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The Winter's Tale (1981 TV Movie)
a fine production of a wonderful play
5 October 2017
Though this production is not without some minor flaws, it is overall a sparkling version of a magnificent play. In particular, the director Jane Howell recognizes that the sumptuous language of the play is its foremost virtue, and she assigns top priority to the recitation of that language.

The director is helped by superb acting from virtually every performer who appears. On the one hand, there are a few blemishes in the performance by Jeremy Kemp. For example, he rather awkwardly clutches his son while he is delivering the crucial "Affection" soliloquy, and he does not adequately convey a sense of desolation after the deaths of his son and wife have been announced to him in Act III. However, the few shortcomings in his performance are greatly surpassed by its overall excellence.

Most of the other performances are flawless or nearly so. Margaret Tyzack is the very embodiment of speaking truth to power in her role as Paulina; David Burke (who is married to Anna Calder-Marshall, who impeccably plays Hermione) is convincing at every stage as Camillo; Cyril Luckham is a highly entertaining Antigonus; Robert Stephens is fine in the quite difficult role of Polixenes (difficult because Polixenes in much of the second half is as heavy-handedly oppressive as Leontes in the first half, albeit for different reasons); Paul Jesson and Arthur Hewlett are amusing as the rustic father and son; Rikki Fulton is an engaging Autolycus; and the sundry other members of the cast likewise carry out their roles admirably.

The passage of sixteen years is not handled especially well, as only a few characters (Camillo, Hermione, Cleomines, Dion) look any older in the second half of the play than in the first half. The notorious difficulty of the exit of Antigonus pursued by a bear is likewise not handled particularly well, as the bear looks preposterously phony. (If that bit of the play were unequivocally comical, the phoniness of the bear would be unexceptionable. However, the pursuit of Antigonus is an event that leads to his gory death even though it also offers material for some entertaining remarks by Paul Jesson's character.) Still, the minor defects in this production detract only very slightly from its magic. I heartily recommend it to anyone who loves Shakespeare's awe-inspiring language and to anyone who admires fine acting.
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The Tempest (1980 TV Movie)
excellent acting in a good production
3 July 2016
When I first saw this production many years ago, I was repelled by the sight of Ariel and some of the other male fairies in jock straps. My dismay at that feature of the production blinded me to the excellence of the acting. However, having watched this DVD (along with each of the other DVDs in the BBC Shakespeare series) several more times subsequently, I now can recommend this production enthusiastically. I still wish that the fairies had been better clothed, but I ignore their attire and concentrate on the quality of the acting and the overall staging.

Michael Hordern is outstanding as Prospero. His peroration is deeply moving, and throughout he captures the nuances of the role superbly.

Christopher Guard and Pippa Guard are fine as Ferdinand and Miranda. Some of the other reviewers on this site have criticized them for blandness, but any blandness lies in the roles rather than in the performances.

Likewise, although I find the characters of Stephano and Trinculo tiresomely unfunny, the fault lies not with Nigel Hawthorne and Andrew Sachs but with Shakespeare's writing of the roles. At any rate, the magnificence of the line "Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows" is more than sufficient to offset the tedium of many of Trinculo's other lines.

Derek Godfrey (who died only a few years after this production was staged) is entertainingly psychopathic as Antonio, and he is well paired with Alan Rowe as Sebastian.

David Waller is a bit wooden as Alonzo in the first half of the play, but he raises his level of acting much higher in the final Act. John Nettleton is memorably poignant throughout the play as Gonzalo.

Most of Shakespeare's beautiful wording is included in this production. The main excisions (reasonably well-judged excisions) are abridgments of the exchanges among Gonzalo and Antonio and Sebastian in Act II, and curtailments of the pageant in Act IV. The whole of the preliminary portion of the pageant has been removed.

