Superlative preservation of greatest Restoration Comedy
If ever there was a cause for the BBC to do a full restoration of one of their early broadcasts, this excellently cast SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL, Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1777 Restoration Comedy is it! As often as the classic play has been filmed, with the exception of the all-star 1963 revival which was recorded but not filmed, this is by far the best SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL I have run across (including the much later color production now on offer from the Broadway Theatre Archive). The reason it works so brilliantly is the casting and acknowledgment that this IS a theatre piece, presented true to the origins which have kept it among the most successful of its genre. The comedy is rich and full - perhaps not the laugh-out-loud farce of later days, but the intelligent edge-of-your-seat enjoyment that will seldom allow you to stop smiling.
As a matter of historical record, the play was so successful following its June 1777 London premier that the British soldiers occupying New York during the American Revolution demanded to see it. ...so successful that following the Revolution, it was the first play George Washington went to see after being elected the new nation's first President, and almost 200 years later, the last play President Kennedy saw before flying to Dallas in 1963. The black and white BBC production ironically ads to the enjoyment of the piece by making it possible to slightly distance ourselves from the presentation and imagine what it must have been like to share it in the theatre with President Washington in 1789 or those occupying British soldiers a decade earlier! The cast, from the brilliant character actor Felix Aylmer (Sir Peter Teazle) and the very young (and just married to Laurence Olivier) Joan Plowright (Lady Teazle) to the Surface brothers, John Moffatt (the hypocritical Joseph) and Tony Britton (the good hearted Charles) and all the rest could hardly be improved upon and all seem to understand exactly the touches of stage archness, nuance and subtlety required to play Restoration Comedy to its hilt.
To the production's credit it does not pretend to be a "modern movie" opening up the story and playing it in "naturalistic" 20th century style which would risk blunting the sharp examination of artificial social conventions which are still pertinent and very real today - albeit in different clothes. Only the very shallow could object to the caviar on toast points being offered instead of the peanut butter and jelly the modern movie palate has too often had to settle for. Oh, the simple JOY of an entertainment where the words matter and the mind is catered to as much as the lesser glands! As of this writing this production is only available on a less than perfect (but inexpensive) "Video Yesteryear" release apparently taken from a 1965 re-broadcast of the 28 July 1959 original broadcast. Less than perfect the transfer may be (with a long unacknowledged break between the two "Acts" the play is usually given in today, and a few nips and tucks of favorite lines - none, fortunately, crucial - to fit the play into a two hour broadcast time slot), it is still well worth seeking out while waiting for a better restoration from the BBC.
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