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Plays

The Spread of the Eagle: Julius Caesar (BBC, 1963)

I have been continuing my exploration of television productions of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and I am struck by the scheduling of four BBC realisations of the full play in just five years between 1959 and 1964. This contrasts strikingly with the gap of thirty-three years between the penultimate BBC presentation in 1979, which was part of The BBC Television Shakespeare, and the recent BBC Four showing of the Illuminations film developed from the current staging by the Royal Shakespeare Company. I have blogged previously about the 1959 World Theatre studio production, the 1960 version for BBC Schools produced by Ronald Eyre and the outside broadcast recording of the National Youth Theatre’s ‘teddy boy’ Julius Caesar in 1964. The fourth production was mounted in 1963 by producer Peter Dews as part of his ambitious nine-part series The Spread of the Eagle.

The Spread of the EagleIn 1960 BBC Television attracted both critical praise and popular audiences for a fifteen episode presentation of Shakespeare’s histories, An Age of Kings. This chopped up the eight dramas from Richard II to Richard III into roughly hour-long episodes, carried the casting of key roles from play to play, and used the techniques of studio production at the time with great resourcefulness. Peter Dews was the producer, and the success of the series was such that he was given the opportunity of a follow-up with Shakespeare’s three Roman plays. Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra were each divided into three parts and scheduled weekly through the spring and early summer of 1963 (An Age of Kings had been shown fortnightly).

Having only directed amateur productions at the Bradford Civic Playhouse, Peter Dews joined BBC Birmingham in the early 1950s and worked initially in radio drama. (His Wikipedia entry says that ‘it is thought that he was the director of the episode of The Archers which featured the death of Grace Archer in a fire, a spoiler for the opening of independent television.’) Head of drama Michael Barry gave him the chance to direct Henry V for the World Theatre series in 1957, and it was on the strength of this that he was invited to produce An Age of Kings. (My posts on An Age of Kings, which I wrote originally in the summer of 2009, can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.)

Both at the time, and since, The Spread of the Eagle has been seen as disappointing creatively when compared with the earlier series. At BFI ScreenOnline, Michael Brooke writes, ‘there were fewer opportunities for continuity [than in An Age of Kings]: while the history plays span less than a century, the Roman plays cover five, with no overlap at all between Coriolanus and the rest.’ ‘Without the continuity of the histories,’ Philip Purser wrote in his obituary of Dews, ‘The Spread of the Eagle […] lacked the same impact.’ (‘An age of kingdoms for a stage and a small screen’, The Guardian, 28 August 1997, p.15)

Reading reviews from the time, it would appear that The Spread of the Eagle was also burdened by Julius Caesar by an unimaginative presentation of Coriolanus for the first three episodes. (I have not seen those programmes, although they exist in the archives and I will search them out.) Indeed, Caesar was seen as something of a saviour for the series, including for Maurice Wiggin writing in The Sunday Times,

All the time it becomes more of a pity that the BBC launched The Spread of the Eagle with that dismal and deafening Coriolanus. It would have been shrewder, and more realistic, to write Coriolanus off and plunge straight into Julius Caesar. (‘Reputation restored’, 9 June 1963, p.42)

Certainly the three episodes devoted to Caesar constitute an intelligent realisation as a studio production of the play. As with the 1959 World Theatre production, it is played in Roman dress, in costumes created by Elizabeth Agombar, a stalwart of the BBC wardrobe department. Unlike the earlier production, however, there is no use of film sequences, but especially in the third part, The Revenge, Peter Dews achieves a sense of scale and even grandeur. This is the most effective of the three episodes, contrasting to good effect the intimacy of the ‘tent scene’ with the battle clashes that follow.

The text – which is played in a full version – divides neatly into three parts, with the first, The Colossus,  closing at the end of the scene in which Caius Ligarius visits Brutus after the conspirators have left. Part two, The Fifteenth, begins with Caesar and Calpurnia and runs through the assassination to the end of the ‘proscriptions’ scene. This allows part three to open with the tent scene.

