On Midsummer Day 1964, Shakespeare received his largest British television audience to date when over 3.8 million homes tuned in to the independent channels to see Benny Hill play Bottom in an all-star Associated-Rediffusion production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ITV’s first major in-house production of Shakespeare (source: press booklet titled A Midsummer Night’s Dream held in the 1964 Midsummer Night’s Dream production file, ART Papers, BFI Reuben Library, London).
This lavishly prepared and well executed production, which was directed by Joan Kemp-Welch, was transmitted to honour the 400th anniversary of the birth of Shakespeare. As such, no less a Shakespearean scholar and theatre director than George H. W. (Dadie) Rylands of King’s College, Cambridge was called upon to advise on the text (which remained virtually unabridged), as well as assist during casting and rehearsals; Guy Woolfenden, the musical director of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, adapted Mendelssohn’s famous incidental music for the play for this production; and a generous budget of £16,000 was made available, over half of which covered the costs of casting and a quarter was spent on set and costumes.
Kemp-Welch’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was not only faithful to the text, but also to many aspects of the traditional theatrical staging of the play deriving from Max Reinhardt’s early twentieth-century productions, with, for example, a number of balletic sequences (choreographed by Juan Corelli) prettily accompanying Mendelssohn’s music. This was, after all, a full six years before Peter Brook’s dazzlingly fresh approach to staging the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company: see the RSC’s webpage on that production here and YouTube for some clips from the production. (YouTube also has clips from the 1935 film version of Reinhardt’s production, such as this one showing Titania dancing with the fairies.) The television presentation did, however, afford the opportunity of some interesting close-ups in the later sequences when, for example, the dancers’ hands made flower-like shapes or the ballet was viewed from between some dancers’ static, posed legs, thus giving the balletic segments a more stylised dimension than earlier staged counterparts. Overall, however, resonances of balletic performances on proscenium stages were strongly maintained with the frequent use of the gauzes or nylons creating a ‘frame’ behind which one static camera filmed the dance in order to give a rather nineteenth-century romantic feel. This only pertained to the more formal danced interludes and not the rest of the production.
Appealing to the mass audience
In other ways, however, the production was a big and bold attempt at Shakespeare on the small screen for the diverse, domestic audience, a fact not lost on several critics in the press: The Times, for example, published its review under the title ‘Shakespeare for a Mass Audience’ (26 June 1964, p. 6). The production was strikingly attention-grabbing from the very start, as The Observer’s Maurice Richardson noted in his review: ‘Just for a moment, during the opening few seconds, when Theseus and Hippolyta […] were tangling in close-up on that couch, I thought we were in for a telly travesty’ (‘Swat that Cosmonaut’, The Observer, 28 June 1964, p. 26). He seems to be referring here to the overt suggestiveness with which their embrace is portrayed in the first scene of the production in which we have an intimate head-shot of Hippolyta (Eira Heath), reclining on a couch, with Theseus (Patrick Allen) hovering over her. They kiss passionately and talk, all the while stroking each other’s arms and faces, but as Theseus says, ‘I wooed thee with my sword’ (Act 1 Scene 1, line 16) the camera pans out and simultaneously Theseus raises his torso and clasps his hand on her right hip in a move that, with their pelvises in alignment, is more than a little sexually suggestive (see adjacent image). The camera holds its gaze as their hands roam over each other’s bodies and the traditional reading of this scene as a couple focused on their upcoming nuptials, without any darker overtones, is maintained.
The choice of cast suggests that Kemp-Welch was actively seeking to attract a broad spectrum of viewers: although a number of the actors had an undoubted Shakespearean pedigree (such as Miles Malleson who had first played Quince fifty years earlier), including some such as Patrick Allen (Theseus) and Peter Wyngarde (Oberon) who may have been familiar to viewers from earlier television productions of Shakespeare, a significant proportion had never played Shakespeare before. They were, however, extremely familiar to viewers from other kinds of theatre and entertainment forms: as mentioned above, the comedian Benny Hill was brilliantly cast as Bottom and Hippolyta was played by the musical-theatre performer Eira Heath (who would later appear in Hill’s shows for Thames Television).