I'm glad that I waited for several years before writing a review of this production. Having now become attuned to the many merits of this rendering of Shakespeare's magical play, I can recommend it warmly.
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The Merry Wives of Windsor (1982 TV Movie)
a very good though not flawless production
29 August 2015
On the whole, this production of "The Merry Wives of Windsor" is admirable. It contains nearly all of Shakespeare's lines (including a few insertions from the Quarto version); it includes some excellent performances; the staging is generally deft, and the atmosphere of the play is warmly engaging; and the sets are pleasing to the eye.

Prunella Scales and Judy Davis as Mistresses Page and Ford (respectively) are especially good, but nearly all the other members of the cast -- ranging from Richard Griffiths as Falstaff to Elizabeth Spriggs as Mistress Quickly -- are also highly commendable. The one exception, surprisingly, is Ben Kingsley as Ford. To be sure, anyone playing the role of Ford has to go over the top occasionally. However, Kingsley is annoyingly histrionic in the pejorative sense of the term; his high-strung mannerisms and his falsetto utterances become quite tiresome. His performance is not unalloyedly woeful, but it is well below the level of the other performances.

A few of the other reviewers on this site have criticized Richard Griffiths for his portrayal of Falstaff, but Griffiths aptly captures the nature of Falstaff in "Merry Wives" -- a play that presents Falstaff as a somewhat less shrewd character than the Falstaff of the Henry IV plays. Moreover, the girth of Griffiths made him more suitable for the role than was Anthony Quayle in the BBC's Henry IV productions (though Quayle's excellent acting compensated for his physical unsuitability).

Apart from Ben Kingsley's performance, the main objectionable feature of this otherwise admirable production is that a few scenes and smaller portions of the play are rearranged. The rearrangements aren't damaging, but they strike me as pointless. (Much the same can be said about the handful of small excisions of Shakespeare's lines.) All in all, I can recommend this production heartily to anyone who wants to experience the charms of Shakespeare's play.
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Twelfth Night (1980 TV Movie)
an excellent production
11 July 2015
This is one of the best of the BBC's productions, with fine performances all around. The production succeeds in conveying the melancholy aspects of the play as well as its many comic elements. (Although Trevor Peacock has only a moderately good singing voice, its plangency is perfectly suited to the rather dark songs that Feste intones.) I'll register only two minor complaints. First, Robert Lindsay inappositely utters an exclamation as a question in III.iv.133. Second, quite a few of Feste's lines have been excised. Some of the deletions are well-judged, but most of them (especially in III.i and V.i) are regrettable. Still, these two small points of dissatisfaction detract very little from my enjoyment of an excellent rendering of this play.
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The Merchant of Venice (1980 TV Movie)
a good production of a disquieting play
21 August 2014
Jonathan Miller and Jack Gold have chosen to accentuate the anti-Semitism of the play in this production. In so doing, they have highlighted the sheer vileness of most of the Christian characters without sweetening the character of Shylock. Shylock, excellently portrayed by Warren Mitchell, is intelligent and sharply witty and sometimes poignantly appealing; yet at other times he is ruthlessly vindictive. However, what this production makes powerfully clear is that his ruthless vindictiveness is a product of the shameful ways in which he has been treated by his Christian contemporaries. Their coarse bigotry and outright abuse -- along with their sanctimonious blindness to their own grievous faults -- have brought out the worst in Shylock (whose miserliness as a moneylender, likewise, is due to his being barred from every other profession in medieval Venice).

Gemma Jones is not beautiful, but her acting in the role of Portia is outstanding. Portia is perhaps the most repellent character of all, as she addresses Shylock with her marvelous disquisition on the quality of mercy and then proves to be unremittingly merciless and devious in her treatment of him. In addition to being a foul bigot, she plays a tiresome and cruel trick on her husband which may have seemed funny to audiences in Shakespeare's time but which seems today to be a further confirmation of her grandiose egocentricity.

Even more tiresome than Portia's silly trick is the character of Launcelot Gobbo -- one of the most grimly unfunny clowns (and the most odiously anti-Semitic clown) in Shakespeare's whole oeuvre. Enn Reitel does a good job of portraying this rebarbative character.

