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Julius Caesar (BBC, 1938) … and eight others

Radio Times entry for 1938 production of Julius Caesar

In my previous post I outlined the preparations for the new Illuminations/Royal Shakespeare Company film of Julius Caesar for BBC Television. Over the next three weeks or so, as we are filming on location, I intend to write about the earlier British television versions of Shakespeare’s play – and to review each of the extant ones. This post looks briefly at the first full-length production, which was staged in modern dress by producer Dallas Bower in the summer of 1938. But with the assistance of the BUFVC’s invaluable Shakespeare: An International Database of Shakespeare on Film, Television and Radio I also sketch the chronology of the play’s appearance on British television from 1937 onwards.

Just three months after the official BBC Television service from Alexandra Palace started in early November 1936, Scenes from Shakespeare featured the film actor Henry Oscar giving Mark Antony’s funeral ovation. The ten-minute programme was shown at 3pm on 11 February 1937. Six weeks or so later, the same series offered a 15-minute extract (which is unidentified) of the play with Cassius (Robert Holmes), Brutus (Malcolm Keen) and Portia (Mary Hinton). No recording, of course, exists today, and nor does any audio-visual trace remain of any of the productions before 1959.

Dallas Bower’s full-length production, of which more below, followed in July 1938. The next BBC presentation was in 1951, when Leonard Brett and Stephen Harrison jointly produced a version with Walter Hudd as Julius Caesar and Anthony Hawtrey as Mark Antony. In 1955 the play featured in a pair of programmes made with the Old Vic, as the Shakespeare database describes:

The Old Vic was in its third year of a five-year project to stage all Shakespeare’s plays working from the First Folio. There are shots of dress rehearsals, scenery and lighting for a production of Julius Caesar. Huw Wheldon talks to the Company Director, Michael Benthall about the production. The programme then moves to Lime Grove studios where the actors enact scenes from the same production for television which is broadcast immediately afterwards.

The actors in the enactments were John Neville (Mark Antony), Richard Wordsworth (Cassius) and Paul Rogers (Brutus).

Later productions are as follows:

  • Television World Theatre: Julius Caesar, 5 May 1959, 105 minutes. Produced by Stuart Burge with Robert Perceval as Caesar, Michael Gough as Cassius and Eric Porter as Brutus. (I have an archive viewing copy of this and will blog it later this week.)
  • Julius Caesar, 8-29 November 1960, four 30-minute episodes. Produced by Ronald Eyre for Schools television, with James Maxwell as Mark Antony and Ralph Michael as Caesar.
  • The Spread of the Eagle – a nine-part adaptation in 50-minute episodes of Shakespeare’s Roman plays by producer Peter Dews, with Julius Caesar occupying the middle three parts: The Colossus, 24 May 1963; The Fifteenth, 31 May 1963; and The Revenge, 7 June 1963.
  • Julius Caesar, 23 April 1964, 80 minutes. A televised recording of Michael Croft’s modern dress production with the National Youth Theatre at the Ashcroft Theatre, Croydon.
  • Play of the Month: Julius Caesar, 13 April 1969, 120 minutes. Alan Bridges directs and Cedric Messina produces this recording with Maurice Denham as Caesar and Robert Stephens as Mark Antony; Edward Woodward is Cassius.
  • Heil Caesar, 21 October 1974, 90 minutes. From the BUFVC’s Shakespeare: ‘John Bowen’s adaptation [produced by Ronald Smedley] transforms the play into a modern political conspiracy thriller with modern dialogue and many strong allusions to political events in the early 1970s. Originally produced for a school audience, it was subsequently repeated as an evening broadcast.’
  • The BBC Television Shakespeare: Julius Caesar, 26 July 1978, 170 minutes (!). Messina is the producer again, with Herbert Wise directing. With Charles Gray (Caesar), Keith Michell (Mark Antony), Alexander Davion (Cassius) and David Collings (Brutus).

So even if we leave Heil Caesar to one side, that is eight previous productions of the more-or-less full play by BBC Television. This must surely make it the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays on British television. The ever-reliable Michael Brooke at BFI Screenonline has further details in his ‘Julius Caesar on Screen’, to which we will also return in the coming posts.

Television’s first full Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar, BBC, 1938In television’s first three years the producer Dallas Bower mounted a range of fascinating studio productions that tested the limits of the medium and challenged its modest audiences with rigorously intellectual fare. (My article ‘Dallas Bower: a producer for television’s early years, 1936-39’ about Bower’s work has recently been published in Journal of British Cinema and Television 9.1.) He was committed both to experimenting with what television might achieve and to the masterpieces of the European high art tradition.