Peter Dews brings only modest flourishes to the studio direction, although Caesar makes a spirited attempt to fight back against his murderers and there is a strong sense of menace in the scene of the death of Cinna the poet. During the altercation, the camera moves off the action and dollies round to show the blood-spattered base of Pompey’s statue where Caesar was assassinated. A finger traces out the word ‘Cinna’ in the blood as the credits roll.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the production is its use of lengthy developing shots on a single camera. In The Colossus, part of Act I Scene 3 is played in a shot that lasts for 7 minutes 40 seconds, with two characters close to the camera and between them an impressive use of space reaching back into the depth of the set behind. At other times, extensive parts of the text are played on just two cameras, as in the tent scene when, more than twenty minutes of drama is covered in alternating shots, with only one brief exterior of the tent on a third camera.

The stand-out performance is Peter Cushing as an intense and passionate Cassius, although a youthful Brutus from Paul Eddington (later star of The Good Life and Yes, Minister) is a good match. Barry Jones achieves a scornful, arrogant Caesar, while Keith Michell is a handsome, bare-chested Antony who takes the forum scene very fast with a finely facetious manner. Michell reprised the role in the 1979 BBC Television Shakespeare production of the play directed by Herbert Wise, by which time he was far more familiar to television audiences having played the title role in The Six Wives of Henry VIII (BBC, 1970). It is interesting, too, that the British cinema industry was still sufficiently strong in 1963 for Rank to have Michell under contract and for this to need to be acknowledged in a closing title card that reads ‘Keith Michell appears by permission of The Rank Organisation’.

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Discussion

10 thoughts on “The Spread of the Eagle: Julius Caesar (BBC, 1963)

  1. In his edition of ‘The Alchemist’ (Penguin English Library, 1966), Michael Jamieson remarks (page 176) “In 1961 Peter Dews directed a brilliant television version from the BBC’s Midland Studios”.

    As one who thinks that that play and four others of Ben Jonson are as great as Shakespeare’s, I should very much like to know if this survives on film.

    Is there any way for a mere lay outsider to find out?

    Posted by Peter Scott | 2 August 2014, 5:52 am
    • Many thanks for the comment, Peter.

      Peter Dews did indeed direct a version of The Alchemist for BBC Birmingham in 1961 but I regret to say that the production is believed lost and there is no known copy – sorry not to have better news about this.

      The cast was as follows:

      Alan Dobie (Face, The Housekeeper)
      Patsy Rowlands (Doll Common, Colleague)
      John Warner (Subtle, The Alchemist)
      William Mervyn (Lovewit, Master of the House)
      Edward Petherbridge (Dapper, A Lawyer’s Clerk)
      Terry Scully (Abel Drugger, A Tobacco Man)
      Thomas Gallagher (Sir Epicure Mammon, A Knight),
      Jerome Willis (Pertinax Surly, A Gamester)
      David William (Ananias, A Deacon)
      Peter Duguid (Tribulation Wholesome, A Pastor)
      Tony Garnett (Kastril, The Angry Boy)
      Topsy Jane (Dame Pliant, His Sister, A Widow)
      Colin Campbell (Neighbour / Officer)
      Mary Chester (Neighbour / Officer)
      Roger Croucher (Neighbour / Officer)
      Murray Gilmore (Neighbour / Officer)
      Timothy Harley (Neighbour / Officer)
      Loelia Kidd (Neighbour / Officer)
      Henry Manning (Neighbour / Officer)
      Monica Stewart (Neighbour / Officer)
      Isobel Swan (Neighbour / Officer).

      Posted by John Wyver | 4 August 2014, 9:29 am
      • Thankyou very much for letting me know these facts and the cast-list.

        It is a wonderful cast – which but twists the knife in the wound of the production’s loss.

        Had the BBC been commercially funded, almost certainly this marvellous production would have been saved on film.
        The makers would have needed to hawk it about the Earth to recover as much of their costs and make as many profits as possible.

        It takes a public-sector publicly funded operation to be extravagant with cavalier trashing of the achievement.

        I am Leftwing as to my desire to see everyone have a marvellous start in life; and Rightwing as to my belief in Stern Accountability.

        Thankyou again for this information.

        Posted by Peter Scott | 4 August 2014, 12:24 pm
  2. Thanks once again, Peter – and I share your distress at the loss of this production – and of some many others. But I would disagree about the publicly-funded nature of the BBC being one of the contributing causes of this. The commercial ITV companies were just as careless about their productions throughout the 1950s and ’60s. Television was understood very differently then, and its economics were quite distinct too – and those factors impacted both the private and public broadcasters.

