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Edmund Burke, Progressive Coalitions and – yet again – passionate pragmatism.

On the sad occasion of the 220th anniversary of Edmund Burke’death, I’m going to reblog everything I have with “Burke” in the title…



Now that I’m an Irish citizen, I’m allowed to celebrate Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke at one and the same time.

What I miss about Burke, or rather, miss about Burkeian thinking (Burke’s been dead since 1797 and I’m over it) is not a set of political positions, or even a framework of political belief.  No, I miss an ethical methodology for political decision making.  I miss passionate pragmatism, needed now more than ever.

I’m repeating myself.  I’ve said this before, and I’ve written this before, but right now the case for passionate pragmatism becomes more and more urgent.  And passionate pragmatism isn’t about being more or less radical and it certainly isn’t about being “centrist”.  I have no time for people who are instinctively “centrist”.

Burke was, even in his lifetime, accused of being a “turncoat” because he was sympathetic to the rebellious American colonists but hostile to the…

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Happy 83rd Birthday Marty Feldman


Yes.  Marty Feldman would have been 83 years old today.   So we should all (re)watch his superlative “beast in the basket” sketch because this sketch contains the funniest line in any sketch ever.

Let’s just watch this together shall we?  And all of the nastiness and stupidity of contemporary politics will just float away… at least for a while.  We can’t be meditating of vicious idiocy all the time, now can we?  We’ll go mad.  Let the balletic and exquisitely timed fertile madness of Marty Feldman give us some salutary respite from the clumsy political madness around us.  It will be very good for us.

Marty Feldman also co-wrote the famous Frost Report“Class” sketch which starred Ronnies Corbett and Barker and John Cleese as well as co-writing the first version of the “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch – before appearing in the decisive Ur-Python At Last the 1948 Show.  Oh, and…

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The 60th Anniversary of Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s first meeting.


Sixty years ago today, at St Peter’s Church Woolton’s summer fête, Paul McCartney first met John Lennon.  If the pair of them had spent the day signing their names on every flier and every hymn book in the church’s possession, St Peter’s restoration fund would now be in a much healthier situation.

Mutual friend Ivan Vaughan is to be thanked (and thanked and thanked) for this meeting.

At the fête Paul saw a bunch of roughnecks on the back of a lorry playing stuff that was half way between skiffle and rock and roll.  He was immediately drawn to the lead singer – impressed not by his musicianship but by his swagger and stage presence and by the ingenuity with which he improvised lyrics to songs he didn’t really know the words to.

After the concert, such as it was, Paul was formally introduced to the swaggering skiffler who smelt a bit beery.   Then it was Paul’s turn to impress John.

Paul impressed John with his ability to actually tune a guitar properly (rather than tune a guitar like a banjo which is how John had learned from his mother).   He also impressed John with the fact that he knew Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock” and Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula” all the way through with the correct words.

John did not invite Paul to join his band overnight, but he started to decide to.  The decision was complicated for a young man who enjoyed being the leader of the gang, the frontman, the big cheese, the cynosure of everyone’s attention.

20 months separated John and Paul in age.  At the time, the difference between being only just fifteen and being in spitting difference of seventeen felt like a lot – but John was smart enough to know that this age difference would be increasingly less meaningful.  If he was to invite someone who could sing as well as he could and who could play the guitar considerably better into his band, then the band would no longer be John Lennon and his Quarrymen – the band would become something else – something far far better, but something that John could not be certain of controlling.  Teenagers, as I vaguely recall, control comparatively little and can be fiercely defensive of the small areas of autonomous freedom they enjoy.   The shackles of dependency chafe with especial irritancy when you’re sixteen and a half.  To decide to invite Paul into this sort of band was to knowingly sacrifice a kind of autonomy for a new kind of co-dependency – a tough decision for a certain kind of intelligent teenager to make.

Even at his worst, his bitterest moments (between 1970 and 1973), John never regretted this decision.