Also repulsive are Salerio and Solanio, two characters who -- like most of the rest of the Christians in the play -- appear to be unacquainted with the activity of productive work. Their vicious hatred of Jews and their general decadence are brought out well in this production by John Rhys-Davies and Alan David.

The characters of Nerissa and Bassanio are less overtly bigoted and distasteful than the other Christians, and they are deftly performed here by Susan Jameson (who is beautiful) and John Nettles.

Most of the other parts in the play are likewise adeptly performed. Every production of "The Merchant of Venice" has to come to grips with the savage prejudices that are so salient in the play. By underscoring the intensity and ugliness of those prejudices, this production helps to reveal the extent to which they deform the society in which they are prevalent.
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Love's Labour's Lost (1985 TV Movie)
a generally fine production, albeit with unnecessary abridgments and rearrangements
6 August 2014
This fine production was one of the last in the BBC Shakespeare series. The acting is excellent on all sides; the costumes are lovely; and the sets are very impressive. Mike Gwilym is particularly good as Berowne -- by far the most richly characterized role in the play -- but everyone else, ranging from Maureen Lipman (Princess) to Paul Jesson (Costard), likewise acts at a pleasingly high level. My sole complaint, especially about a production that runs for under two hours, is that there are far too many abridgments and some rather odd rearrangements of bits of the text that are extracted from their original locations. Those alterations are at best unnecessary and at worst rather confusing. Still, they don't detract much from the overall magic of the performances.
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Romeo & Juliet (1978 TV Movie)
an uneven production
1 August 2014
This uneven production includes more of the text than do most productions, but it still omits many lines. Some of the omissions are well-judged abridgments of the tiresome banter between Romeo and his friends or between the servants and the musicians. Other deletions are much more dubious, as we're deprived of some great poetic lines. Some of the excisions in III.i (along with the staging of the sword fights in that scene) have the effect of presenting Tybalt as a less bellicose character than the full text suggests.

The best performances are those of Michael Hordern (Capulet), Celia Johnson (Nurse), Anthony Andrews (Mercutio), Alan Rickman (Tybalt), and Joseph O'Conor (Friar Laurence). None of those performances is impeccable, but each of them is at a high level.

Rebecca Saire (Juliet) is not up to the demands of her role in some of the crucial scenes in the first half of the play, but she improves considerably after a mediocre rendering of the "Gallop apace" soliloquy. Patrick Ryecart (Romeo) is excellent in the bedroom scene, but his performance otherwise ranges from poor in the early parts of the play to mediocre in the later parts. Ryecart too often substitutes expressionless reciting for acting. In the balcony scene he is unintentionally hilarious, as he keeps crashing to the ground after ascending a wall. Moreover, whereas Saire's physical appearance is just right for Juliet, Ryecart's physical appearance is unlikely to set aflutter the heart of any fourteen-year-old girl.

The sword fights are staged more impressively than in any of the other BBC Shakespeare productions, and the sets are generally well crafted. This production on the whole is pretty good, but it could have been excellent if the eponymous characters had been better portrayed.
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Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1980 TV Movie)
an uneven but generally impressive production of a superb play
10 October 2013
One great virtue of this production is that it includes considerably more of Shakespeare's dialogue than do most other versions. Quite a number of lines have been excised -- including my favourite lines "For, though I am not splenitive and rash/Yet have I in me something dangerous,/Which let thy wisdom fear" -- but the excisions are fewer and less sizeable than in virtually any other production.

Most of the performances range from good to excellent. The previous reviews on this site are either strongly critical or effusively laudatory in their assessments of Derek Jacobi's performance. My own assessment is more favourable than negative, but the queries raised by the critical reviewers are genuine. Jacobi does overact terribly at a few junctures, and he does often convey the impression that he is holding up a mirror to himself rather than to nature. Nonetheless, he delivers his major soliloquies deftly, and his acting is generally fine when he keeps himself under control. (In fairness to Jacobi, I should note that over-the-top moments in a performance of the character of Hamlet are virtually inevitable.)

