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Plays

Julius Caesar (BBC, 1959)

Julius Caesar, BBC, 1959, from The Listener

As my post rounding-up the BBC productions of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar details, there were two full-length productions of the play before the 1959 presentation and there have been five more since. Illuminations’ new film of the forthcoming Royal Shakespeare Company staging, to be seen on BBC Four later this summer, will make the total nine.

In a memo titled ‘Promotion’ circulated at the Corporation just before the 5 May 1959 transmission of Stuart Burge’s production, Assistant Head of Drama, Television, Norman Rutherford noted that the previous presentation had been back in 1951, and therefore ‘this will be the first production since the BBC covered the country with its network.’ (WAC T5/2,136/1, n. d.) Burge’s version is also the earliest one for which there exists a telerecording, which was achieved by 16mm filming of the live broadcast from two studio monitors.

The archive recording reveals the broadcast to be a crisp and efficient studio production that marshalls its substantial resources effectively. The setting is traditionally Roman, with sandals and togas for a cast headed by Eric Porter’s nobly conflicted Brutus and Michael Gough’s energetic, driven Cassius. Most of the others fail, however, to reach the level of these two impressive performances, with William Sylvester unremarkable as Mark Antony (and sounding at times oddly mid-Atlantic) and Robert Perceval contributing a strikingly weak Caesar.

Rutherford’s ‘Promotion’ memo, which was prepared among others for the editor of Radio Times and the BBC’s press officers, includes a quote from producer Stuart Burge about his intentions:

The production will strive for a true and lively interpretation of the text, but it will be designed for the screen and will have no regard for the long tradition of stage conventions associated with the play. The cast has been chosen not only for their experience in the interpretation of Shakespeare, but also for their ability to naturalise their interpretation to the searching eye of the camera.

The production privileges naturalistic playing over a concern with the poetry of Shakespeare’s text, and this emphasis is enhanced by substantial cuts throughout. All of the main characters appear (although the soothsayer and Artemidorus are combined, and played in Steptoe mode by Wilfrid Brambell), and almost all of the scenes are played (including the death of Cinna the poet) but right through the drama major speeches are trimmed and tightened.

Title page of Julius Caesar from the First Folio, 1623

Carping from the critics

The importance of the production is acknowledged by reviews – for the most part admiring, if grudgingly so – across the heavyweight press, in The Times, Sunday Times, The Manchester Guardian, The Observer and The Listener. Gerard Fay centred his response on the cuts to the text:

The text was cut, not beyond recognition, but evidently beyond the capacity of the actors, who seemed from time to time vague about where exactly the next jump was to come. (‘Too many unkind cuts in BBC’s Julius Caesar‘, The Manchester Guardian, 7 May 1959, p. 7)

Concern about the inevitable cuts had been registered by the production team in internal memos as work on the show had begun. Head of Drama Michael Barry sent a memo on 23 February 1959 arguing that a time slot of at least 105 minutes was essential:

The complete play is 140 minutes. For a playing time of 105 minutes, which I have asked [sic], w shall remove a quarter of the text. The reduction of the play to 90 minutes [which apparently was being suggested] means that a third of the play is removed. This I suggest is going further than we should in claiming to produce the whole play. (Julius Caesar, Michael Barry to C. P. Tel., WAC T5/2,136/1)

The time slot eventually allocated was for the longer running time, from 9.30-11.15pm. In the Sunday Times Maurice Wiggin was unconvinced by the attempts to achieve an epic scale for the public scenes of the play, which he argued to be beyond television’s capability. These he believed to be

a ranting and roaring melodrama of mobs and armies, which can be done only on film, and that lavishly… [Cecil B.] de Mille himself could not put it across with a few extras barging about a television studio, getting in on another’s way and drowning the principals. (‘… Do as the Limeys do’, May 10 1959, p. 26)

The most sympathetic response came from Maurice Richardson in The Observer, who recognised the emotional complexity of the ‘tent scene’ between Brutus and Cassius (which is indeed finely played):

