inappropriate to the role that Shakespeare wrote (especially when Ford's marital insecurity is backed with equal concern about his fragile social status), but it's too jarring for this production.

Of the supporting cast, Alan Bennett makes surprisingly little impression as Shallow (not helped by a face-obscuring beard and a costume that Bennett tartly noted made him resemble "an animated Tandoori restaurant"), though Elizabeth Spriggs' bustling Mistress Quickly and Richard O'Callaghan's foppish, gibbering Slender acquit themselves well. Gordon Gostelow returns as Bardolph (having previously played the part in both the 1979 BBC Henry IV and V and the much earlier 1960 An Age of Kings), this time partnered with Nigel Terry's combustible Pistol.

Ironically, despite flying the flag for realism, the BBC Merry Wives is most successful in the fantastical final act, with a moonlit grove momentarily turned into an ancient pagan festival (enhanced by Dominic Muldowney's evocative score), as fairies and masked woodland creatures conspire to bring Falstaff down both literally and metaphorically, and all the various threads of Shakespeare's complex plot are tied up with a deftness and dexterity that generally eludes the rest of the production.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Letter for letter (3:26)
2. Falstaff's complaint (3:01)
3. A bearded lady (5:28)
Bennett, Alan (1934-)
Griffiths, Richard (1947-2013)
Kingsley, Sir Ben (1942-)
Scales, Prunella (1933-)
Sutton, Shaun (1919-2004)
BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)
The Merry Wives of Windsor On Screen