When Paul joined John’s band, he not only brought his own musicianship of course.  Before very long, he brought George Harrison.  Within a few weeks, the core of a band that was actually good at what it did was assembled.

Some of us make important decisions when we’re sixteen or seventeen, but few if any will make decisions comparable to John Lennon’s decision sixty years ago.  To assert that it was the best decision he ever made is obvious.  Because in all honesty, we would not be celebrating successive anniversaries of the Quarrymen’s transcendent achievements had he decided to exclude Paul McCartney from the band.   (John did not make the decision in complete isolation, but his was the vote that counted.)   Indeed, we would not be talking about John Lennon in any twenty-first century cultural retrospective discussion, had he decided to to excluded Paul McCartney from the band.

Without the support of Paul McCartney, I suspect, John Lennon’s various frustrations and insecurities – together with a recurring natural tendency towards indolence – would have hamstrung his ability to achieve anything resembling a global audience for whatever it was he ended up doing.  He might have ended up as an interesting failed painter, or an infrequently anthologised poet, or a folk singer with a dedicated drunk following.  He might have been a footnoted Liverpool “character”.

With Paul McCartney, John had a partner not only with discipline, focus, and professional determination but also a kind of generosity – the kind of generosity that knows that inner demons need to be put on ice from time to time when it comes to giving of yourself to others.  So this summer fête was not only the making of The Beatles, but the making of John Lennon.

And what did Paul McCartney learn from John Lennon?  Unlike John, Paul could have “made it” on his own.  He had a showbiz work ethic and a remarkable skills set, including the ability to construct original melodies from a very early age.  He could have formed a successful band – a band that we’d have heard of today.  He could have been a solo artist – one who we’d still buy recordings of today.  What John gave Paul, however, was the ability to critique the terms of “making it”.  What John gave Paul was a sense that the pre-existing categories showbiz, music, rock and roll (whatever you want to call it), were there to be adapted, subverted and made fun of.  Something of this, Paul intuited when he enjoyed John’s brazen improvisations on the back of a Lorry sixty years ago today.

There are those who regard The Beatles as having provoked such as deplorable anxiety of influence that they feel that the meeting sixty years ago was a disaster.  They posit bold alternate universes in which other, supposedly more authentic forms of music flourish – supposedly organically – without having to trail in the disproportionate wake of the Fabs.  Some of those people are doubtless working on time machines just so they can put a puncture in Paul McCartney’s bike and prevent him from getting to the fête.

A world without The Beatles?  I’d as soon try and live in a world without sunshine.  Or cheese.

Double Whoopee. The Laurel and Hardy film set entirely in a hotel lobby (and in the street just outside it).


The swanky downtown hotel is all of a flutter because the bad-tempered prince of some European despotism is about to arrive, along with his unhappy country’s prime minister. The worst aspects of a certain kind of American fascination with royalty are on display here.  These snobs who grovel in front of fancy titles deserve to be taken down a peg or two.  They will be.

Laurel and Hardy arrive from an agency as last minute replacement staff and are initially confused with this illustrious pair.  After much fussing over pens, Stan eventually signs with a cross.  Once the confusion has been sorted out, Stan and Ollie are fitted out with hotel liveries.

(Throughout the film, the tedious despot keeps accidentally falling into the filthy elevator pit to become bruised and besmirched and we don’t care.)

Ollie has a whistle fitted into his costume?  How can you have a whistle sewn into your coat without blowing on it?  Honesty?  How?  Unfortunately, the whistle summons a taxi-driver who is of course, perennial antagonist Charlie Hall who resents being whistled to the front door on a fools errand.  There is Tiny Sandford, the same slow moving cop from Big Business around to keep a suspicious eye on Stan and Ollie (especially Ollie), and some nice tit for tat uniform mutilation involving Stan, Ollie and Charlie.

The film is perhaps most notable for the appearance of Jean Harlow – platinum blonde bombshell – muse of Howard Hughes – and sensational tabloid fodder for the rest of her hauntingly and predictably short life.  There is a famous anecdote involving Margot Asquith and Jean Harlow in which the Margot suggests archly that the “T” is silent in the her own first and the Jean’s second name.

