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“Well, Susan is with God…”: The 1978 BBC Romeo and Juliet.

October 5, 2017


This is the first one, the first one in the entire 1978-85 BBC Shakespeare series.  It has all the weaknesses associated with the Cedric Messina era -typified by the horrible series title sequence which consists of William Walton pageant music played over images of major European cultural landmarks.  The whole package screams “Look you Americans this is CULTURE! CULTURE I tell you.  And it’s good for you.  So we’re all going to sit here while you eat it all up with a spoon.”

And the first voice we hear is the most remarkable and officially theatrical sounding voice of the twentieth century -because yes John Gielgud is the chorus, proving that what we are all about to experience is VERY IMPORTANT.

The cast has its hits and misses. The extraordinary John Savident is wasted in the tiny role of Friar John.  Joseph O’Conor offers palatable piety in the more pivotal role of Friar John.  The imposing Laurence Naismith is the Prince of Escalus, although his arrival on horseback onto what is obviously a studio set looks very awkward.  One is reminded of why Shakespeare’s chorus in Henry V explicitly states that this company can’t do horses.

I’m sorry – but Vernon’s Dobtcheff’s apothecary is an anti-semitic cartoon.

The winning performance in this production is by Celia Johnson as Nurse.  It’s a role that is easy to steal scenes and whole productions with, but Celia Johnson ( who is also a wonderful Countess in this series’ All’s Well that Ends Well) focuses every bit of screen time she inhabits.  Hers is always the most fascinating and invested face.  Like Pandarus in Troilus and Cressida, Nurse expresses a very passionate but completely vicarious sexuality.  She is obsessed with Juliet’s sexuality, even when waxing nostalgic about Juliet’s infancy.   Indeed, Shakespeare’s “Nurse” is the wettest of wet nurses and her relationship with Juliet is about the performance of a repeated nurturing function that creates a lifelong dependency.  If blood is thicker than water then milk is thicker than blood.

I have to say I find Anthony Andrews a uniquely slappable Mercutio.  When Nurse wants to slap him, we want to hold his arms behind his back so that she can slap him more efficiently and repeatedly.  This is a tediously mannered and incurably conceited Mercutio whose perverse cadencing of the great Queen Mab speech is more Shatnerian than Shakespearean.  He’s a sort of David Brent of a “best mate”  whose relentless need to be funny all the time makes him impossible to be around.  I’ll go further.  This is the only Mercutio who has me cheering for Tybalt during the big duel scene.

Of course, it helps that this Tybalt is played by a young Alan Rickman no less.  It is gratifying to see that he had perfected his trademark sneer so early in his career.  He is also sporting a haircut only worn once since 1978 – by Newcastle striker Peter Beardsley in 1986.

When I’m either very bored or very dedicated, I will check to see whether Michael Hordern or Robert Lindsay appeared in the most BBC Shakespeares.  Hordern here is Old Capulet, full of bluster and pathos.  He is particularly effective in his brief nostalgic scene with Even Older Capulet played by the remarkable Edmond Knight (Fluellen in Olivier’s 1944  Henry V).  He is not quite adequately supported, sad to say, by Jacqueline Hill (one of the very first Doctor Who companions) who is required to offer a more chilling version of parental cruelty as Lady Capulet (perhaps the coldest and cruelest character in the play?)  If Hordern is to offer a broadly affectionate yet irascible Daddy, then Mummy has to be scarier to compensate.

This Juliet, controversially played by Rebecca Saire, really is just fourteen.  It is startling to hear the “gallop apace” speech from the lips of someone so young, and even more startling given that her Romeo is 26 and looks older.  12 years is a significant age gap in any relationship, and the younger the younger party to the relationship, the more significant.  And I think in this production it’s a problem.  If Juliet is a teenager then Romeo should be as well.  Despite his best efforts, he can’t help but look like a dirty old man from time to time.  Saire was criticised back in 1978 as being too young and too sexless, but the real lack of sexuality is in the awkward space between her and Patrick Ryecart, who struggles to try to periodically act like a teenager.  There is too much mature substance to his Romeo that cannot be shrugged off easily.

Any sex between a  14 year old and a 26 year old (rapid Bruno Mars style wedding notwithstanding) is now illegal in all civilised countries and a good thing too.   We can’t get past this age gap and nor should we.   We accept the idea of teenage sex as a tragic narrative because the inexperienced fumblings seem equitable.

Of course, Romeo and Juliet as a play fails to satisfy a variety of Aristotelian desiderata of a tragedy since there’s no tragic flaw, no hamartia that condemns its principles.  Romeo and Juliet perish not because of any internal character dynamics but because of the inadequacies of the Italian postal system.

The production itself is very pretty and the sets and the costumes both look expensive.  Music, which might have worked well enough between scenes, is allowed to overlap with dialogue, clogging it with directed sentiment.  This problem is particularly acute with the Lark and Nightingale morning after scene.

So on the whole, the BBC Shakespeare series began in 1978 with a miss, not a hit – a play with various strengths and various failures of co-ordinated vision.


But I have some thoughts on some other 1978-1985 Shakespeares.

Like the Scottish one:

Much Ado About Nothing:

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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