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“What are YOU laughing at?” The 1978 BBC Measure for Measure

November 21, 2017

Measure for Measure

The chief problem with this production of a so-called “problem play” is that it doesn’t really think that it ought to be funny.  Indeed it’s hard to imagine that director Desmond Davis ever put himself in the position of trying to figure out how the audience is going to laugh at any point in this play.

Now for sure, a lot of the comedy of Measure for Measure is very dark.  And for sure, this play has some disturbing meditations on sex and death to offer – severed head comedy.  But black comedy is meant to be as funny as any other kind of comedy.  Black comedy is reflexive comedy – comedy that involves laughter followed by self-examination – laughter that makes us question our own self-righteousness when we laugh at stuff we never expected to laugh at.  When we laugh in Measure for Measure, we take stock of ourselves because we’re not the people we thought we were.  But we still laugh, because the very laughter that we worry about trying to perhaps suffocate is the laughter that gestates and simmers and explodes very nicely.

But this production, like too many of the earlier Cedric Messina era of BBC Shakespeare production, is obsessed with a very stiff necked version of fidelity and misses many opportunities to connect with any intended audience.  For example, Claudio’s simple line in prison “thanks, dear Isabelle” is contextually funny in every single production staged provided that a director is prepared to spot the obvious opportunity.  It’s not funny here.

There are moments of attempted comic staging, but they are never followed through with any confidence and they are certainly not joined up.  When Angelo (Tim Pigott-Smith) appears for his second interview with Isabella, this time with libidinous intent, his stiff necked uniform has become completely unbuttoned and his shirt is now split to the navel revealing a hairy chest and an array of vulgar jewelry.  He resembles the Medallion Man character played by Nicky Henson in that episode of Fawlty Towers.  This is potentially funny if the Director had spotted the implications of the change.  There’s a broader problem with the fact that Kate Nelligan’s powerful performance as the embodiment of divinely inspired virtue seems to belong in an unambiguous tragedy.  She’s wonderful but it seems impossible to believe that  she could even accidentally inspire anyone to lascivious purpose.

As Marianne, we have Jacqueline Pearce, no less, most famous as Servalan – supreme ruler of the galaxy.  It’s a bit distracting watching her, because you feel sure that she’s wearing a wig, given the Blake’s Seven production schedule in 1978.  I’m sure she’s wearing a wig.  She does shine however in Act V, where she speaks with more authority than anyone else in Vienna.

Ellis Jones is unmemorable as Elbow – Dogberry Mark II.  Alun Armstrong is sympathetic as the Provost.  The hilarious scene with Barnadine is smudged of any comic timing or opportunity.  The prison scenes look promising – offering Pythonesque levels of creative filth and hilarious low moans.  These moans soon cease though as the comic potential of the staging is dissipated and forgotten.  Armstrong looks like Prince Edward Blackadder (first series) but again – all these farcical visual prompts go nowhere.

I do like to see Kevin Stoney.  He played Thrasyllus the prophet in both the 1968 version of The Caesars and I Claudius in 1976 and also showed up in Doctor Who on several memorable occasions.  As Escalus, he showcases a twinkly smile that communicates an ideal of accessible authority.   There is something particularly satisfying about hearing Kevin Stoney say “bum”.  Yes, hearing Kevin Stoney say “bum” was the happiest moment of this production.

Frank Middlemass plays the bawd – Pompey Bum.  He is dressed in tattered brown rags and his face and hair are besmeared with filth and he clearly represents the dregs of society.  But, correct me if I’m wrong, but those whose income consists of skimming the profit margins of sex workers are not usually represented dressed in drab raggedy clothing?  I think there’s a plausible tradition stretching over centuries, that suggests that the wages of sin are bling. Even if Pompey Bum is a bawd pretending to be a mere tapster there ought to be some evidence of his ill-gotten gains.  The flesh trade ought to be at least superficially attractive if it is to survive – surely?

Kenneth Colley, who plays the central contriving role of The Duke is a remarkable straight man.  He was one Ken Russell’s favourite actors.  Indeed, as the man who delivered an entirely respectful portrayal of  Jesus Christ in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, he can claim to be the Greatest Straight Man Ever Told.  He also co-starred with Michael Palin in The Testing of Eric Olthwaite – which may just be the most perfect half hour of comedy drama ever shown.  In this production, he is very very dignified, which can of course be hilarious, given the right directorial handling (which we’re not given).  In the middle of this play The Duke has soliloquy revealing of his plans which consists of octosyllabic couplets – a form very rare within the Shakespearean canon.  The heavy handed sing-song quality of this verse can be used to destabilise not merely the speech, but the Duke’s strange authority as a whole.  The Duke’s machinations should be both sinister and a bit clueless in a good production.  The Duke is a control freak who is playing with human lives.  Heads may well roll as a consequence of a melodramatic irresponsibility that is implied by the structure of the plot and the detail of the verse.  Colley, with his wonderful deep set eyes (a bit like Richard Pasco) is never given the opportunity to perform sinister inefficiency.

It is as though each of the main players is delivering a serious performance from different play.  Kenneth Colley seems like a very young Prospero, Tim Pigott-Smith an agonised Macbeth and Kate Nelligan a superlative Cordelia.  When this sort of thing happens, a lack of directorial focus is surely to blame.  There’s a lack of awareness of the fact that you don’t make a comedy “darker” by making it less absurd but rather by amplifying the absurdity and allowing the serious sentiment to play uneasily against a hilarious situation.

We’re all familiar with comedy productions where rival clowns and would-be clowns mug competitively at one another and nobody’s left to play it straight.  Davis’ 1978 BBC production of Measure for Measure offers a rare example of a production with far too many po-faced foils and not enough people capering about trying to make us laugh.

“Cos – it’s Shakespeare don’t you know?  It’s CULTURE!  Yer not meant to laugh!”



I have some thoughts about some other productions in this 1978-1985 BBC series.


Henry VIII


Love’s Labours Lost:

Romeo and Juliet:

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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