Skip to content

“Haply, for I am Welsh”: the 1981 BBC Othello.

December 7, 2017



Whisper it softly – within comparatively living memory, a white guy played Othello on television.  Apparently, James Earl Jones had been originally approached to perform the role in Jonathan Miller’s 1981 production, but Equity insisted that all roles in this BBC Shakespeare series be performed by British actors.  Shamefully, it was determined that there were no black actors in Britain in 1981 with sufficient stature to play the role – and so it was given to Anthony Hopkins.

In his own defense, Jonathan Miller was able to reference the fact that there is legitimate disagreement regarding the scope of meanings that the word “moor” could accommodate in the early modern period.  An English audience in the first decade of the seventeenth-century might use the word to describe someone from sub-Saharan Africa or someone from the near east.  There were no rigid nineteenth-century pseudo-scientific racial categories to refer to -and instead there was a promiscuous collection of broadly phobic adjectives attached to different degrees of “darkness”.

And so Anthony Hopkins becomes a bit darker – without “blacking up” like Larry Olivier’s notorious 1960s Othello.  But is he meant to be representing someone from the Arabian peninsula?  Or North Africa?  Or further east…  ?

It seems not.

For Anthony Hopkins looks like the thing that he surely is – a Welshman who has overslept in a tanning salon.  There are pasty faced families from Swansea who have spent two weeks in Cyprus and come home darker than Anthony Hopkins’ Othello.  Tom Jones on stage in Vegas looks darker than Anthony Hopkins in Othello.  And our sense of Othello being in any sense racially  “different” from his Venetian companions is communicated less by his vaguely swarthy appearance than his own rich Welsh accent, an accent shared by nobody else on stage.

In other words, this is not a “blackface” performance, because it’s not clear that Hopkins is trying to impersonate any “race” other than his own.

Hopkins’ own Welsh accent serves Othello’s most poetic speeches very well.  This performance evokes a sense of the Stratford man interbreeding with Dylan Thomas.  Hopkins lingers over certain words and phrases in quite original ways that revivify some of the more stale and oft quoted fragments of verse.   And so, far from attempting a racial impersonation, Hopkins uses Othello as an opportunity to come home as an actor.

However, I think a larger opportunity was lost here.  The play could have been mounted without shoving Hopkins under a sun lamp at all but by replacing every instance of the word “black” with the word “Welsh”.  Let Hopkins’ play himself and let the self that he plays illustrate the bigotry that poisons the unequal relations between the nations of North West Europe.  He’s a Welshman that the Anglos find useful, but who will be made to feel foreign as soon as he outlives his usefulness.

As Othello descends into madness, his appearance becomes more ludicrous – his hair madder.  And this is fine.  Sexual jealousy is, after all, a state bereft of any dignity – a condition that is all the more agonising for being absurd.  Hopkins is never too proud or too stuffy to smudge the utter degradation that Othello undergoes.  The play is, after all, all the more tragic for being – simultaneously – a bedroom farce.

Meanwhile, it is an observation trite but true to declare that everything is better with Bob Hoskins in it.  I saw this production when it was first broadcast and it was Hoskins not Hopkins who lodged in my memory, though Hoskins and Hopkins play well off each other.  (They share some great scenes in Oliver Stone’s Nixon where Hoskins is a Iagoish J .Edgar Hoover to Hopins’ fragile and tragic Nixon.)  Hoskins’ Iago is funny and engaging and projects a superficial yet compelling innocence.  The skill with which this Iago “forces” Othello to extort Iago’s suspicions from him is largely a consequence of a kind of naive charisma, dare I say “cuteness” that Hoskins discovers and exploits in the role.   And when Hoskins’ exclaims “I hate the moor” when completely alone, the intensity of this emotion is both obtrusive and completely convincing.

Penelope Wilton’s Desdemona seems very very English and prim, which may represent an attempt to illustrate quite how strange mixed-race (Anglo-Welsh) marriages appear within a casually phobic imagination.  If her Desdemona is eclipsed by Rosemary Leach’s spirited Emilia, then this eclipse reflects every single production of Othello I’ve ever seen.  Emilia is, quite simply, a much better role than Desdemona.

John Barron (forever frozen in the collective consciousness of a generation as “CJ” from The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin) plays the Duke of Venice – a Doge who didn’t get where he is today without knowing how to patronise talented Welshmen in an absolute emergency.

Also look out for Tony Steedman as Montano whom you’ll struggle to place for a while before triumphantly remembering that he played So-Crates in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.  Joseph O’Conor is awkwardly cast as Lodovico, despite being of an age which makes nonsense of many of the references to him made by other characters.

There are some nicely innovative bits of filmed staging.  Desdemona’s final dying words to Emilia are seen in a mirror while the camera focuses on Othello standing aghast and staring at the bed.  Earlier in the play, a dialogue between Iago and Cassio regarding Bianca is almost inaudible to the audience, reflecting Othello’s own inability to gather the exchange with any accuracy.  Costumes are fairly austere, in defiance of the vague but prevalent assumption that Venetians are supposed to be colourful bunch.

The play ends with Bob Hoskins’ maniacal laughter as he is dragged away.  Whatever punishment is inflicted upon this Iago, he clearly thinks it was all worth while.

I’ve some thoughts about some of the other 1978-1985 BBC Shakespeares….

Like Measure for Measure:

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:

From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: