From a not “proper” Shakespeare producer

14th July 2012

Grrrr! I know, I know that you should never respond to criticism, but today I can’t resist a little rant. I am also by disposition a retiring individual not much given to trumpeting Illuminations’ achievements. But take a look at the following from Peter Stanford’s admiring interview with Sir Richard Eyre in today’s Daily Telegraph, ‘The BBC “wasn’t taking Shakespeare seriously”. Sir Richard has directed Henry IV part 1 and 2 for The Hollow Crown, the second of which is broadcast tonight on BBC Two. Stanford asks him this question:

Why, though, has he been so very keen for so long to get “proper” Shakespeare back on the BBC (as opposed to the corporation’s more recent standby, filmed versions of stage plays broadcast on BBC Four)?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I am enraged by the idea (which goes unchallenged by Sir Richard) that The Hollow Crown is “proper” Shakespeare and that our Royal Shakespeare Company Hamlet with David Tennant, our Rupert Goold-directed Macbeth with Patrick Stewart, and our recent Julius Caesar, again with the RSC and like Hamlet directed by the company’s new Artistic Director Greg Doran, are somehow “standby” – and inferior, not to mention not “proper” – productions. 

The Hollow Crown films have each enjoyed far bigger budgets than the Shakespeare films that we have produced for the BBC over the past three years. Indeed, I think I’m right in saying that you could have financed Hamlet, Macbeth and Julius Caesar together for the cost of just one of the Hollow Crown films.

It is certainly also true that each of our three began life as a stage production before each was taken to a location, re-thought for the screen and shot in a dynamic, imaginative way using the language of contemporary television drama. Just why, I wonder, does this not make for ‘proper’ Shakespeare?

As for audiences, I believe that Hamlet on Boxing Day 2009 (on BBC Two, please note Peter Stanford) attracted just about exactly the same audience as Richard II – around 950,000 viewers on the first broadcast. Once again, not ‘proper’? The Hollow Crown has had a great press – but so too did our films – as can be seen from my collections of reviews and blog responses here, here and here.

So let’s engage briefly on the terrain that really matters: the imaginative treatment of the text. I am, as my earlier blog attests, a huge admirer of Rupert Goold’s thrilling Richard II. But I must own to having been significantly less enamoured of Henry IV part one (I have yet to see tonight’s part two). On a first viewing on the big screen at BFI Southbank I felt it to be a somewhat flat and conventional take on the play. It is hampered by some unremarkable (and under-populated) battle scenes, although redeemed by a truly remarkable Falstaff from Simon Russell Beale.

I am also a touch disappointed that The Hollow Crown as a whole chose to don with such enthusiasm the medieval mantle. Horses and castles and very big swords are all very well, but perhaps it might have been bolder – and more stimulating – to explore a more contemporary approach, just as Julius Caesar finds contemporary resonances by setting the play in a modern African state. Nonetheless, both approaches are perfectly “proper”.

All things considered – and although these things are hugely subjective and although such claims are hostages to fortune and although I am hardly an impartial judge – I am prepared to assert that Greg Doran’s Hamlet and Rupert Goold’s Macbeth and indeed Greg Doran’s Julius Caesar are each in their way ‘better’ than Sir Richard’s Henry IV part one. But then perhaps you would expect nothing else.

What I would not dream of saying, however, is that Henry IV part one is not “proper” Shakespeare? And I only wish that Peter Stanford and, by implication, Sir Richard Eyre, had had a similar understanding, not to mention a comparable courtesy.


  1. Press has one single univeral approach: pitting things against each other. In the end, it’s not so much a conscious decision but a default position. I have no idea what “proper” Shakespeare is, and I bet whoever wrote it / said it (and it’s clear as mud) doesn’t know either.

  2. Luke McKernan says:

    There are two kinds of televised Shakespeare – proper, and better. ‘Proper’ was exemplified by the BBC Television Shakspeare of the 1970s/80s, whose utterly mundane aesthetics killed off almost any other Shakespeare on UK TV for over twenty years. Mercifully we are being allowed to discover once more that Shakespeare can make good television. How that is done will depend on budgets and producers’ choices, but it is seeing the opportunities that the medium provides to present the plays imaginatively that counts. Illuminations’ Macbeth and the BBC’s Richard II have been great television – and only after that good Shakespeare.

  3. glynis Powell says:

    Always worth writing another article to keep a conversation about Shakespeare and performance going, but I assume you don’t really worry about the term ‘proper’ in the Telegraph article? Could equally be the lazy ‘shorthand’ invention of the journalist as something gleaned for Eyre himself, and it would appear to be that. Reading more closely, if Eyre did say ‘ proper’ he seems to mean ‘ enthusiastically directed and creatively produced’ ..Illuminations product were certainly that!! Relax, enjoy, bask a little.

  4. Sylvia Morris says:

    Most of the best Shakespeare on TV has been based on stage productions, for example The Wars of the Roses from the 1960s, examples already given and, of course the production which Richard Eyre claims inspired him, the Vanessa Redgrave As You Like It.

