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.
In 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’.