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'The play's the thing'

'The play's the thing'
31 May 2009 posted by John Wyver

When you set out to make Hamlet for television you can't fail to think of the other screen versions peering over your shoulder. The scholars Luke McKernan and Olwen Terris have described the drama as 'the world's most filmed story after Cinderella'. Whether that's the case or not, there are certainly well over 50 screen versions. I'm planning to write about some of them here in the coming days, and today's post starts with a quick survey of the previous versions on British television.

For information on this topic, I've shamelessly plundered a very informative article on the BFI's screenonline site and my other key source is the invaluable Shakespeare in Performance database from the University of Victoria. Screenonline sets the bar for our work with this reflection

Presumably because of its length, Hamlet has had fewer television adaptations than many of the other great tragedies, though the quality threshold has been commendably high.

Screenonline also tells me that the earliest BBC production was shown in two parts, on 7 and 14 December 1947. This was a live performance, produced by George More O'Farrell, which was played before studio cameras and transmitted directly to the few homes that then had television receivers. No recordings were made in those days (this was before videotape) and so a 'repeat' was facilitated by the actors exactly doing the same thing again several days later.

John Byron played the Prince for this production and Sebastian Shaw was Claudius. There's a distant echo for our own production because the part of Horatio was taken by Patrick Troughton -- who of course was later the second Doctor Who from 1966 to 1969. Shakespeare in Performance has fascinating additional information about the production.

Producer George More O'Ferrall began work on this major production in the summer of 1947... Hamlet's customary suits of solemn black had to be made dark green because of the technical requirements of early television. During the five weeks of rehearsals in bare rooms, the cast was provided with scale models of the proposed sets to orient them to the actual conditions of the live broadcast. The scenery itself was not completed until December 4th, three days before the broadcast. From this timetable, one can imagine the anxiety attacks that must have wracked the producer and his associates.

If, as Michael Barry suggests..., the tracking shots in O'Ferrall's production influenced [Laurence] Olivier's 1948 filmed version of Hamlet, the performance takes on even greater importance in the history of screened Shakespeare and was worth all the pain of creation. For its merits, in 1948 Producer O'Ferrall won the first television award for artistic achievement from the British Television Society. Drew Middleton's New York Times story may also well be the first review in North America of a televised Shakespeare performance

The BBC's next television version was an ambitious production staged for the 400th anniversary celebrations of Shakespeare's birthday. On April 19 1964 viewers had the chance to see Hamlet at Elsinore, a 170-minute co-production with Danish television, with Christopher Plummer as the Prince. This was shot in a semi-documentary style entirely on location (no mean feat, then) and includes in the cast Robert Shaw as Claudius and a young Michael Caine as Horatio. Steven Berkoff had the tiny role of Lucianus and Donald Sutherland (there's class for you) was Fortinbras. In the States, the production was shown on both CBS and PBS (what a different world) and, fortunately, a full recording survives in the archives.

Robert Chetwyn's Prospect Theatre production, with Ian McKellen as Hamlet, was recorded for the BBC in 1972. Faith Brook is Gertrude and Susan Fleetwood Ophelia. He that plays the king, Claudius, in this production, the wonderful actor John Woodvine, plays the Player King in ours. This is screenonline's verdict

[The production] had already amassed a substantial reputation before the broadcast - indeed, it played a significant role in establishing McKellen's reputation - and so director David Giles (who would later helm many of the BBC Television Shakespeare productions) wisely made little attempt at obscuring its theatrical roots, though he did devise imaginative visual treatments of some key scenes. The Ghost scene is especially striking, with two simultaneous images of McKellen's face superimposed on top of one another.

At the end of the 1970s, across six years, the Corporation gave the world The BBC Television Shakespeare (the link, once again, is to screenonline). In Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (which runs three and a half hours) Derek Jacobi is Hamlet (above), Clare Bloom plays Gertrude and Claudius is Patrick Stewart; he of course has won numerous plaudits including an Olivier Award for the role in the RSC production which we're filming. One more quote from screenonline, which contrasts this production with others overseen by the project's first producer Cedric Messina:

Television veteran Rodney Bennett was the director -- an intriguing choice, since he had no Shakespeare or even stage experience at all, but had trained as a psychologist. His treatment was more stylised than was the norm for the Messina years, with colours toned down to near-monochrome, minimal onscreen clutter and much use of empty space. Though conceived specifically for television, it was an approach much closer to the previous year's ITV broadcast of Trevor Nunn's stage Macbeth (tx. 4 January 1979) than it was to the other BBC Shakespeares.

There's just one further British television Hamlet (I think, but do please correct me if I've got this wrong) and that's the co-production with the French channel ARTE which filmed Peter Brook's stripped-down production for his Bouffes du Nord theatre company in Paris. This was screened by the then-new digital channel BBC Four in its early days. Adrian Lester is Hamlet and this striking, provocative production is available on DVD from As is the 1980 production -- you have to hunt for it a bit, but MovieMail seem to have it currently.

There have been animated television versions of Hamlet too and a clutch of documentaries; for details of these, do check out the screenonline essay.

Related posts (and comments): 'Suit the action to the word' 30 May / Now it can be told... 29 May


Gabriele A.

31 May 2009 11:02

Perhap it really is "the world's most filmed story after Cinderella".The earliest film version I've come across yet dates from 90 years back! It is a silent movie from 1920/21, with Asta Nielsen as female (!) Hamlet. (oops. I wanted to post a link to an article about it here, but your comments don't allow links. If you're interested, email me.) Anyway. It must be exciting to produce another version, having all that tradition to look back to, and compete against. I'm looking forward to yours!

John Wyver

31 May 2009 12:39

Gabriele, Thanks for the comment. I'm going to blog this later in the week, but there are earlier versions -- including (and this is probably the first) a 1 minute fragment of Sarah Bernhardt as the Prince in the climactic duel with Laertes. This was shot for the Paris Exposition in 1900 and you can find it on YouTube [sorry, but our blog system doesn't allow urls; it's to counter spam; I'll embed this in the forthcoming post]. Isn't it interesting that these early versions have women actors as Hamlet? But there's also a more conventional British production from 1910 directed by William George Barker. George Melies made one too, which is usually dated to 1907.

Gabriele A.

2 June 2009 21:38

John, sorry to bother you again - I realize you are beyond busy these days -but I sent you an email and would really appreciate an answer (even if it's a 'no'). The subject of TV productions and film adaptations is truly fascinating, and I'd love to delve into it further...

John Wyver

3 June 2009 05:18

Gabriele - e-mail on its way today, but it is a 'no' I'm afraid.

Olwen Terris

3 June 2009 08:40

Dear John Wyver You will be intersted I think in our database, describing over 6000 titles related to Shakespeare on Film, Television and Radio. Visit Please get in touch with me if you have any questions. Best wishes Olwen Terris

Larry Coressel

5 June 2009 11:45

There is also a 1990 PBS American Playhouse production of Hamlet with Kevin Kline, which is also available on DVD.

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