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The 1969 TV adaptation of Twelfth Night. Guinness, Plowright, Richardson and yes Tommy Steele.

March 24, 2017


Tommy Steele smiled a lot.  Maybe he still smiles a lot.  I haven’t seen him for a while, but at the height of his fame in the 60s he was always grinning.  Steele’s was what I’d call an “almost” slappable smile.  The Tommy Steele smile was not quite an Andre Rieu slappable smile, but a smile you think about slapping before allowing your arm to flop down to your thigh as thinking “Ah, sure, he’s just a genuinely happy man.”

I do think Tommy Steele smiles too much for Feste though.  Tommy Steele is more of a Will Kempe clown than a Robert Armin clown.  Besides, in many ways Feste is a nasty piece of work.  He’s always scratching around for money and his revenge on Malvolio is remarkably disproportionate, slow and contrived.   The whirligig of time brings in his revenges with a look of cold blooded satisfaction, surely?  Not with the grin of Tommy Steele.

For this production, Alec Guinness uses the same voice he was using to play Charles I round about the same time, a soft Morningside posh-Edinburgh accent that gives peculiar accent and piquancy to his aspirant fantasies.  Malvolio has reached to tippy top of still being “below stairs” and so dares to dream an impossible dream.  Far from being a “puritan”, he seems like a passionate aristocrat.   Ralph Richardson’s Toby Belch captures the cruel sense of innate privilege that underscores Belch’s ability to slum it below stairs.  Like Falstaff, Belch is a user and an abuser, but unlike Falstaff, Belch can’t take his drink.  Richardson plays a fine drunk, and the key to playing drunk (as I was told long long ago) is to play “not drunk”.  Nothing communicates intoxication better than a certain over-deliberation and care to obfuscate the obvious symptoms of disorder.

Joan Plowright doubles as both Viola and Sebastian.   I’m not sure how well this works.  Alright, specifically, I’m not sure how well Joan Plowright as Sebastian works.  She affects a deep voice and make up has applied a hint of stubble to the lower half of her face.  Perhaps she (and or director John Dexter) would have done better to just leave Sebastian as Cesario, as it were.   Plowright’s delivery of keynote Viola speeches such as the “patience on a monument” moment is exemplary, and she does Cesario’s wide-eyed devotion proud.  (Arguably, Joan Plowright plays three parts, not two: Viola, Sebastian and Cesario.)

The play is cut a great deal, in order to be accommodated within a two hour slot that also contains commercial breaks.  Without the commercial breaks, this pacy Twelfth Night is trimmed down to an hour and forty minutes.  Aguecheek’s key line “I’d as lief be a Brownist as a politician” is gone – as it tends to go, in most every production I see.  John Moffat’s Aguecheek, incidentally is awkwardly bulky in places.  A fight between Moffat and Joan Plowright doesn’t look like a faux-fight between well-matched weaklings at all.  Ho hum.

Orsino is always difficult.  It’s not clear who is actually governing Illyria, because Duke Orsino spends all the live long day in bed, lounging on sofas, composing bad poetry and listening to music.  There’s a nice scene where all of Orsino’s attendants troop into the bedroom to whip off his nightgown and pull on a dressing gown, but Viola/Cesario neatly turns her back on him at the crucial moment to avoid seeing any Ducal nudie bits.

They don’t do television Shakespeare like this anymore.  You don’t get these videotaped indoor productions with colourful scenery anymore.  TV cringes at film rather than at theatre, which depresses me somewhat.  Bring back garish costumes.  Bring back studio lighting.  Let us know again that we are in a world of make believe.  Let us smell theatres once more when we watch TV drama.


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