My Favourite Film of 1998.

Film After having waited eagerly to see Shakespeare in Love since seeing a preview in Empire Magazine (welcome to the 90s), I inadvertently managed to see a snippet of its concluding moments having blundered into the wrong screen at a multiplex. In the late 90s, I’d often travel out to the newly opened Showcase Cinema on the East Lancs Road and spend an afternoon seeing two or three films and on this day at the beginning of February 1999 (which also included A Bug’s Life) my excitement got the better of me and I managed to not bother to look at whichever screen was listed on the ticket and blundered into the wrong one. I saw Will and Viola kissing and which as everything shook out didn’t turn out to be too much of a spoiler.

Although I can trace my love of Doctor Who to a single moment in an audio episode, there isn’t really one single incident which led me to offer myself up as a fan of Shakespeare. There was studying Othello and Measure for Measure at school of course and I was pretty impressed after seeing the BBC adaptation of the latter but I think that probably had more to do with a crush on Kate Nelligan as Isabella, which is ironic considering what the play is about. But it was enough of a spark for me to want to see more of his plays especially in adaptation, especially if directed by Ken Branagh. Plus I remember watching a lot of the BBC’s Bard on the Box season in 1994 and still have the VHS of the Playing the Dane documentary from then.

Shakespeare In Love must certainly have also helped. Although I understood the whole thing to be an artifice and a fiction, the screenplay, which aided by Tom Stoppard’s rewrite has enough in-jokes and truths which coupled with my own shaky memory of background reading at school to convince me that it might as well be mostly true. Not the love story or the process of writing Romeo and Juliet. But the recreation of the theatres, of London, of customs, of costumes and the way people presented themselves. The cleverness of Stoppard utilising many of Shakespeare’s own narrative devices, a model utilised again later by the makers of Becoming Jane, which deliberately has the style of a film adaptation of an Austin novel.

There have been other versions of Shakespeare’s life, the BBC’s A Waste of Shame, ITV’s Will Shakespeare, Anony … (cough) and taken together they offer different facets of the man and his time. But none of them quite capture the romance of what it must have been like to be a playgoer in that period, version that attendees at the Globe in London must have in their heads. From the opening pan across the rafters of the Rose and the opening bars of Stephen Warbeck’s music, I ache and it’s an ache that continues throughout. Few films have given me that sort of emotional reaction before anything related to story or character have kicked in, even Saving Private Ryan which I know everyone now thinks should have won the Oscar that year.

The release came and went and then six months later I won a VHS copy of the film from Empire, which I must have watched a dozen times. Then when I bought my first dvd player from Tesco, the venerable Wharfedale, one of the first films I hired from the Central Library in town (along with Ghostbusters) was Shakespeare in Love so I could enjoy the settings in the correct aspect ratio again marvelling at the detail and watching all the audio commentaries. Like so many of the films on this list, I can trace them through the various formats I’ve owned them in. Not that I have the blu-ray of it, which is something I must to rectify. But I do have Stephen Warbeck’s score on cd, which was the soundtrack to my visit to Stratford-Upon-Avon.

To complete this narrative thread, the other project which really crystallised my love of Shakespeare and made much of that visit to Stratford so familiar was Michael Wood’s series In Search of Shakespeare broadcast in July 2003 (and even which I oddly failed to mention on this blog). Here was the pageant of the writer’s life spread across four hours and a real explanation of why his words were important and mattered but with just enough mystery for someone like me to want to go off and read more and to see more. Which I did, purchasing the complete collection of BBC adaptations not long afterwards and that was pretty much my fate sealed and that’s how Shakespeare In Love helped me fall in love with Shakespeare.

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