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‘Classics on TV: Jacobean tragedy on the Small Screen’, a BFI Southbank season

duchess-of-malfi-01Screen Plays
is delighted to announce a second BFI Southbank season that follows on from our successful ‘Greek tragedy on the small screen’ series last year. The new season, which runs from 25 March to 29 April, highlights television adaptations of Jacobean tragedy. Curated by John Wyver, it features productions based on plays by Thomas Middleton, William Rowley, John Ford and John Webster, as well as a rare showing of Hamlet at Elsinore (1964), a remarkable version of Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy.

We are especially pleased that on Monday 25 March, the screening of Granada TV’s 1965 adaptation of Middleton’s Women Beware Women will be followed by a discussion featuring Dame Diana Rigg, who stars in the production, and Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company Gregory Doran. Booking opens at 11.30am on 12 March (5 March to BFI members): and 020 7928 3232.

We will, of course, be posting further blogs about the screenings, which are detailed below:

6.00pm, Monday 25 March

Blood and Thunder: Women Beware Women, Granada, 1965. Dir. Gordon Flemyng. With Diana Rigg, William Gaunt, Gene Anderson, Karin Fernald. 73 min.

women-beware-01‘A thundering production’, wrote Mary Crozier in The Guardian about this tightly effective studio adaptation of Thomas Middleton’s drama of illicit desire. There had been no modern staging before a 1962 Royal Shakespeare Company presentation, so this was a bold choice for Granada. Diana Rigg stars, just before she debuted as The Avengers’ Emma Peel, and Gordon Flemyng’s cameras make the most of grilles, screens and staircases to conjure a rich visual style for the fiercely melodramatic action.

The screening will be followed by a panel including Dame Diana Rigg and the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Gregory Doran (both work permitting) to discuss Jacobean tragedy on television. Illustrated with clips from such works as the rarely seen Women Beware Women (BBC-Open University, 1981), the session will be chaired by producer and season curator John Wyver, whose recent TV credits include Macbeth and Julius Caesar.

3pm, Monday 1 April

Hamlet at Elsinore, BBC/DR,1964. Dir. Philip Saville. With Christopher Plummer, Robert Shaw, Michael Caine, Roy Kinnear. 170 min.

Made with outside broadcast cameras recording to videotape, this ambitious version of Shakespeare’s play (written in 1599, and so not strictly Jacobean but arguably providing the template for the revenge tragedies to follow) employs settings in and around Kronborg castle to brilliant effect. Marlon Brando turned down the lead, but Christopher Plummer delivers an impressively deranged and hesitant Prince. There are many moments (not least for ‘To be or not to be’) when Philip Saville demonstrates his mastery, and there are a decent number of laughs too, notably from Roy Kinnear’s grave-digger cameo.

6.10pm, Wednesday 10 April

Stage 2: The Duchess of Malfi, BBC, 1972. Dir. James MacTaggart. With Eileen Atkins, T. P. McKenna, Charles Kay, Michael Bryant. 123 min.

James MacTaggart makes dazzling use of the rooms, staircases, doorways and fireplaces of Chastleton House to reveal the complexities, both personal and political, of John Webster’s masterpiece. The play was written c. 1612, the year that Chastleton was completed, and the production achieves an appropriately elaborate and detailed Jacobean style while avoiding picture-book spectacle. Delivering the verse with respectful intelligence, Eileen Atkins is quietly magnificent as the tragic Duchess and Michael Bryant is pitch-perfect as the scheming servant Bosola.

6.00pm, Thursday 18 April

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, BBC, 1980. Dir. Roland Joffé. With Cherie Lunghi, Tim Pigott-Smith, Kenneth Cranham, Rodney Bewes. 135 min.

tis-pity-long-01In the 1970s Roland Joffé directed some of television’s finest social realist films, and he applied the approach to this truly remarkable version of John Ford’s drama. A tale of incestuous passion written around 1629 is translated to the early Victorian period and turned to critique the sexual and economic hypocrises of the nineteenth century – and of the first years of Thatcherism. As for The Duchess of Malfi, the location is Chastleton House, but cinematographer Nat Crosby’s austerely beautiful images give to this radical adaptation a style that is unique among period stage plays on the small screen.

6.10pm, Friday 26 April

Performance: The Changeling, BBC, 1993. Dir. Simon Curtis. With Elizabeth McGovern, Bob Hoskins, Hugh Grant, Leslie Phillips. 92 min.

Playwright Michael Hastings adapted Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s 1622 play and ruthlessly excised the asylum sub-plot. The cuts tighten the focus on the transgressive affair between the beautiful aristocrat Beatrice-Joanna and the facially disfigured arriviste De Flores. A poised performance from Elizabeth McGovern and a brave and daring embrace of his role by Bob Hoskins are key reasons to see what is, after twenty years, television’s most recent presentation of a non-Shakespearean early modern drama.

plus an extract from Play of the Month: The Changeling (BBC, 1974) with Helen Mirren, Stanley Baker, Brian Cox. 20 min.

As directed by Anthony Page, Helen Mirren and Stanley Baker offer a fascinating contrast to McGovern and Hoskins in their differing approaches to acting Jacobean drama.

6.20, Monday 29 April

Compulsion, Size 9 Productions/ITV, 2009. Dir. Sarah Harding. With Parminder Nagra, Ray Winstone, Ben Aldridge. 93 min.

Inspired by Rowley and Middleton’s The Changeling, Joshua St Johnston’s screenplay is set in modern-day London. Anjika is the daughter of a wealthy Indian businessman who seeks help from the family chauffeur Don Flowers (De Flores in the original play) to avoid an arranged marriage. Flowers’ obsession prompts a demand for sexual favours in return. An exceptionally polished and provocative adaptation, the film brings the spirit of self-destruction in Jacobean tragedy to contemporary primetime drama.

plus an extract from Blood and Thunder: The Changeling, Granada TV, 1965. Dir. Derek Bennett. With Derek Godfrey, Kika Markham, Hal Hamilton. 20 min.

‘Briskly imaginative’ was critic Maurice Richardson’s description of this polished studio production, centred on Kika Markham’s icily controlled Beatrice-Joanna.



2 thoughts on “‘Classics on TV: Jacobean tragedy on the Small Screen’, a BFI Southbank season

  1. Hello, I was very pleased to be at the NFT today (1 April) for “Hamlet at Elsinore”. I have to admit to not being terribly convinced that this fits within the “Jacobean” theme, but sadly I shan’t be able to attend any of the other screenings in the series to compare.

    As to Hamlet, I enjoyed it. I have nothing else to compare it to, having largely forgotten Mel Gibson’s 1990 film and never having seen the play on stage. But I certainly wasn’t put off by the horizontal ‘streaking’ of the two-inch videotape you warned us of. Indeed I found it rather in keeping with the patchy quality of the editing and sound, which were far more of a distraction.

    It was nice to seen some fine actors (Plummer, Shaw, Caine) taking what I assume were measly BBC salaries before they had made their names in film. Thanks you for curating the series, and I hope others enjoy The Duchess of Malfi and the remaining TV classics.

    Posted by Patrick Callaghan | 1 April 2013, 6:52 pm
    • Many thanks, Patrick – great to get your feedback. I hope the ‘patchy’ technical quality did not spoil your experience. Certainly the sound levels are all over the place on the print, and that’s more noticeable when you see and hear it projected on a large screen. But considering the age of the production – and the technical innovation it represented at the time – I felt the whole piece came across really well. I was particularly pleased to see the image quality with such a strong contrast range.

      Posted by John Wyver | 2 April 2013, 5:43 am

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