My other main reservations concern Patrick Stewart (one of my favourite Shakespearean actors). Stewart is two years younger than Jacobi, and -- as one of the previous reviewers on this site has remarked -- he is far too handsome and regal in his bearing to be suitable as the "king of shreds and patches". Moreover, in the key soliloquy in III.iii and in his colloquy with Laertes in IV.vii, Stewart races unintelligibly through some of his lines. (In IV.vii, the problem is compounded by a temporary degeneration in the quality of the sound on the DVD. I recommend that you keep the subtitles on at all times.) Stewart's performance is excellent for the most part, but one has to query whether he really belonged in the role of Claudius at that stage in his career.
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Othello (1981 TV Movie)
an impressive production
26 December 2012
This is an impressive and unrelievedly grim production that omits most of the light-hearted bits of Shakespeare's play -- light-hearted bits that are few and brief in any event.

Because the acting by Penelope Wilton is so excellent, we forget that she is not quite young enough and not quite attractive enough to be fully suitable for the role of Desdemona. Wilton vividly conveys the bewilderment and desolation that Desdemona experiences as her beloved husband turns against her.

Bob Hoskins is superb as Iago. He could have reined in his giggling at times, especially in the first Act, but his delivery of his lines is impeccably well-judged. Precisely because Iago as played by Hoskins is highly likable on a superficial level, his merciless and devious psychopathy is truly chilling. Hoskins displays his skill as an actor when he adopts an upper-crust accent in his summoning of Brabantio and in his gloating over the supine Othello. He thereby signals one of the motivations behind Iago's crimes (without obscuring the fact that the crimes are driven partly by a love of evil for its own sake).

Anthony Hopkins is not quite as successful in the role of Othello, but his performance is generally very good. He overacts rather irksomely at a few junctures, and he looks like a slightly pudgy actor rather than a rugged soldier. Nonetheless, he delivers most of his lines well. His slapping of Desdemona is jolting, and his final speech is both poignant and devastating.

Most of the supporting actors are fine. David Yelland is good in the difficult role of Cassio, and Anthony Pedley gives a splendid performance as the foppish Roderigo. Best of all is Rosemary Leach with a riveting performance as Emilia. (Because her performance is so good, however, it highlights one of the problematic features of Shakespeare's play: namely, the implausibility of the fact that Emilia waits until the end to disclose why Desdemona's handkerchief has gone missing.)
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Much Ado About Nothing (1984 TV Movie)
a sparkling production
15 December 2012
I concur with the predominantly favorable assessments of this production that have already been posted. Robert Lindsay and Cherie Lunghi are both excellent, and Katharine Levy is likewise outstanding in the role of Hero. Robert Reynolds (presumably intentionally) makes clear how repellent Claudio is, as he delivers a fine performance in that difficult role. Jon Finch emphasizes the silly and decadent dimension of the role of Don Pedro, in a capable performance that could have been enriched with a bit more gravitas. Michael Elphick is far, far better -- far, far funnier -- in the role of Dogberry than was Michael Keaton in Kenneth Branagh's cinematic version of the play.

My only complaint relates to Graham Crowden in the role of Friar Francis. He conveys the impression of not having memorized his part very well; his intonation in his recitation of some of his key lines is decidedly odd.
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A Midsummer Night's Dream (I) (1981 TV Movie)
a very disappointing production of a splendid play
9 December 2012
Most of the productions in the BBC's Shakespeare series range from good to excellent, but there are a few duds. This production falls into the latter category. It is perhaps the worst, and certainly one of the worst, in the whole series.

