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Hello Darkness my old friend… The 1984 BBC “Much Ado About Nothing”. Also, the origins of “Dad’s Army”.

September 19, 2017



A strange habit has developed of referring to Much Ado as “Shakespeare’s Sunniest Comedy”.  I don’t know how this practice ever developed, since it plainly isn’t – although the notion that it is – is largely responsible for the sheer wrong-headedness of Kenneth Branagh’s unfortunate film adaptation of the play.  No no no, there is real darkness in Much Ado and if it goes unacknowledged, you’re getting less than half a play.

Don John is a figure of rare “motiveless malignancy”, first cousin to Iago in terms of his cold-blooded determination to ruin lives. The central unwedding scene is unyieldingly cruel in its timing and detail.  This production, directed by Stuart Burge does at least know about the darkness and accommodates it.  We move from Hero’s prostration to Graham Crowden’s Friar, shot from below to give that extraordinary tremulous voice even more authority.  I’ve often thought that God might be Graham Crowden, and this scene confirms my suspicions.

As soon as I saw this Hero, I struggled to place her.  I was sure I knew that face.  Turns out Katharine Levy played little Claudius’s evil sister Livilla for one episode before growing up to be Patricia Quinn.  There’s a peculiar knowingness to this Hero, a twinkly capacity for mischief that forces Cherie Lunghi to “up her game” if she is to provide the cynosure for playful banter in this performance.  Which she does.  An insult from Cherie Lunghi’s Beatrice is worth a compliment from anyone else and everyone knows it.  Other characters are practically lining up to be put down by her.  She rules Messina, and will do even more convincingly once she’s married Benedick.

Benedick is Robert Lindsay, yet again – the most recurring of BBC Shakespearean actors.  He’s very much two Benedicks in this production.  When he determines to be in love, he has a shave, and beardless Benedick is a very different character altogether.  When he rails against Beatrice in his beard, his obsession is evident to everyone.  Smooth Lindsay is just as witty as Beardy Lindsay, but his timing has vastly improved.

Jon Finch is back.  Having put in a prolongued stint as Bolinbroke/Henry IV, here he is a very oily and unwholesome looking Don Pedro.  He has a greasy haircut that seems rather younger than he is, and one ends up despising his Pedro more than Robert Reynolds’ Claudio – albeit Claudio is a part that’s difficult to make much of.  This Pedro is so slappable that it’s a miracle that two and a half hours elapse without him being slapped.  I suppose that’s what being a “Don” gets you.

Lee Montague is very hale and vigorous as Leonato.  While watching him, I was anticipating a problem with the crucial scene where he challenges Claudio and Don Pedro to fight him.  In all honesty, he looks in good enough shape to give at least one of them a fair contest.  This heartbreaking scene works however, because Lee Montague is prostrated by the agonies of pain and betrayal.  He’s not too old to fight – he’s too emotionally fraught to function or time his rapier strokes.

Michael Elphick is an uncharacteristically vigorous Dogberry.  Indeed, it’s an uncharacteristic role for Elphick altogether.  “Blessed” with a famous face that’s been described as “not so much ‘lived-in’ as vandalised”, Elphick is more associated with shrewd roguery that with shambolic decency.  The Dogberry Watch is of course, the ultimate source for Dad’s Army – a bumbling assortment of men past their prime who somehow manage to get the job done in spite of themselves.  As if to make this derivation even more blindingly obvious – Clive Dunn (who despite living to a great age never lived long enough to be old enough to be any of the characters he actually played), is Verges, doddering around in Elphick’s shadow.  Also in the troop is Norman Kaye – who had excelled as the Duke of Austria in King John, but who ups the sitcom feel of the few scenes he’s in.  While laughing at these apparent incompetents, it is not to be forgotten that they do actually perform the task they are assigned to perform and in so doing resolve the entire play.  They may mangle language, but they apprehend and foil a criminal conspiracy.  Captain Mainwaring’s platoon did the same on more than one occasion.

The costumes in this production are absolutely gorgeous.  This is a spectacularly pretty production, so pretty as to risk being embarrassing in the wrong hands.  And the wrong hands would be hands that denied the darkness and relegated the evil trinity of Don John, Borachio and Conrade to a background collection of irritants.  Vernon Dobtcheff’s John is a creature whose only sense of personal purpose is to smear prettiness whenever and wherever he finds it.  He’s not trying to take over a kingdom or acquire a fortune.  He just wants to smear.

Where would cherishable prettiness be without Don John’s to threaten it?

I’ve a few thoughts on some other productions in this BBC Shakespeare series (1978 – 1985)…

King Lear:

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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