On Saturday the location filming of the RSC’s new production of Julius Caesar wrapped ten minutes ahead of schedule with every scene that we had hoped for in the (digital) can. I am producing this film with Illuminations for the BBC, and when it airs in the summer it will be the ninth full-length BBC production of Shakespeare’s play. An earlier post considered what we can know of the earliest, produced in 1938 by Dallas Bower and transmitted live, and now I intend to write about each of the six extant recordings. Today’s post is about a outside broadcast in 1964 from The Ashcroft Theatre, Croydon of the National Youth Theatre’s modern-dress Julius Caesar.
By the time that the BBC chose this Julius Caesar to screen on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, the stage production had accumulated considerable cultural capital. It was one of the best-known of Michael Croft’s productions for the National Youth Theatre (NYT), the company which he had set up after a 1956 Henry V staged by boys from Alleyn’s School where he was teaching. As Croft recalled in a Guardian article marking the thirtieth anniversary of the company in 1986, ‘It was a stirring time. Bill Hayley and his Comets had just set the youth of Britain on fire with rock’n’roll and John Osborne had blasted off at the Royal Court.’ (‘The young blood and thunder show’, 16 August 1986, p. 9)
As an amateur company composed of young people, the NYT was first seen in the West End for a week in 1959 with a production of Hamlet. The following year Croft presented his ‘teddy boy’ staging of Julius Caesar, complete with jives and knives, drainpipe trousers, shades and suggestions of a Fascist state. That was also the year that the NYT secured its first government grant, from the Ministry of Education. In 1961, with the backing of the British Council, Julius Caesar wowed a theatre festival in Berlin and toured Italy. Revivals at home kept it in the public eye until in April 1964 it became the first of five NYT productions during the 1960s to be televised.
The broadcast of Julius Caesar began at 7.30pm of 23 April 1964, and it is impossible to tell from the archive recording whether it was live or pre-recorded. This was only the fourth night of BBC2, the new second channel with ‘highbrow’ aspirations granted to the corporation by the 1962 Pilkington Report, and so the notoriety and youth orientation could have been counted on to help define the service.
Several of the regular television critics were distinctly underwhelmed. Maurice Richardson in The Observer described the production as
… a worthy demonstration, if not much else, of how far the new channel will go to dispense with mass appeal at peak hours and cater for schools. This being the set play for the coming G. C. E., teachers were hoping that a mixed plebs of mods and rockers swinging in the Forum would give the text a fresh appeal. There seemed to me to be a rather marked diminution of zest from the assassination onwards. (‘Confounding the pessimists’, 26 April 1964, p. 23)
In The Listener, John Russell Taylor was even more negative about what he described as
The National Youth Theatre’s much-criticized modern-dress Julius Caesar… it is difficult to see what this ropy amateur production, ill-thought-out, and even with its heavy stiffening of “veterans” in the shape of undergraduates and drama school students, far below the standard of the better school production, had to offer television in the first place. (‘The second channel’, 30 April 1964, p. 731)
Maurice Wiggin in The Sunday Times, however, was far more generous, despite what he admitted was an initial scepticism:
After a shaky opening during which I frankly cursed my lot, the bold beauty of this conception took hold of my miserable little soul and I ended up cursing my own unreadiness. There were only three or four acceptable players, but Michael Croft’s brilliant directorial devices – the partisans, the Philippi blues sung round Brutus’ camp fire, the urgency and pace and topical relevance of the thing – made it an ultimately quite exhilarating experience. (‘A whiff of fireworks’, 26 April 1964, p. 32)
Wiggin added, ‘One began to see what BBC2 can stand for if it chooses… Where else but on BBC2 could it have been done?’
The archive recording that I viewed is muddy and dark (at times, impossibly so), and it is hard to recognise too much of Wiggin’s ‘bold beauty’. The performances are pitched into the Ashcroft’s auditorium with no concern to scale them for the cameras, and the verse speaking is mostly competent but little more. Neil Stacy‘s Brutus is more nuanced that Alan Allkins’ Cassius, but neither Jeremy Anthony (Caesar) nor Michael Cudman (Mark Antony) really gets to grips with their role. It is, however, intriguing to see the young Hywel Bennett in the small but telling part of Octavius.
For all the shortcomings, however, the recording is a richly interesting historical document, and not least because the credits detail that among the crowd of mods, rockers and military police lurk Ken (later Kenneth) Cranham, the future playwright (and NYT stalwart) Barrie Keeffe (although not for the last time is his name mis-spelt with just one ‘f’) and the future producer and Everton Chairman Bill Kenwright.
The staging opens with a party in full swing. The youth of the day dance to jazz from a jukebox which is summarily turned off when Marellus and Flavius enter. But the surly Northern artisans are having none of it, and there is a strong sense of a youthful challenge to established authority. The party survives the intervention and is only broken up by the arrival, accompanied by sirens and jack-booted thugs, of Caesar and his cohorts.
The abstracted set by Christopher Lawrence is an open platform and wooden steps placed before a backdrop of clouds. Partly obscured at the opening by a large portrait of Caesar and by drapes, the backdrop becomes more prominent in the wake of the assassination. In front of the platform are placed the likes of café tables – for the opening conversation between Brutus and Cassius – and garden furniture and a trellis – for Brutus’ orchard.
The soothsayer is played as a drunken derelict, clutching his Chianti bottle and slurring his warnings – which makes sense of why Caesar ignores him. Artemidorus, more puzzlingly, is a parish priest. One of the more effective scenes is the slaying of Cinna the poet which is done in silence and with a significant sense of menace. When the two armies face off against each other, the men of Antony and Octavius have impeccable military uniforms whereas those following Brutus and Cassius could well be partisans in an anti-Fascist struggle. There’s not much doubt about which side the production is on.
One other notable element of the presentation is the jazz score by Vivian Kemble and Colin Farrell and especially the interpolated musical number ‘Blues for Phillippi’ written by Colin Farrell. This is a mournful choral ditty sung with guitar accompaniment just before the battle – it is, needless to say, wholly superfluous and a touch embarrassing. Much more effective are the fragments of electronic music (primarily for the appearance of Caesar’s ghost) composed by Daphne Oram, an influential pioneer in computers and sound and one of the founders in 1958 of The BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
Of the television presentation by John Vernon there is little specifically to say. Efficient coverage is achieved with, it would appear, four cameras, including one with a much higher viewpoint than the others – which is effectively used in the assassination scene after Caesar’s body has tumbled to the foot of the steps. The cameras also find a number of telling shots during the Forum scene, with the crowd in the foreground and the orators off in the distance. And there are times when the mix cuts away to evocative shots of an impeccably dressed, largely female audience with beehives and mini-skirts applauding with enthusiasm.