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Midsummer Night's Dream, A (1964)

Courtesy of Archbuild

Main image of Midsummer Night's Dream, A (1964)
Rediffusion for ITV, tx. 24/6/1964, 108 mins, black and white
Directed byJoan Kemp-Welch
Production CompanyRediffusion
Original playWilliam Shakespeare
Script editorGeorge Rylands
MusicFelix Mendelssohn

Cast: Patrick Allen (Theseus); Peter Wyngarde (Oberon); Anna Massey (Titania); Tony Tanner (Puck); Benny Hill (Bottom); Miles Malleson (Quince); Alfie Bass (Flute); Bernard Bresslaw (Snout); Jill Bennett (Helena)

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Courtly intrigues, spurned lovers, amateur actors and the fairy kingdom come together in a midsummer night of tears, laughter and magic.

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Broadcast on Midsummer Night itself, Associated-Rediffusion and indeed ITV's first major in-house Shakespeare production (earlier efforts had either been live broadcasts of existing plays or made for broadcast during school hours) remains an outstanding television adaptation. Although clearly aimed at a mass audience - comedian Benny Hill played Bottom and it was the cover feature in that week's TV Times - it's also a richly nuanced production that switches seamlessly from high-flown fantasy to rumbustious farce, and even includes balletic interludes set to Mendelssohn's famous incidental music.

Though adapter George Rayner made a few cuts to the text, these were primarily for reasons of timing: director Joan Kemp-Welch otherwise refused to dumb it down, preferring a resoundingly traditional approach that emphasised the beauty of the verse. Production values, considering the intended medium was 405-line black-and-white television, are consistently impressive, thanks not least to Michael Yates' ambitious sets. Although obviously staged in a studio, the backdrops cleverly suggest landscapes receding into the far distance, and diaphanous gauze screens (used for the first time in a television production) are arranged across multiple planes in the forest to help Oberon and Puck conceal themselves in the wood.

This stylised, highly choreographed approach means that the fairy scenes come across most effectively, helped by Peter Wyngarde and Anna Massey as a splendidly bickering Oberon and Titania and a notably malicious Puck (Tony Tanner). Perhaps inevitably, the mortals make less of an impression, though Jill Bennett's Helena stands out, bristling with righteous anger at her seduction and abandonment by Demetrius (Clifford Elkin).

And what of Benny Hill? His performance starts off oddly low-key, seemingly uncertain as to the appropriate tone (contrast with Ronnie Barker's much more confident rendition of the same character in the 1971 BBC version), and this continues throughout the dalliances with Titania, leaving the much more experienced Shakespearean Miles Malleson and the rest of the 'rude mechanicals' to make up the comedic shortfall. But when the disastrous performance of 'Pyramus & Thisbe' begins, Hill finally comes into his own, fleshing out Shakespeare's familiar text with plenty of his trademark visual humour, especially when he woos 'Thisbe' (Alfie Bass) through the chink in the Wall (an aptly-cast Bernard Bresslaw). Hippolyta's "this is the silliest stuff that I ever heard" reaction is all too heartfelt, but the triumph of Kemp-Welch's production is that all the elements are kept in perfect balance.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Bottom and the fairies (4:27)
2. Oberon and Puck (3:44)
3. Pyramus and Thisbe (3:47)
Bass, Alfie (1920-1987)
Bresslaw, Bernard (1934-1993)
Hill, Benny (1924-1992)
Kemp-Welch, Joan (1906-1999)
Malleson, Miles (1888-1969)
Massey, Anna (1937-2011)
Associated Rediffusion / Rediffusion Television
A Midsummer Night's Dream On Screen
Shakespeare on ITV