In 1937, working with minimal resources, he mounted Katherine and Petruchio, David Garrick’s eighteenth century version of The Taming of the Shrew, and following on from Julius Caesar he produced the outside broadcast of Michel St Denis’ Twelfth Night and a studio version of The Tempest, both of which starred Peggy Ashcroft. His other offerings included a masque version of Act II of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and a staging of Pirandello’s Henry IV.

In the summer of 1938, as the television service was beginning to put together increasingly ambitious studio drama productions, he decided to present Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in a contemporary setting. The previous year Orson Welles had made a significant impact on Broadway with his Mercury Theatre Julius Caesar which set the play in Fascist Italy, but Bower maintained that he was not influenced by this. In 1990 towards the end of his life he dictated the partial manuscript ‘Playback: A Life in Radio, Film and Television’ in which he defended himself against the accusation of plagiarism:

It has been said that my Julius Caesar in modern dress was merely a copy of what Orson Welles had done elsewhere.  Nothing in fact could be further from the truth. I had of course heard of Orson Welles – who hadn’t, that is, for anyone concerned with theatre and radio? But I had not seen his production, knowing of it only by hearsay. (unpaginated unpublished ms.)

Intriguingly, the Festival Theatre Cambridge also mounted a ‘Fascist’ Julius Caesar in May 1938, about which the anonymous correspondent of The Times was enthusiastic:

Since the problem of the super-man is a problem of the modern world it becomes genuinely exciting to see Brutus’s conspiracy worked out as though it were a contemporary event. […] A jack-booted and gold-braided Caesar [played by Ernest Clark] speaking with staccato certainty of his own infallibility brings home the threat of tyranny which the primly academic Brutus [Terence Greene] scents in greatness that has grown over-ripe. (‘ “Julius Caesar” in modern dress’, 17 May 1938, p. 14)

Bower makes no mention of this home-grown production in ‘Playback’, where he writes:

I had decided to update my Julius Caesar cast to the style of the full Nazi regime.  And in casting I was again fortunate, having a first-rate Brutus and Cassius in Sebastian Shaw and Anthony Ireland – quite wonderful in the tent scene quarrel – and a fine neurotic Caesar in Ernest Milton, and, contrary to most productions of Caesar due to the ungratefulness and relative smallness of the parts, a fine Portia in Carol Goodner and an equally fine Calpurnia in Laura Cowie.  D. A. Clark-Smith as Anthony was perhaps not quite up to the stature the part demands. (unpaginated unpublished ms.)

The Times was very positive about Bower’s vision:

Mr Dallas Bower is the most daring of the Alexandra Palace producers, and his empiric productions sometimes lead to strange results, but his version of Julius Caesar in modern dress last week was undoubtedly a success. […] The play, stripped of its classical trappings, becomes a present-day drama of power politics, and the atmosphere of intrigue and unrest but too real in certain countries today. (‘ “Julius Caesar” in modern dress, 1 August 1938, p. 6)

The reviewer reflects on how striking it was to see Brutus and Cassius seated at a café table discussing politics over a glass of beer. The interpolation of wartime archive film was also applauded (shades of Rupert Goold’s Macbeth here), but the writer was less convinced by the use of the penumbrascope, a kind of shadow projection system used here – and for the first time on television – to suggest abstracted backgrounds. (Its use can be seen in the only production photo that I have found to date, reproduced here, which was featured in The Listener.)

Grace Wyndham Goldie, writing in The Listener, was also enthusiastic:

[T]he contemporary central European settings, Julius Caesar as a Dictator, gunmen in uniform armed with revolvers ranging streets and cafés and the like revealed the amazing topicality of the play. So that although some of the detail was exasperating yet the production as a whole was continuously interesting because in it television was giving us something fresh, something we have not had, as yet, from the theatre. (‘Television: now then, Ally Pally!’, 11 August 1938, p. 307)

Clearly she had not been to the Festival Theatre Cambridge.



One thought on “Julius Caesar (BBC, 1938) … and eight others

  1. A fantastic idea to blog about the small screen production history of Julius Caesars in the lead up to the RSC production and the Illuminations / RSC screening on BBC Television this summer! Really exciting to learn that this first, full television version was given a modern-day presentation, ‘stripped of its classical trappings’. Very much looking forward to your next posts on this topic…

    Posted by Amanda Wrigley | 16 April 2012, 10:35 am

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Emitron camera at Alexandra Palace
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