As Jean Harlow steps out of the cab, the camera lingers for a while on her extraordinary face before turning to Ollie.  The preening and fidgeting and idiotic grinning that Ollie exhibits is priceless, offering my favourite few seconds in the film.  Of course, his celebrated Southern gentility kicks in and he offers to escort Jean Harlow to the front desk with excessive ceremony.

Typically, of course, Stan slams the door of the cab rather carelessly and Jean Harlow loses most of her dress – a circumstance which goes unnoticed until they are actually at the front desk.  It occurs to me that this joke probably would only work in the context of a silent film.  You can only ignore the sound of a dress being shredded in the context of a world in which sound is either absent altogether or is very selectively applied.

When Jean Harlow’s state of undress is realised, it is significant that Stan and Ollie’s reaction is not voyeuristic delight, but a frantic if inefficient effort to spare her blushes.  For an old romantic like Ollie, her exposed legs are not an enticing spectacle but rather signify the failure of his chivalric mission.

It is not that Stan and Ollie (considered as cinematic characters) are complete sexual innocents (as is sometimes implied).  It is rather that their attitude to sex expresses itself in terms of the most elaborate and prolonged form of flirtations based on extreme shyness.  I’d say they were “Shandean”.

The stakes are very low in this two-reelers.  Some very rich people are humiliated and have their clothing damaged.  Stan and Ollie move on to another job.

None of it really matters – and why should it?

I’ve a few thoughts on some other Laurel and Hardy movies…

Big Business:

That’s My Wife:

Wrong Again:


We Faw Down:

Habeas Corpus:

Two Tars:

Early to Bed:

Should Married Men Go Home?:

Their Purple Moment:

You’re Darn Tootin’:

From Soup to Nuts:

Leave em Laughing:

Battle of the Century:

Putting Pants on Philip:

Hats Off:

Call of the Cuckoo:

The Second Hundred Years:

Flying Elephants:

Sugar Daddies:

Do Detectives Think?

Sailors Beware!:

With Love and Hisses:

Love ‘Em and Weep:

Slipping Wives:

45 Minutes from Hollywood:

Duck Soup:

The Lucky Dog:


Sarah Siddons and Audience Response Theory.




An extract from the conclusion to my Thomas Sheridan.  I wonder if what happened to The Beatles by 1966 represents a necessary crisis of performance acclaim.  When performance reception becomes uncritical then performance itself dies, and something else starts to occur…

Sarah Siddons found herself, in later life, encouraged to play larger and larger venues in which the subtelty and intimacy of her earlier performances became increasingly compromised.  Like a jaded singer who increasingly prefers the recording studio to the concert circuit, Siddons became increasingly concerned with her own portraiture and sculpture, seeking (presumably) to immortalise her classic attitudes within a permanent medium.

The response of audiences to Siddons’ performances became ritualized and predictive: people wept because they knew they ought to weep rather than because they were genuinely surprised by a moment of authentic pathos.  Once the effects of performance are regarded as both “famous” and “predictable”, they…

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Sarah Siddons, Movie Star

It’s Sarah Siddons Birthday today. Hooray!



In my Tom Sheridan book I try to make the case that Sarah Siddons was the first movie star.

Here’s where you can get publication details if you’re moved to order this book for your library or even (heaven forfend) yourself…

Sarah Siddons was mentored by Tom Sheridan, and became the kind of player he’d always dreamed of.  (The 18th century was blessed with the gender neutral term ‘player’, while we are still stuck with the fairly stupid term ‘actress’ – I mean, whoever heard of a doctress or a lawyeress, I mean, honestly?!)

Thomas Sheridan had built (and then destroyed) his career based on his reputation for crowd control.  Having saved several of his cast from sexual assault, he managed to acquire more control over Dublin theatre than anyone before him.  “King Tommy”  as he was unaffectionately known believed that audiences should absorb theatre quietly and respectfully.