‘Every comic is supposed to long for the chance to do Shakespeare’, noted Hill in a press booklet: ‘Not me. I’m the greatest coward under the sun and wouldn’t have been in Rediffusion’s production of The Dream at all were it not for my agent. He’s very brave. […] When she [Kemp-Welch] said she saw Bottom as someone who was young and eager, not old and boastful as he is often played, that clinched it. […] How could I say ‘No’ to Joan Kemp-Welch? (quoted from an article titled ‘ “Watch it” says Benny Hill’ in press booklet titled ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Drama’, BFI ART/918/2).
Richard Sear, writing in the Daily Mirror, considered that his performance was given ‘with rustic conviction. He made a perfect ass in the scene with Titania and the Fairies, a role that calls for no little ability’ (newspaper clipping in Kemp-Welch’s scrapbooks, BFI Reuben Library; henceforth referred to as JK-W scrapbooks). Indeed, his bashful, skipping ass is simply delightful.
As an aside, although no reviewers mention the connection, it may have helped the profile of the production that just a few weeks before the transmission of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Beatles performed a parody of the Pyramus and Thisbe scene (in Act V Scene 1) in the television special Around the Beatles, directed by Rita Gillespie for Associated-Rediffusion. The clip of the Shakespearean scene, which survives online here, shows that it was a cute and funny performance much enjoyed by the audience-in-the-round. (I am grateful to José Ramón Díaz Fernández’s chapter in Sarah Hatchuel and Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin’s 2004 volume Shakespeare on Screen: A Midsummer Night’s Dream for this fascinating information.) It would be interesting to know how many of the audience for A Midsummer Night’s Dream had also seen Paul and John portray the lovers Pyramus and Thisbe respectively (see image adjacent), and George and Ringo Moonshine and the Lion!
Innovation in set design
The production also embraced innovation, perhaps in recognition of Richard Sear’s sentiment that ‘Of all Shakespeare’s plays, The Dream is probably the most difficult to squeeze into the telly. The fairy glades, the magic, the size of the cast and the rustic comedy, all belong to the tradition of the stage and need the colour of the theatre’ (Daily Mirror cutting in JK-W scrapbooks; Mary Crozier in The Guardian on 25 June 1964, p. 9 made a similar point). The most strikingly innovative aspect was the fact that multiple sheets of gauze, adorned with nylon yarn and painted with abstract shapes, were hung in stylized layers to suggest the mysterious and fantastic elements of the woodland scenes. This was the first time that the technique, imported from the stage (and reminiscent of Harley Granville-Barker’s 1914 production of the play at the Savoy Theatre, London), was being used for a television production (‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Drama’, Rediffusion press booklet in BFI ART/918/2). Two typescript sheets titled ‘Rediffusion Facts: The Sets’ (BFI ART/918/2) explain it more fully:
For this television production, however, a completely new method of painting gauzes was devised. For the first time in a television studio, the sets were largely created from gauzes as a basis for supporting the abstraction of woodland shapes. These shapes and textures were created by using foam plastic and translucent glazes to form the woodland patterns. To counterbalance these textures, thousands of feet of nylon yarn were employed to produce abstract shapes on the gauzes and on frames.
This set design, by Michael Yates (who had worked with Kemp-Welch on Sophocles’ Electra in 1962), nicely captured the strange, other-wordliness of the play. It was considered to be so innovative on television that Associated-Rediffusion printed three layers of the gauzes onto transparencies within an article on the production in the summer 1964 issue of Fusion in order to explain it to its readers. But it was also undoubtedly a highly practical way of decorating the enormous set and easily co-ordinating the movement of performers and cameras within it.
