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The Merry Wives of Windsor On Screen

TV adaptations of Shakespeare's only authentically English comedy

Main image of The Merry Wives of Windsor On Screen

Scholars disagree as to whether this rollicking farce (the only Shakespeare comedy set entirely in his native country) was written as a result of overwhelming public demand to see more of Sir John Falstaff, or whether Shakespeare planned it at the same time as the two Henry IV plays, but it seems certain that it dates from the late 1590s, possibly as early as 1597. Relocating the fat knight from central London to provincial Windsor, it pits his legendary guile against that of the equally cunning Mistresses Ford and Page, who decide to exploit his reputation as a philanderer in order to teach both him and their own husbands a few home truths.

The play has had four television adaptations, all by the BBC, starting with a live (and unrecorded) broadcast of the letter scene on 12 March 1937. The first complete production of the play was shown on 16 November 1952, directed by Julian Amyes and starring Robert Atkins (Falstaff), Betty Huntley-Wright (Mistress Ford) and Mary Kerridge (Mistress Page). Also a live broadcast, it too does not appear to have been recorded, which means that the earliest surviving version was sourced from an Outside Broadcast relay of the second half of Glen Byam Shaw's famous Stratford production, screened on 2 October 1955. It starred Anthony Quayle as Falstaff, alongside Joyce Redman (Mistress Ford) and Angela Baddeley (Mistress Page).

Although Quayle reprised his Falstaff for the BBC Television Shakespeare's adaptations of the Henry IV plays (1979), the role in the cycle's subsequent production of The Merry Wives of Windsor (tx. 28/12/1982) was taken by Richard Griffiths, alongside Judy Davis (Mistress Ford), Prunella Scales (Mistress Page), Ben Kingsley (Ford) and Alan Bennett (Justice Shallow). This is the only surviving complete adaptation of the play for British television, so it is a pity that despite an unusually strong cast it was generally regarded as one of the weaker entries in the BBC Shakespeare project, with Griffiths' low-key, self-pitying Falstaff tending to work against the comedy.

Although primarily based on the Henry IV plays, John Caird's Henry IV (BBC, tx. 28/10/1995) also incorporated brief passages from The Merry Wives of Windsor. There have also been a number of television broadcasts of Giuseppe Verdi's comic opera Falstaff, based primarily on The Merry Wives of Windsor, all sourced from existing stage performances. Glyndbourne productions were shown by the BBC on 15/9/1960 (with Geraint Evans in the title role) and Southern on 29/4/1978 (Donald Gramm), while Royal Opera House productions were shown by the BBC on 1/1/1983 (Renato Bruson) and 22/12/1999 (Bryn Terfel). Other BBC broadcasts include a production directed by Basil Coleman with Geraint Evans and the English Chamber Orchestra (16/12/1972), and a celebrated 1989 Welsh National Opera production directed by Peter Stein and starring Donald Maxwell.

Michael Brooke

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