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Edward Young was born on this day in 1683. “Procrastination is the Thief of Time” etc.


The author of the best-selling long religious poem of the mid eighteenth-century was born on this day in 1683.

His contemporaries found no comparison between the spiritual rhapsodies of Night Thoughts and the hard headed opportunist who seemed more interested in securing professional advancement than in pious speculation.

The Complaint: or, Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, & Immortality was published in succeeding “parts” between 1742 and 1745.  It went through many, many editions and did more than any other work to promote the notion that there are things that blank verse can do that rhyming couplets should not.

To be honest, I think I prefer his earlier couplet satires published as – Love of Fame – which might be far better known today, if it weren’t for Alexander Pope.  If we lived in a blessed world where everyone knew Alexander Pope back to front and inside out, then we might be well placed to enjoy Young’s Love of Fame by way of dessert.

Young also wrote a couple of tragedies, including Busiris, set in ancient Egypt, and one of the most hilarious over-statements of the egotistical sublime you’ll ever read.  (Don’t wait for it to be performed again.)

Young’s prose essay Conjectures on Original Composition (1759), addressed to Samuel Richardson, reinforced this belief in the inherent sublimity of blank verse.  It describes and deplores Pope’s translation of Homer as “shackled” by rhyme.  The heroic couplet is, for Young, anything but heroic, but is rather a sort of “old law” that can be dispensed with by those born again in Christ.  Or rather, born again in Miltonic enthusiasm.  Similar sentiments are to be found in the preface to Cowper’s 1791 preface to his own blank verse Homer translation, but I’ve never seen evidence that Cowper ever read Young’s Conjectures – though he certainly knew Night Thoughts.

Yet Young never quite practiced what he preached.  His blank verse remains rather epigrammatic and end-stopped.  He over-uses exclamation marks and little nuggets like “Procrastination is the thief of time” illustrate a tendency to think in terms of individual lines rather than commit to the kind of enjambment that makes Thompson, Akenside, and Cowper more effective blank versifiers.

But above all, Young is someone who fuses theology and aesthetics, and who encourages the errant addressee of the poem “Lorenzo” to commit to Christianity based on a theory of the sublime.  For Young, it is not the letter of Christian teaching that should reclaim the libertine, but rather an aesthetic vindication of the frustrated longings of the infinite human aesthetic imagination.  The obscurity of night allows the imagination to extrapolate better than the precision of day.  Young is the epic poet of the so-called “Graveyard School” consisting really of just Young, Blair, and Gray.  But Young is less interested in bones than he is in expansive prompts and suggestions.

We need to aim at heaven because “we’re better than this”, in other words.  He’s come a long way from original sin.

I should have written this blog a year ago.  But, you know, “procrastination”…

Much have I traveled in Realms of Something or Other. A Song of Ice and Fire Reviewed.

song of ice and fire

A little over a year ago, I was engaged in an online discussion of Game of Thrones and its possible trajectories and resolutions, when someone addressed me by saying “but you HAVE read the books haven’t you?  You HAVE to read the books to understand this conversation.”

In my line of work, this sort of comment has roughly the same effect as Biff referring to Marty McFly as “chicken”.

So heaven help me I read them.  I read all of them.  I read all five or more (some of them are cut two in some publishing jurisdictions).  Thousands of pages.  Done.  As Tenzing Norgay so memorably observed on an occasion you’ll extrapolate – “we done the bugger.”

Here’s the funny thing, I’m almost professionally obligated to prefer literary sources to televisual (or filmic) adaptations any day of the week.  When I look at actors portraying literary characters, I always feel as though I’m looking at someone from the outside in, rather than (while reading), from the inside out.  A performance of a character with a rich interior life generally speaking offers an approximation of a partial mood of a character but is not the character themselves.

