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Hamlet at Elsinore (BBC / Danmarks Radio, 1964), part 1

On Easter Monday, as part of the continuing Screen Plays season ‘Classics on TV; Jacobean tragedy on the small screen’, BFI Southbank is presenting a matinee screening at 3pm of Hamlet at Elsinore. I have been researching this remarkable production over the past few months, and I intend to post further about the production in the coming week. Today, however, I introduce it with the programme notes that I have contributed for the screening – and I also issue an invitation for those who attend to contribute their thoughts and ideas about it in the Comments below.

Hamlet at ElsinoreOne of the most significant of all television Shakespeare productions on television was produced nearly fifty years ago as a contribution to the quatercentenary celebrations of the playwright’s birth. The idea for a television version of Hamlet recorded on location at the castle where the events are set originally came from Danmarks Radio. The project became one of the earliest major European co-productions and was pioneering in its exclusive use of outside broadcast cameras to record a drama. It also resulted in a distinguished adaptation that is engaging, insightful and often thrilling.

There was, however, a tradition of companies playing Hamlet at Kronborg Castle, a Renaissance palace built rather later than the medieval king Amleth whose legend was one of Shakespeare’s sources. Denmark’s Royal Theatre from Copenhagen staged a spectacular production there in 1916. Visiting troupes from Britain included the Old Vice Company with whom Laurence Olivier performed the lead role in 1937, while Michael Redgrave was the prince when the same group returned in the summer of 1950. The Old Vic Company went again in 1954, this time with Richard Burton.

Under the terms of the broadcast co-production arrangement BBC Television provided most of the fifty-strong creative team, including director Philip Saville and producer Peter Luke together with the cast, while the Danes contributed the magnificent location, 230 soldiers as extras and two outside broadcast units staffed by forty engineers.

Almost all drama at the time was shot with multiple cameras in television studios, but Saville extended the techniques of this form by taking to the castle units that were usually deployed for state occasions and sports events. Two-inch ‘quad’ videotape was used for the recording, and this contributes both the vivid immediacy of many sequences but also the ‘streaking’ across the images, especially during the nighttime scenes.

The twelve days of rehearsals and shooting were plagued with problems, including persistent rain and fog, as well as the regular blasts of the Elsinore foghorn. Saville quickly learned how to shoot 24-second takes that nestled into warning signal’s regular periods of silence. There were times too when Saville was deploying ten cameras for a scene, although some of the most effective parts of the drama, such as the fractured sequence of locations for ‘To be or not to be’, are shot with just one or two cameras.

Sydney Newman, Head of BBC Television’s Drama Group at the time, described Hamlet at Elsinore as ‘the most wonderful, complicated and exactly production ever done for television’. Including the special cable that was needed to run electricity from the nearby town, the total budget was announced as £40,000, of which the BBC contributed £25,000.

Christopher Plummer makes a fine Prince, but tucked away in a production file in BBC Written Archives at Caversham is a cable recording an even more intriguing casting idea. The brief message to the Artists Booking Department at BBC Television reads, ‘Previous commitments prevent my accepting your kind offer. Thank you for thinking of me.’ It is signed, ‘Sincerely, Marlon Brando’.

Plummer was cast largely on the strength of his theatre work at Stratford, Ontario, where he had taken the role seven years before. He apparently insisted that the 18 year old Jo Maxwell Muller be cast at Ophelia, and other major roles went to Donald Sutherland, Michael Caine and Robert Shaw, none of whom was nearly as well-known as later film careers would make them. Lindsay Kemp, who would later work with David Bowie, Kate Bush and Derek Jarman, is the Player Queen in a mimed ‘Mousetrap’.

In The Observer (26 April 1964), Maurice Richardson gave the production a mixed review:

It recovered nobly after a distastrous start – one of those typical directors’ whims – with the ghost scene dispersed over sand dunes in a gale of wind. Some of the exteriors, such as the arrival of the players and the start of Ophelia’s funeral procession, came off beautifully and really did add to one’s pleasure. But there was often a struggle with too much space, noticeably in the Queen’s bedchamber, where a touch of claustrophobia is essential.

For the Sunday Times (26 April 1964), Derek Prouse was more taken with the playing than with he described as the ‘gimmick’ of filming Hamlet on location:

Christopher Plummer’s introspective scenes were compelling; here was a face on which one could read thoughts. Robert Shaw’s Claudius, speculative and self-seeking, was also a commanding presence, and Roy Kinnear’s gravedigger was admirably estimated and a small triumph.



2 thoughts on “Hamlet at Elsinore (BBC / Danmarks Radio, 1964), part 1

  1. Okay, I’ll kick off although I wasn’t there on Monday, but I have seen this production at the NFT in the past (around June 2000, or thereabouts).

    My abiding memory of it from then was how modern it was. I watched in the company of others and was a little worried that they may find it dated in style but it really wasn’t. Yes, it is obviously a product of its time but the performances are so direct that you forget all of that in the first five minutes. In some places the more voguish techniques actually still work for modern audiences: for example, I recall one of the party I attended with likening the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, here presented solely as an electronically-treated voice, as sounding like a Doctor Who monster.

    With the exception of Gertrude, who is a little mannered, the acting all very direct and explicitly televisual.

    Plummer is a very manic Hamlet, and his reading of “words, words, words” in particular elicited a hearty laugh from the three-quarters full NFT audience. Sadly I recall the largest, and unsuccessfully muffled, laugh being for Donald Sutherland as Fortinbras who, presumably to emphasise his character’s ‘foreigness’, plays him in an accent so thick as to render him difficult to take seriously, or in some places even comprehend. The main looks of horror at his first entrance were from audience members who knew the play well, because they immediately realised that he was the person who was going to be delivering the final lines of the climax. I heard people audibly say as much when we were all exiting into the warm night air.

    Posted by Gordon Ridout | 5 April 2013, 1:14 am
  2. It would be very interesting to see what the Danish press and TV made of this production. In the UK we seem to think this production was exclusively the BBC’s – the Danes put a lot of effort in too. They had been working in 625 lines since the 1950s so this was nothing special to them. Infact DR TV must have considered BBC staff as quaintly old fashioned as BBC technicians were presumably steeped in somewhat outmoded techniques developed for 405 line production.

    Posted by John Escolme | 3 February 2014, 3:07 pm

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