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Tragedy of Richard III, The (1983)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Tragedy of Richard III, The (1983)
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 23/1/1983, colour, 230 mins
DirectorJane Howell
Production CompaniesBBC Television, Time-Life Television
ProducerShaun Sutton
Script EditorDavid Snodin
DesignerOliver Bayldon
MusicDudley Simpson

Cast: Ron Cook (Richard), Paul Jesson (Clarence), Zoë Wanamaker (Lady Anne), Michael Byrne (Buckingham), Brian Protheroe (Edward IV), Annette Crosbie (Duchess of York)

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The rise and fall of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, whose murderous Machiavellian schemes help him to the throne of England, but make him far too many enemies along the way.

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At nearly four hours, the BBC Television Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Richard III is by far the longest screen adaptation of Shakespeare's play, made longer still by the Henry VI trilogy, broadcast over the three previous Sundays in January 1983. Richard first appeared as a minor character in Part II, but after his father's death and his brother Edward's coronation, he rapidly assumed centre stage, so that by the start of the play that bears his name, he is ready to launch a realistic bid for the throne.

While one-off productions of Richard III such as Laurence Olivier's (1955) and Ian McKellen's (d. Richard Loncraine, 1995) generally made extensive changes for the benefit of those unfamiliar with its predecessors, Jane Howell's production presents it as originally conceived by Shakespeare, as the culmination of an epic historical saga that ties up the earlier plays' dangling narrative threads.

Howell also consciously viewed Richard III as a nightmarish parody of the Henry VI plays, the doubled casting once again highlighting ironic parallels. Buckingham has the face of corrupt witchcraft-linked priest John Hume (both Michael Byrne). Tyrrel, the killer of the Princes in the Tower, looks like the Earl of Warwick (both Mark Wing-Davey), and the First Murderer resembles Richard's long-dead father, the Duke of York (both Bernard Hill).

Ron Cook's whining, wheedling, soft-spoken performance as Richard is sharply removed from the more traditional image of the character (seen to best advantage in Laurence Olivier's definitive rendition), but this low-key treatment fits Howell's desire to highlight the wider political and historical issues that one-off productions often sideline or ignore, with Richard as much a victim of the forces of history as a self-styled Machiavellian manipulator.

A key difference between this Richard III and its namesakes is that the women's parts are presented in full, and enhanced by an unusually strong quartet of actresses (Rowena Cooper and Julia Foster reprising earlier roles, Annette Crosbie and Zoë Wanamaker making their debuts). Queen Margaret (Foster) is the greatest beneficiary, since the character was omitted altogether from the Olivier and McKellen versions, and only granted her first scene in An Age of Kings (BBC, 1960) - but her part here is not only intact but also extended by an extraordinary (if controversial) final image featuring her cackling with glee while straddling a gigantic pyramid of corpses, having triumphantly outlived all the men who tried to do her down.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. A king's grief (4:10)
2. Hastings' head (3:52)
3. Tyrrel's task (1:14)
4. A mother's curse (2:55)
Richard III (1911)
Richard III (1955)
Henry VI Part III (1983)
Hill, Bernard (1944-)
Kensit, Patsy (1968-)
Sutton, Shaun (1919-2004)
Wanamaker, Zoë (1949-)
BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)
Richard III On Screen