But A Song of Ice and Fire?   I don’t think so.  When I read George R. R. Martin’s description of the adventures of Tyrion Lannister, am I watching some richer and more satisfyingly complex than Peter Dinklage’s performance as Tyrion Lannister?  Actually no.   And it’s not just the acting.  Virtually every discrepancy between Martin’s novels and Weiss and Benioff’s scripts seems to me to be to the latter’s advantage.  Weiss and Benioff seem to have a more coherent vision of the material than Martin does.  They know which plotlines are more satisfying than others.  And Weiss and Beniov’s dialogue is certainly crisper, funnier and more devastatingly obscene than Martin’s.

So rewatching Game of Thrones having read these books makes me feel I’m watching not an adaptation of a sequence of novels, but the perfection of a vision.  Martin created a world and a set of characters and imperatives, and Weiss and Benioff are completing that vision, making it imaginatively richer rather than simply more visually specific.

One important factor is that Game of Thrones has to actually end at some point and I’m not sure that Song of Ice and Fire can or will.  By the end of Dance of Dragons, you start to feel that Martin just has far too many balls in the air – or far too many plates spinning – to be able to attend to them all.  Some of them are going to crash – in the sense of being treated to an abrupt and forced resolution that doesn’t really do justice to the effort put into them.

Martin likes short chapters, far shorter chapters than you’ll find in Lord of the Rings.  These short chapters betray the fact that he worked as a screenwriter before he started writing his epic.  Unlike Tolkien, who rarely went near a cinema, Martin’s vision was from the outset structured by the language of film.  Martin’s chapters are “scenes”, curtailed by a dominant commercial consensus regarding how long an audience will commit to particular storyline at a time.  Tolkien’s much much shorter work comes closest to Martin in Book Five of Lord of the Rings (or Book One of Return of the King), where the chapters oscillate between those belonging to Pippin, Merry, and Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas.  These chapters have more fighting than trudging.

Another key difference between Tolkien and Martin is revealed by the trudge to fighting ratio.  Tolkien is less afraid of “dullness” than Martin in the sense that Martin is not prepared to write longish chapter after chapter in which trudging about in the wilderness getting cold and miserable is the main action.  Martin’s need to oscillate between characters and the frequency of violent and sexual encounters within those chapters also create a different experience of distance.  The distance between Winterfell and King’s Landing is meant to be far far greater than the distance between Hobbiton and Rivendell.  But this distance is never really experienced by the reader because Martin will not really commit to describing the experience of trying to cover it.

True epic needs dull bits.  Dull bits are part of an overarching grammar of expectation.  I love test cricket.  Excitement rewards dullness and gives it meaning.  Dullness gives Excitement context and makes it necessary.  Martin is duller than Tolkien because he won’t recognise and embrace tedium for any length of time.

Tolkien of course is writing about a specific question.  From the second chapter of Lord of the Rings onwards, it’s clear what has to be accomplished.  This has structuring implications that give Lord of the Rings a sense of totality.   It is unfair to compare a finished work with an unfinished one, but the Song of Ice and Fire has no comparable sense of purpose.  Of course, at some point dragons and “the others” will inhabit the same chapter and “Ice” and “Fire” will fight.

Possibly resulting in lukewarm water.

So… in the battle of the R.Rs  (Arse Wars?) who wins?  Is Lord of the Rings a more rewarding literary experience than Song of Ice and Fire?


Is the TV adaptation of Song of Ice and Fire better than the movie adaptations of Lord of the Rings?


Is the experience of watching Game of Thrones richer than the experience of reading Lord of the Rings?

Oh come now, that’s beyond “apples and oranges”…  that’s like… ice and fire.

Happy 150th Birthday to Canada – the world’s most Shakespearean nation.


Happy Birthday Canada.  In a few hours time, we’ll amble downtown and watch the parade.  Then later, when the red and white snake has shaken itself apart, we’ll go down to the river and stare at the United States.

Yes, Canada is one hundred and fifty years old today.  Among the many wonderful adjectives that will be joined to Canada today, I’d like to add another – Shakespearean.