The woodland settings could reflect in a flexible way the scenic mood appropriate to the different characters who appear in the space: so, giant tree-roots serve to provide a resting place for weary mortals and open spaces give the Mechanicals a place to rehearse, whilst cobweb-strewn areas enable Puck to talk directly to camera, giving the illusion that he is equally obscured from the characters behind him. The layered gauzes, variously arranged, give a wonderful sense of depth, enabling concealment and suggesting far-away landscapes.
Lights, cameras, magic!
Occasionally, when one or more of the eight cameras fitted with 4.5 inch lenses pull back and characters walk about, the viewer can really appreciate the size of the studio space, such as when in Act III Scene 2 a single take follows the movements of the characters around the set over some few hundred lines of the Shakespearean text. The production was performed in Studio 5 at Wembley, the massive 14,000 square feet of which was lit by 400 lamps in a complicated rig designed by Bill Lee which, as Martin Kempton writes, ‘was necessary to bring out the textures and depth in the layers of heavily-coated gauze in the set’ (perform a search on Kempton’s very long webpage for the word ‘midsummer’ and you will be rewarded with two shots of the production, with the detail of the lighting rig – one of which, subject to approval, is reproduced here). There were no less than forty lighting changes in this production, eight of which occurred in the last 3½ minutes (‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Drama’, Rediffusion press booklet, BFI ART/918/2). The layers of painted gauzes gave the lighting crew many permutations with which to work, using front or back lighting to create a wide variety of effects (‘Rediffusion Facts: The Sets’, BFI ART/918/2).
There were, of course, moments of televisual-technical magic. After Puck (played brilliantly impishly by Tony Tanner) delivers his speech over the sleeping bodies of Lysander and Hermia, ending with ‘So, awake when I am gone; / For I must now to Oberon’ (Act 2 Scene 2, lines 88-89), he bends his knees and makes as if to jump . . . but over the space of a three or so frames of the 16mm telerecording (which I was able to slow right down on the Steenbeck at BFI Stephen Street) Puck simply vanishes. (As an aside, it may interest those of a theatre history bent to know that, whilst still a girl, Kemp-Welch – whose background in theatre and film before joining Associated-Rediffusion in 1955 is outlined in my earlier blog post here – played Puck in a production at the end of the First World War in Hyde Park.)
The set for Act I Scene 1 is a circular space, not unlike a small amphitheatre, in fact, as becomes even more evident in the Pyramus and Thisbe scene later in the play when the Athenian audience sit on the steps which had led Theseus from the private space which he had occupied with Hippolyta at the opening of the production. This clever arrangement also has the camera – and, therefore, the viewers at home – enjoying the performance from the same vantage point (see adjacent image).
Several letters from viewers printed in the TV Times and various newspapers generally agreed that it had been a very fine and spirited presentation, although the intrusion of commercial breaks had been particularly unwelcome in a Shakespearean production and Philip Matthews (aged 12) requested that any repeat be transmitted a little earlier in the evening (the first transmission had started at around 9pm).
What did critics in the press think? Almost uniformly they reported on the production with lavish praise. In the Daily Herald, Dennis Potter considered that it had been ‘a light, bright, radiant performance she built for us – aided by glorious sets, silvery lighting and some very attractive close-ups. […] The words, the acting, the settings and the feathery delicacy of the production made this into a beautiful and deliciously eye-catching entertainment’. The Daily Mail’s Peter Black thought that ‘This is the right way to do Shakespeare on the box’, with natural and magical settings not ‘cardboard rocks’, and with Mendelssohn not ‘wan recorders’. Bill Edmund, writing in Television Today, thought that Kemp-Welch ‘making use of television’s own magic, got as near perfection as a mere mortal can’ (all three newspaper cuttings are undated in the JK-W scrapbooks). Maurice Richardson in The Observer agreed, considering that Kemp-Welch’s production ‘succeeded almost at once in catching some TV equivalent – very rare, this – of that footlit illusion which is essential for the projection of fantasy’ (‘Swat that Cosmonaut’, The Observer, 28 June 1964, p. 26).