The BFI Southbank season ‘Greek Plays on Television’ and our associated symposium meant that June was an exceptionally busy month for Screen Plays. Then we finished it off with both Amanda Wrigley and I presenting papers last weekend at the 2012 International Screen Studies Conference in Glasgow – it rained a lot, but our papers (Amanda on productions for the A307 Drama course at The Open University; me on ‘cinema television’ in post-war Britain) seemed to go down well.
By contrast, July seems hardly to have started, but tonight I was back at BFI Southbank for a showing of a 1961 Hamlet made for schools television by Associated Rediffusion. Until some two years ago this was thought lost, but a print was among those discovered by archivists at the Library of Congress. It would be pleasing to report that a masterpiece has been restored to us, but such critical honesty as I own to forces me to acknowledge that the production really is not very good.
For Schools: Hamlet was made in five 25-minute parts and first shown weekly from 26 October 1961 at 3.20 in the afternoon. The print shown at the BFI, which has strong image definition but also some frustrating blips and blemishes, was taken from a showprint made for NET educational television in the States which edited the five parts into a seamless story. The production approach is basic studio recording with scenes recorded on two, three or sometimes four cameras. Studio direction by Tania Lieven, an ITV drama stalwart, is for the most part by-the-numbers, with shots of extended duration and few attempts to employ depth within the screen or distinctive character groupings.
There are one or two neat touches: in the ‘closet’ scene Hamlet and Gertrude are wearing lockets with, in Hamlet’s case, an image of his father, and in Gertude’s, her new husband.; at the conclusion, Hamlet dies on the throne of Denmark. But the superimpositions of the ghosts are unremarkable and the concluding fight a touch perfunctory. The text is heavily cut, but not insensitively.
The sets, especially when exposed on a big screen, look (and sound) like plywood, with vistas through windows all too obviously paintings. Everything feels cramped and constrained, with much of the action taking place in a main throne room setting, and the vaguely medieval costumes are unexciting (the credited designer is John Clarke). I was impressed recently by a 1960 BBC schools presentation of Julius Caesar, produced by Ronald Eyre, but this Hamlet has none of the fluid and confident mastery of both the studio and film inserts that is so apparent there.
Which leaves us with the cast. Jennifer Daniel is a posh Ophelia who fails to convince in the ‘mad’ scene. As Gertrude Patricia Jessel, who had been a regular at the Stratford Memorial Theatre since 1944, has a rather remarkable neck, but she falls short in the ‘closet’ scene. The best of other players is probably Sydney Tafler as Claudius, another criminal role to add to the actor’s tally in British noir films of the previous decade.
The main interest, of course, is Barry Foster as the prince. Foster had a rich theatrical and film career, combining a commitment to the plays of Harold Pinter (with whom he had been at drama school) with screen appearances under the direction of Joseph Losey (King and Country, 1964), David Lean (Ryan’s Daughter, 1970) and Alfred Hitchcock (Frenzy, 1972). He also created the notable Dutch detective Van der Valk for the five series of the Thames Television/Euston Films production between 1972 and 1992.
Foster’s 2002 obituary in The Telegraph claims that he was ‘among the least “actorish” of actors’, but his perfectly pitched Received Pronunciation here now comes across as strongly ‘ac-tor-ly’. It is a performance of considerable intelligence but (comparatively) little wit, and only occasionally are there hints of a younger, more contemporary reading that he might have given – and as the twenty-four year old David Warner was to create so memorably for director Peter Hall in 1965.
Of course I am pleased that this Hamlet has been restored to us, but what would I give for the chance to see an earlier ITV production: Peter Brook’s triumphant production with Paul Schofield, staged at the Phoenix Theatre and partially transferred to the ATV studio for a live presentation on 27 February 1956. The scholar Olwen Terris has written a fascinating article about this for the Summer 2007 Shakespeare Bulletin (extract only, main article reserved for subscribers). Given the chance to bring back just a single ‘lost’ production from television’s past, this would most definitely be a contender.