Or rather, I’d like to revive an idea that was perhaps insufficiently developed by its original expounder, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, prior to his assassination – 150 years ago next year.   McGee, former 1848 Irish revolutionary, and by far the most eloquent of 1860s Canadian confederators, could (and did) lecture about just about anything.  Sometimes he lectured on Shakespeare.  And it’s my belief that had he lived longer, his lectures on Shakespeare and his lectures on Canada would have joined themselves up.

I think McGee had a Keatsian view of a Shakespearean Canada.  Canada is Shakespearean because it has “negative capability”.  Shakespearean Canada is content not to impose a clear definitional identity on its own mysteries.  Shakespearean Canada is not hung up on “identity” at all and lacks the kind of authorial presence that would want to impose one.   McGee, without quoting Keats, noted that Shakespeare is never a presence in his own dramas – that the characters Shakespeare creates are permitted to evolve and/or exfoliate without a sense of a defining hand on the tiller.  McGee was meanwhile trying to articulate a Confederal ideal for Canada in which each province would trust that no other province was trying to create a Canada in its own image.

McGee had decided to become an Irish Canadian rather than an Irish American, because his experiences not only with nativism but with the reaction to nativism made him feel safer and more himself in Montreal than in New York.  The historical difference between the immigrant experience in the USA and the immigrant experience in Canada derives from the fact that the USA was founded by a culturally and ethnically homogeneous group and successive waves of immigrants have (overwhelmingly successfully), assimilated to the nation established by that group.  But the dominance of that original group, derived from its historical priority, is retained, even when it becomes an ethnic minority within the nation it has designed.   Canada, on the other hand, was to be founded by multicultural negotiation from the get go.  The accommodation of Francophone and Anglophone, Catholic and Protestant, was form part of the actual and initial design of the state, rather than something to be dealt with afterwards.  This makes a difference.  A Shakespearean difference.

Canadians typically believing in demonstrating their patriotism in a variety of practical ways rather than shouting it.  They are not one to shriek “We’re Number One! We’re Number One!” on any or all occasions.  Canadians might be persuaded to chant “We take care of most of our people better than most other countries for most of the time” (an uncontroversial assertion), but rather than chant it, Canadians calmly go about proving it to be the case.  This is a McGee-Keatsian Shakespearean definition of nationhood that stands in critical opposition to an egotistical sublime.

Shakespearean Canada’s identity is civic rather than cultural – which is to say that Canada’s national distinctiveness is to be found in between its big tented hosted identities rather than inside any one of them.  Canada is not chiseled list of commandments, but a place where very different people can be themselves very successfully.

Of at least, this was McGee’s optimal Canada.   No nation with ideals worth having lives up to those ideals all of the time.  Only squalid and selfish people live up to their own ideals.  Shakespearean Canada is a celebratory Canada – it’s a Canada that is never quite real but will never quite die.  Canada has its own dark, disturbing and exploitative history – and spends a fair amount of time interrogating that dark and disturbing history – rather more time, indeed, than nations whose history is considerably more dark and disturbing than Canada’s.  In part, such interrogations take place, because optimal Canada prefers the accommodation of discord to strained concord.

Shakespearean Canada does not make for easy audience closure or critical consensus.

If you rewatch Star Trek VI; The Undiscovered Country (1991), then note the scenes where William Shatner and Christopher Plummer are quoting Shakespeare at one another and respectively claiming the bard for humanity and for the Klingon Empire.  They’re enjoying a very Canadian piece of diplomacy but also smiling (in Plummer’s case, beneath layers of make up) at their own early career scenery-chewing at Shakespeare festivals at Stratford Ontario, where Plummer and Shatner acted as young men in the 1950s.  As Canadians, these guys learned to own Shakespeare.

Unkind cuts. Richard Pasco. The 1979 BBC Shakespeare version of Julius Caesar.


Herbert Wise had directed I Claudius a few years earlier, and knew a bit about acting in togas.  So much, apparently, that part of him really didn’t want to stage Julius Caesar in Roman dress at all.  He would have preferred Renaissance costume.  It is possible that subsequent series producers – Jonathan Miller and Shaun Sutton, would have permitted or encouraged a Renaissance staging, but Cedric Messina had a far more conservative sense of responsibility to public expectations and so togas were decreed.