As Cassius, Michael Gough celebrated a television part worth playing for a change instead of the travesties they too often saddle him with. He curled his hungry lupine tongue lovingly round each line and gave a febrile performance that fitted very well with Eric Porter’s impressively calm, resolved yet haunted, interpretation of the noble Brutus. Between them they conjured up a strong atmosphere of ambivalent, unconsciously bisexual guilt and remorse that kept the tail-end of the play – often so flat – alive and twitching nervously. (‘All the conspirators’, 10 May 1959, p. 23)

Scenes on film

Seeking the requisite scale for the production, Stuart Burge both utilised every square foot of the main stage at Riverside Studios (and even then several scenes feel cramped) and employed a number of scenes shot on film. These were shot on 35mm at Ealing Film Studios a month or so before the live broadcast, edited, and then played into the transmission. Cassius’ exultant scene in the thunderstorm before the meeting of the conspirators at Brutus’ house is one such sequence, complete with rather unconvincing overlaid lightning effects. Several of the concluding battle scenes were also filmed, with Michael Gough and others on horses, and with abstracted shots of extras in Roman armour edited into a montage to give a sense of clashing armies.

The most notable of the film sequences, however, is that employed for the assassination. As Casca says, ‘Speak hands for me’ and plunges his dagger, the shot cuts from the studio scene to Caesar’s point-of-view. We see an image of the murderers in big close-ups one after the other advancing individually forwards each with a raised dagger. The effect is striking, jumping the viewer from a distanced showing of the murder to direct involvement, even though the shots are highly stylised. Maurice Wiggin was particularly taken with the scene:

The stabbing was a distinct tour de force, with close ups of conspirator after conspirator shoving his dagger into the stricken paternal substitute with a hideous ritual grunt. (‘All the conspirators’, The Observer, 10 May 1959, p. 23)

One seeming consequence of this momentary shift to film, however, was the loss of Caesar’s line, ‘Et tu, Brute? Then fall Caesar.’ This omission was commented on by several of the critics, but it may be (the production fil is silent on this) that it was less deliberate than an accidental loss resulting from what was clearly a highly pressured live broadcast.

After the battle

On the day after transmission, BBC Director General Sir Ian Jacob sent an internal note of congratulation:

I thought Julius Caesar last night was a magnificent effort which succeeded. Will you send my congratulations to Barry, Burge and [designer Barry] Learoyd. If the others of the series do as well as this it will be a great achievement. (D. G. to D. Tel. B., WAC T5/2,136/1)

The troops, however, were far from happy. Michael Barry expressed his frustration in a widely circulated memo arguing that more than two days camera rehearsal – which had included the evening transmission – were needed for shows with the scale of Julius Caesar:

The strain, both human and mechanical, of putting on the public air a performance of this size is today so great that the danger of a major failure is a matter of touch and go. I seriously question if we may sensibly accept so close a gamble in modern television.

Many minor things went wrong in Julius Caesar; sound balance, the loss of words, performances fatigued to a point of distortion. The production was by no means more complicated than  should expect in 1959, but are we able to ignore that this major programme of the evening left those chiefly responsible for it, technicians as well as production staff and performers, completely exhausted? The days when television could pretend it was a battlefield and not an organised, professional operation are past. (‘Camera rehearsal hours’, Head of Drama, Television to C. P. Tel. and others, 12 May 1959, WAC T5/2,136/1)

On the same day, Stuart Burge also detailed his frustrations in a memo to Michael Barry – and given these two documents it is perhaps surprising that, allowing for one or two obvious slip-ups, the production today looks as polished and as professional as it undoubtedly does.

There is no question that with the transatlantic crane, 85 actors, and one-and-three-quarters of screen time, three days in the studio is essential. […] As a result of only one run-through, there were many mistakes on transmission both in vision and sound, and the actors all felt that they were just about ready to give a performance by the time the transmission had ended. […]

I feel that if better conditions of work were guaranteed, we could attract better casts, and if live or recorded Television in unbroken performance is to survive, both crew and cast must be given better facilities for perfecting their work. (Memorandum on production of Julius Caesar‘, Stuart Burge to H. D. Tel., WAC T5/2,136/1)

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