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Bring your daughter to the slaughter… the 1982 BBC King Lear.

August 31, 2017


Not only is this particular staging very bleak, but televisual technology has made the staging bleaker still as colour saturation is deliberately reduced.  This is a production that deals in sensory deprivation, appropriately enough since the play itself follows characters who are deprived of the sense of sight and of sense itself.  This is life in lower definition, fit for bare forked animals.

Jonathan Miller had already directed Michael Hordern as Lear and Frank Middlemass  as Fool in 1969 and again in 1975.  By 1982, it’s fair to say that this triumvirate had a fair idea of what they were doing.

There’s a slight oddity to Hordern’s Lear referring to the Fool as “boy”, when Middlemass seems as old as he is – but that oddity soon passes.  As he becomes more and more urgent and despairing in his “foolery”, Frank Middlemass’ clown make up starts to run as the torrential rain beats down, making him look like Heath Ledger’s Joker’s dad.

Michael Hordern knows Lear back to front and inside out.   He knows Lear so well that he can speak with great rapidity, finding emphases and  pauses that would startle a less hardened King.  In truth, Hordern’s Lear is never sane and his “descent” into madness is merely the exfoliation of madness that’s implicit from the start.  He’s a man who needs love, but doesn’t really understand what love is made of.  His Lear and the logic of this production of this play is all about discovering the work and the effort of love – discovering it too late to be of any comfort.

I’d vaguely remembered or assumed that Robert Lindsay played Edmund in this production, on the basis that Robert Lindsay is in a great many of the 1978-1984 BBC Shakespeares, but in fact Edmund is Michael Kitchen.  Robert Lindsay happened to play Edmund in a completely separate TV production of King Lear made round about the same time starring Laurence Olivier.  It is odd seeing Kitchen as Edmund because his appearance seems an exact anticipation of the second Elizabethan incarnation of Edmund Blackadder – made a few years later.


The familiarity of this costume on Rowan Atkinson makes Kitchen hard to watch at times.  But if you can see past it, there’s a kind of elegance and self-possession to Kitchen’s Edmund, a poise that not even final shame exposure and mortal wounding can rupture.   Note John Shrapnell as Kent.  He shaves his head early as part of his disguise and becomes his recognisable self. You’ve seen John Shrapnell in more stuff  than you remember.  He’s an actor you’re used to saying ruthless things about the nature of political power.  As Kent (or rather as Caius), he’s the man who speaks truth to power.

Brenda Blethyn is Cordelia.  You can also see her as Joan of Arc (Pucelle) in Henry VI Part One in the same series – about as different a role as can be imagined.  She’s a frail one here – a slender creature in white overwhelmed by her almost identical looking giant sisters in black (Gillian Barge and Penelope Wilton).  John Bird is a ineffectual and fretful yet ultimately decent Albany.

Anton Lesser is the Edgar charged with many of the most beautiful lines in the play, including the heartfelt “weight of this sad time we must obey/Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” conclusion which echoes through every bereavement experience than any of us have ever felt.  Poor Tom’s a’ mad – and Edgar is also, in his own way, since his treatment of his father Gloucester (Norman Rodway) acknowledges no known therapeutic logic.

The Jacobean precision of the costumes contrasts with the nakedness of the staging, which is nothing more than swathes of drab fabric and bare boards.  Like the residual colour that drains from the faces, there’s a prevailing sense that this austerity represents a decline from something, that a nightmarish world of unforgiving extremes has stolen upon this world without its inhabitants realising.

I’ve a few thoughts about some other BBC Shakespeares in this series…

Here is Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Here’s Julius Caesar:

King John:

Here’s Richard II:

The BBC Richard III could not be more unlike the BBC Richard II…

Here is Henry VI Part III

Henry VI. Part Two:

Henry VI, Part One:

Here’s my review of the BBC Henry V:

Here are a few more blogs musing on this old BBC project…

BBC Henry IV, Part TWO:

But here’s my review of the BBC Henry IV Part ONE:

And the BBC Antony and Cleopatra:

And the Cymbeline:

Not to mention a somber but intensely homoerotic Coriolanus:

Here’s Comedy of Errors:

And… All’s Well That End’s Well:

Helen Mirren in the BBC As You Like It:



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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Reposting on the sad occasion of Jonathan Miller’s death. #RIPJonathanMiller

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