As a production, it’s neither filmic nor contentedly theatrical.  There are too many people in the crowd scenes to make you feel you’re in a theatre but not enough to make you feel you’re watching a movie.  The sets are too artificial looking to resemble a real city, but not happy enough with their own artifice to evoke a sense of real stagecraft.

Worse, Herbert Wise has soliloquies delivered as voiceovers, a strategy that rarely fails to irritate me.  I’m thinking it is the half-way house nature of the production that informs a timidity that in turn results in an embarrassed attitude to lips moving when only one character is on stage.  The voiceover does not communicate interiority better than a soliloquy.  What it does is communicate a directorial sense of a “problem” with the whole concept of a soliloquy.

1970s BBC drama being a comparatively small world, it was perhaps inevitable that Wise bring some of his I Claudius cast with him to populate his Rome.  Darien Angadi, whose short and unhappy life always give me pause for sombre thought was  one such.  John Laurimore and Manning Wilson were two others.  Sam Dastor is splendid as the wittiest character in the play – the exquisitely dry Casca.  A few years earlier Dastor had played Cassius Chaerea, the disgruntled commander of Caligula’s Praetorian Guard making him, I feel sure, the only actor to stab two different Caesars under the direction of Herbert Wise.

It’s hard not to feel a chill when you see Jonathan Scott-Taylor as the boy Lucius.  BECAUSE HE’S THE ANTI-CHRIST – THE LORD OF DARKNESS PROPHESIED IN REVELATION – DAMIEN THORN FROM OMEN II.

Typecasting can be a bitch.

Certain actors appear over and over again in the 1978-1985 BBC Shakespeare, and Charles Gray is delightfully one of them.  Gray’s Caesar is bulky but insecure, like a great building erected on narrow foundations.  His posturings, his nervous reversals and his delivery of those insufferably illeisms that make him so stabbable, communicate a sense of insecurity rather than absolute power.

Virginia McKenna and Elizabeth Spriggs are here to remind us that there were women in Ancient Rome – something easy to forget in the context of this most severely patriarchal of  stories.  Even as McKenna’s Portia protests an extremity of marital devotion, she sounds like a voice of protest against the exclusion of half the human race from the blood-thirsty determinations afoot.

Keith Mitchell, most famous to viewers as Henry VIII appears initially as a shirtless braggart of an Antony who can’t help but remind you of a young James T. Kirk.  He grows in stature through the play, and he is prone to be strategically loud in useful ways.  The word “Havoc” is especially loud.  There’s a cruelty to his great “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” which suggests a sort of UKIPish delight in being a patrician who can manipulate the very plebs he so utterly despises.  He manages to be crafty even when drunk, and he dominates the proscription scene with Octavian and Lepidus.

In some productions, Brutus and Cassius achieve something like equal billing.  Not this one.  David Collings’ performance as Cassius is efficient and persuasive, but this production, and the cameras at Wise’s disposal are interested in Brutus rather than Cassius.  In some productions, Brutus and Antony achieve something like equal billing (Mason-Brando?).  Not this one.  This production is dominated throughout by Richard Pasco who may be something like a perfect Brutus.  A serious actor in a serious role.

As I’ve already noted, Richard Pasco was the actor I was most likely to see onstage when I was young.  His deep set eyes and powerful voice remind me of some of my most cherished theatre-going memories.  Pasco’s Brutus is a study in restrained passion, or perhaps the passion of restraint itself.  Pasco’s Brutus is committed to a style, a self-fashioning of existential purity.  Republicanism is, for Brutus, a means whereby human beings can live authentically.  For Brutus, a world in which men (he does mean “men”, doesn’t he?) cannot look each other in the eye and tell one another what they believe to be the truth, is not a world that is worth living in.

And when you look Richard Pasco in the eye, you feel that you’re looking a long, long way.

Here, by the way, are my thoughts on a few other BBC Shakespeare productions…

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: