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James Cellan Jones
Splendor! For Once, A Production Better Than The Play
Most of the time, we wind up making excuses for these BBC Shakespeares. Limited preparation time, studio sets instead of real locations, uneven casting, memories of other, better performances....
Here is a production to knock your eyes out. If TV studio production confuses you and you want physical reality, here it is. Exteriors were videotaped at two castles, interiors at a third. With a winter shoot, the actors' breath condensation is visible outdoors and occasionally in-, while the rich, colorful costumes are enhanced by the solidity of the settings. There is a masque by torchlight that is nothing short of magical. But the visual design never descends to Franco Zeffirelli-style overstuffed hyper-literalism.
This is one of only two BBC Shakespeares that were shot outside the studio. The other was "As You Like It," and I didn't. In that play, the Forest of Arden dwarfed the actors. Here, the location work enhanced the play. Unfortunately, it was also very expensive, and for budgetary reasons the rest of the cycle was returned to the studio.
As Tony Church intones the opening Prologue, the verbal rhythms are somehow different from what we expect. The glory of the language comes and goes throughout, and it turns out that about half the scenes were written by John Fletcher, Shakespeare's successor with the King's Men. But half a Shakespeare is better than none, and this video is one of the best executed in the series.
The actors are all excellent and some more so. You get the chance to boo two of the choicest villains of their generation, Timothy West of the permanent scowl, and Peter Vaughan of the Nutcracker profile. Claire Bloom is terrific as Katherine of Aragon. She is apparently unable to hit a false note in Shakespeare, and her two confrontations with Timothy West as Cardinal Wolsey are devastating.
John Stride fits the bill as Henry, and Barbara Kellerman shows Anne Boleyn as considerably more than a simpering virgin. Ronald Pickup as Cranmer has a rather strange, spooky affect, but he gets points for successfully delivering his big speech while holding a squalling infant. The supporting roles are consistently strong. And though this is a long play, it never feels slow, thanks to Kevin Billington's direction. Would that I could say that about all of these shows, but I can't.
The low IMDb user vote on this video is statistically skewed. If you remove the 5 outlying "1"s from disgruntled schoolchildren, you'll find the vote is deservedly one of the highest in the series. Well done!
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