24 Ronald Pickup

Hamlet played by Ronald Pickup.
Directed by John Tydeman.

On sale in many good and some bad charity shops and ebay a lot, this BBC Radio Collection release with Ronald Pickup in the title role is something of a mystery. It must have been broadcast on Radio’s Three or Four at some point in the 1980s – © 1988 BBC Enterprises Ltd is written on the back of the inlay – but after hunting about online I can find little else. Inside it’s revealed to be one of four contemporaneous releases along with Sir Alec Guinness as Lear, Denis Quilley as Macbeth and Paul Scofield as Othello. Either there was a season or Enterprises were consolidating material from the archive.

As is often the case with radio productions this has clear straight-shooting storytelling which adapts a full length copy of the second quarto, but what I’d like to know is if this was created directly for radio or adapted from a stage production and when. Given that the music is provided by Malcolm Clarke of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, my instinct is that it’s a radio premiere. Clarke is best known amongst some of us for his experimental scoring of Doctor Who episodes, especially the random noise of The Sea Devils. He’s not called upon to do anything special, though the pipes of Fortinbras’s army do have an electronic twang.

Pickup (presumably in consultation with the director John Tydeman) gives us a Hamlet that flip-flap-flops between controlled sanity in public and genuine madness – sparked by the news of his father’s death – in private. It's this weird (for him) geniality that cause’s Claudius to draw Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Elsinore and when they arrive, though the prince coaxes from them that there’s was not a spontaneous visit, it's not until very late in the play that he begins to treat them with much malice (just before he orders their death). He’s as pleasant as Cary Grant in North By Northwest and perhaps even moreso at the end when he knows all hope is lost.

The cast is filled out with a range of experienced stage and radio actors. Martin Jarvis’s Horatio has an unusual independence, loyal to Hamlet but leading his own life. The most disconcerting performance is from Robert Lang, the timbre of whose voice sounds almost but not exactly like Derek Jacobi. Angela Pleasance (Donald’s daughter best known at the time for playing Catherine Howard in The Six Wives of Henry VIII) is an initially extremely aristocratic Ophelia whose tip into madness is chilling, her voice skipping restlessly through the listener's ears, breaking through indiscriminate emotions by the second.

Something I did notice for the first time during the equally unsettling ghost sequence (underscored by Clarke using what sounds like an exterior space ship engine from the Troughton era) is how Hamlet Snr is under no illusions about his wife. Amongst other things he says:
"Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her.
Gertrude was already cuckolding him before his murder, in marrying his brother she’s essentially continuing the "slight" but Hamlet Snr still admonishes Hamlet against hating her and not revenge against her directly because fate will do the work for him, the (sometimes deadly in real life) thorns perhaps prophesying her poisoning.

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