Extracting the Genome:
Shakespeare at the BBC:
Play of the Month.

TV Usually when considering Shakespeare on the BBC in the 70s, we look towards the BBC Television Shakespeare series. Certainly it's this which has been merchandised most over the years through the dvd boxed set and at the BBC Store.  But as I've discovered recently, in the late 60s and early 70s, the Play of the Month strand, which ran in prime time BBC One for many years carried numerous productions of his plays in amongst other pieces of the theatre canon.

Produced by Cedric Messina, who would go on to be the "showrunner" on the later Shakespeare series and very much in the style that he'd utilise there until passing the baton to Jonathan Miller (and all the gossip of that change readable in Susan Willis's book), these were cut down versions of the texts running through a two hours passage, presenting them in a speedy, accessible manner with prominent actors from stage and screen and mostly exceedingly entertaining.

Having watched a few recently through the BBC's brilliant Shakespeare Archive Resource (available to academic institutions), I wondered just how much of the canon, Messina and his team managed to adapt to television and so thanks to the BBC Genome, here's a list of Play of the Month's Shakespeare productions with links back to the Genome entry, TX dates and a few notes on what to expect should you ever have the chance to see them.

As you can see, the schedule was just about one per year, with the gap towards the end explained by the appearance of The Duchess of Malfi in 1973  The Changeling in 1974 indicating that there was an "Early Modern Drama" quota each year which those plays filled instead of a Hamlet or one of the histories (both of which are notable by their absence).  They ended in 1975 when Messina was scouting for an As You Like It at Glamis Castle and began to wonder whether the whole canon would be possible (full story at the Wikipedia).

The BBC Play of the Month Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet
Thora Hurd as the Nurse. Gielgud provides the opening voiceover. Directed by Alan Cooke who later went to Hollywood and worked on everything from Matlock to Murder She Wrote and Beauty and the Beast.  TX: 3 December 1967, 19.50

The Tempest
Ronald Pickup as Ariel.  TX: 12 May 1968, 21.15

Julius Caesar
Edward Woodward as Cassius.  Director Alan Bridges went on to direct The Shooting Party.  TX: 13 April 1969.

Janet Suzman as a brilliantly vampish Lady Macbeth.  Eric Porter entirely miscast in the title role sadly.  John Alderton as a really touching Malcolm.  John Thaw as Banquo, Jeffrey Palmer as Menteith (yes, exactly).  Directed by John "The Keys of Marinus" Gorrie.  TX: 20 September 1970, 20.15

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Dream cast. Eileen Atkins as Titania, Lynn Redgrave as Helena, Eleanor Bron as Hypolita, Edward Fox as Lysander, Michael Gambon as Theseus, Paul "Benny from Crossroads" Henry as Flute and only Ronnie Barker as Bottom.  The Radio Times synopsis notes that this "extremely traditional" production was broadcast concurrently with Peter Brook's legendary white cube circus production for the RSC.  Shot "entirely on location in and around Scotney Castle, a folly set in the Kent countryside outside Tunbridge Wells."  TX: 26 September 1971, 20.10.

The Merchant of Venice
Maggie Smith as Portia, Frank Finley as Shylock, both unusually with their own title card at the top of the broadcast underscoring the prestigiousness of their casting.  Nerissa is played by Nerys Hughes, which is perfect casting from Cedric Messina who directed this himself.  "The Venice of Titian and the Belmont of Botticelli are the visual inspiration behind tonight's lavish production," the Radio Times synopsis explains.  TX: 16 April 1972, 20.15.

King Lear
Michael Horden as Lear, directed by Jonathan Miller, roles which both of them would return to seven years later when creating a new version for the BBC Television Shakespeare (after Shaun Sutton had taken over as producer) for which this feels mostly like a dry-run (and many of the same cast would return although some in different roles).  TX: 23 March 1975, 21.20.

Love's Labour Lost
Another superb cast  Jeremy Brett , Martin Shaw, Sinead Cusack, Lorna Heilbron, Maurice Denham and Jonathan Cecil.  The only one of these productions commercially available, from the BBC Store and well worth the £3.99 managing to cover all the bases in a couple of hours offering useful screen alternative to the Branagh musical. TX: 14 December 1975, 22.15.

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