The shortcomings arise chiefly from the inept directorial job by Elijah Moshinsky (though Nigel Davenport doesn't help with some painfully bad acting -- or, rather, expressionless reciting in lieu of acting -- in Act I). The four actors who portray the young lovers deliver excellent performances, but their efforts are undermined in Act III.ii by the director's disastrously ill-advised decision to have them speak quite a few of their lines simultaneously. Equally bizarre is the director's tendency to chop up and rearrange portions of the dialogue and to delete other portions. (Contrary to what is stated in two of the other reviews on this site, it is certainly not the case that all the dialogue is included in this production. A few of the deletions are well judged, though most of them are at best pointless.) If a director has so little respect for Shakespeare's art, why would he take on the task of directing this play at all?!

The performance by Phil Daniels as Puck is quite good, but it could have been much better if a competent director had reined Daniels in when he became too brisk and shrill in his articulation of his lines. Directorial incompetence is even more woefully evident in Act V. The mechanicals' play within a play is grimly unfunny. Having seen 60-70 productions of "Dream" during the past quarter of a century, I have never come upon a worse rendering of the final Act.

Helen Mirren is superb, but Peter McEnery is far too fierce in his portrayal of Oberon. He is clearly an adept actor, but he was let down by the director; a competent director would have reminded him that "Dream" is a comedy and that he ought to be striving for more humor and less ferocity.

This production does not altogether obscure the magic of Shakespeare's wonderful play, but it is overall a sore disappointment.

ADDENDUM: Having watched this production four more times since writing the review that appears above, I want to add a few comments. First, although I fully stand by my remark about the disastrously ill-judged directing of scene III.ii, I should note that the simultaneous uttering of lines blessedly comes to an end after Lysander and Demetrius exit cheek by jowl. Thereafter, the scene is well presented. Second, although Nigel Davenport does sometimes briefly descend into expressionless recitation in the opening scene of the play, my remark above now strikes me as too harsh. Third, likewise somewhat too harsh is my remark about the final Act. Though I have witnessed far better renderings of the play within the play, this rendering is sometimes mildly amusing. Fourth, I'm inclined to intensify my remark about the deletion of portions of the dialogue. In such a short play, there is no adequate justification for the deletions.
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Henry IV Part II (1979 TV Movie)
fine acting all around, but too many excisions
28 September 2012
It's remarkable that the 2007 reviewer has characterized this production as "unabridged." From beginning to end, large portions of the text have been omitted from this production. Some of the excisions are well-judged, whereas quite a few others are dubious; my main complaint about this otherwise excellent production is that so much of the text has been left out.

One other complaint, which applies to Part 1 as well as to Part 2, is that Anthony Quayle was not fat and was in that respect decidedly unsuited to perform the role of Falstaff. His acting in that role is superb, but all the jokes about his huge girth are peculiarly incongruous -- as a result of which the humorousness of Falstaff is attenuated.
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Henry V (1979 TV Movie)
Quite a good rendering of an uneven play.
16 October 2011
I want to reply to one of the claims made by the 2010 reviewer (who puerilely refers to Shakespeare as "Will"). This reviewer states that the play is presented "with minimal, if any cuts." If the reviewer takes the time to read the play instead of making uninformed pronouncements about it, he or she will discover that numerous cuts have been made in the BBC's production. To be sure, most of the abridgments are pretty well judged, and there are considerably fewer abridgments than in the Olivier and Branagh versions. Nonetheless, the claim that the BBC's production presents the text uncut or nearly uncut is flatly incorrect.

As for the production itself, it's quite a good rendering of an uneven play. I agree that David Gwillim is too "weepy" and "whispery", but he performs several of his scenes well (for example, the scene with the tennis balls -- until he starts to throw them -- the scene of the exposure of the traitors, and the scene in which he woos Katherine). His rendering of the magnificent St Crispin's Day speech is very disappointing, but his rendering of the riposte to Montjoy shortly after that speech is excellent. Likewise, although he starts the great "Once more unto the breach" speech quite lamely, he finishes it well. Other members of the cast are generally proficient. In particular, the actors who appear as the French nobles seem to enjoy their roles, and they perform those roles adeptly.
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