    Who knows, perhaps this will turn up one day, as have other productions that we previously thought lost. Let’s hope so!

    Posted by John Wyver | 4 August 2014, 2:00 pm
    • I should be very grateful to learn about the role (if any) of foreign broadcasting corporations/companies/stations in the history of BBC and ITV drama in the ’50s, ’60’s and ’70s.

      It is difficult to believe the following: –

      (a) that the BBC and the ITV companies were not laid under contribution by foreign broadcasters – not only the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, but also all manner of other countries where English is not a first language. Even in the days (c. 1960) when there was only one TV channel in a given land, it still meant finding an awful lot of hours of entertainment and information for its viewers per week. All broadcasters in the world must have been crying aloud for each other’s usable material; which in the latter instances they could dub or subtitle.

      (b) that if and when the British broadcasting organisms sent a programme (e.g. a classic play) overseas, they did not post a complete new copy of the celluloid they had made, but sent the (as it were) ‘originals’. Those would have taken too long to do the circuit of the globe from country to country and perhaps got too battered in the process.

      (c) that each showing of a particular programme having entailed a royalty fee, payable by (say) the Belgians, the Portuguese &c, the canisters of film then went straight back to London. May those canisters and their contents not have been retained in the vaults of the Belgian or Portuguese corporations? Conceivably they would be stand-bys against rainy days in which a gap opened unexpectedly in Brussels or Lisbon scheduling; upon which a further royalty would be payable to the British broadcasters back in the United Kingdom. And if such programmes were a stand-by, after probably a couple of showings at the first, they may still be intact in some deep-buried archive? Among the DVDs in my library is – for instance – the children’s adventure series “Sir Francis Drake” of 1961/2. Admittedly it was done by Lord Grade’s ITC and therefore on film from the start; which so many TV dramas 1946-70 were not. On the other hand it is noticeable that several of the opening title sequences read not (as the majority of the 26 episodes’ do) ‘Sir Francis Drake’ but ‘Le Corsaire de la Reine’; i.e. supposably the episodes in question have been recovered from French TV?

      I say above ‘It is difficult to believe the following’ but of course I know nothing about it. I write this appeal as a complete lay outsider, glad of any light which can be thrown on the subject.

      Posted by Peter Scott | 9 August 2014, 3:14 pm
      • Thanks, Peter – it’s certainly the case that there are some ‘undiscovered’ recordings or film prints of British TV drama in the vaults of foreign TV stations. In 2011 a significant number were discovered in Washington and copies were returned to the BFI. But they are often not well-catalogued, or they were discarded in the first place – shelf space and tape copies were just as valuable elsewhere as they were in the UK, and that’s a key part of the reason why so much has been lost. That said, there are researchers combing foreign libraries and we are promised news of some discoveries soon.

        Posted by John Wyver | 9 August 2014, 8:31 pm
  3. Thankyou so much, John, for your encouraging word about people researching copies of British TV drama in foreign TV stations; and that we are promised news of discoveries.

    That CHEERS ME UP!

    I am very glad too that your research project has been extended to 2015.

    This means I can hope to continue to read further fascinating posts from you on the subject of the programmes you have studied and viewed. They are most informative and edifying.

    Posted by Peter Scott | 10 August 2014, 8:43 am
  4. John Wyver,

    I am researching SPREAD OF THE EAGLE as part of a larger research project. You seem to have seen the episodes, by the detail of some of your descriptions. Has it been rescreened anywhere to your knowledge, the BFI, perhaps?

    Posted by Mike Jenaen | 18 January 2015, 7:38 pm
    • Mike, I have viewed the series, which exists in the BBC archives in its entirety. I think the best way to see it is via the BFI Archive Viewing Service, which ought to be able to arrange research viewings for you. To the best of my knowledge the series hasn’t been shown anywhere since its first transmission. But I’m afraid I can’t help with any further details of the photograph – apologies.

      Posted by John Wyver | 18 January 2015, 8:07 pm
  5. Follow-up question. Do you know if that photo that accompanies your blog post is from the Forum scene, or is it in the Senate. Caesar had suppliants at both.

    Posted by Mike Jensen | 18 January 2015, 7:49 pm

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