  5. Gladiatrix says:

    You need to go back and read the article again, Richard Eyre specifically refers to productions in the 1970s. He isn’t referring to the recent productions which you were involved in.

  6. John Wyver says:

    Many thanks for your comments.

    @Gladiatrix : I think Richard Eyre was speaking primarily about the BBC Television Shakespeare from the late ’70s and early ’80s, but the journalist most definitely was not, as he makes the explicit comparison with recent filmed plays on BBC Four.

  7. Paul Tickell says:

    Richard Eyre is eminently qualified to throw crumbs to critics about what is or is not ‘proper’ Shakespeare: for years he has been directing drama and films, most of which have been in terribly good bourgeois taste. And of course he has the Establishment title to prove.

  8. I quite like Eyre but that comment at the top of the article about the BBC Shakespeare comes across as an astonishingly wrong headed description. For a start if you read Susan Willis’s dispassionate history of the project, it’s apparent that the producer he’s describing, Cedric Messina was working within the brief he’s been given due to the co-production money and it’s only until later when Miller took over with his “name” that some flexibility was allowed. I wonder if he’s watched them lately.

    But more than that, it’s those productions which made me a Shakespeare fan. There are few which don’t work (potentially some of the tragedies sadly), but the Measure for Measure, As You Like It, Taming of the Shrew, Pericles, The Comedy of Errors and Othello are really, really good and the Jane Howell adaptations of the second Henriad set within a decaying adventure playground utilising hobby-horses is a underrated televisual landmark and certainly as good as the other classics of the period.

    Also, Luke, go watch the Alls Well That Ends Well with its Vermeer inspired sets and costumes. That doesn’t have a “mundane” aesthetic at all. Or most of Miller’s productions for that matter.

    I’d also agree about the wrongheadedness of the journalists weasily description of your work as though productions with that attention to the text with the quality of directors and actors you had to work with, don’t count for anything.. Plus without them, I’d never have seen David Tennant in Hamlet, Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth or a version of the current RSC JC for which I’ll be eternally grateful.

    I think you can tell I’m pretty angry.

    • Paul Tickell says:

      Very interesting memories, Stuart…These ‘older’ productions often have a directness and engagement lacking in some of the slick more ‘modern’ dramas on tv…

  9. John Wyver says:

    Stuart, you’re absolutely right about some of the productions in the BBC Television Shakespeare – and the series really does need to be properly reassessed. But for most people it has the reputation that Richard Eyre rather unthinkingly repeats.

    The Henry IVs, which I have written about here before, are quite exceptional, and some of the others are really strong too. That said, it is also the case that some of them are pretty ropey.

    • I agree, it is a bit of a mixed bag. Perhaps the reputation was built on the astonishingly lame R&J which transmitted first. One of the oddities of the set is that the less appreciated plays receive some of the best treatments while something like Macbeth is poorly served despite the best efforts of Nicol Williamson and Jane Lapotaire in the lead roles attempting to overcome the murky production design and shooting.

      I always wonder if the Much Ado About Nothing with Michael York and Penelope Keith which was shot first but dumped before transmission was ever kept. Sometimes mistakes can be just as interesting as successes.

  10. Luke McKernan says:

    Hmm, I should probably change that to “generally mundane aesthetics” (though I’ve discovered I was quoting myself from an essay I wrote in 1994). Jonathan Miller did revive the series certainly, though I was in two minds at the time about his idea of using painters as visual inspiration (I’ll take you up on All’s Well, though, which I’ve never seen). There were some good productions in the series: The Winter’s Tale, Henry VIII, Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night. Still, the general memory is of flat studio settings and flat performances to match. And it did largely kill off the idea of televised Shakespeare for 20 years.

  11. Ian says:

    Really, this feeble Telegraph article has very little to do with your productions or Shakespeare. It is a classic Telegraph attempt to use Eyre in its unstinting attempts to denigrate everything the BBC does. Obviously it is populated by media graduates who are only interested in their own careers, assume everything has be to new and trendy, and have no attention span – this is the kind of caricature which is a daily feature of the Telegraph’s right wing conviction that the BBC represents everything which they detest about modern Britain – and commits the cardinal sin of representing ‘multiculturalism’, diversity and innovation. And it is paid for by public subscription – what greater confluence of betes noirs could there be, outside of a trade union rally in favour of immigrants’ rights? Every article incorporates unbsubtle digs at these blights on the Englishman’s right to remain an Edwardian fogey for ever. You got off lightly.

  12. Paul Tickell says:

    Spot on: this mania for the ‘new and trendy’ in the arts usually ends up in some very reactionary places. It mirrors the constant talk in the political sphere of the need to ‘modernise’ – for which read: privatise and kow-tow to the market.

  13. Helene says:

    I wish your blog had a “Like” button, because I’d certainly “like” some of these comments … especially Ian’s regarding the “feeble Telegraph article” and Poly’s on the media’s attempt to pit one person/opinion against another. The media really does like to stir up trouble, don’t they.

  14. Norma Gill says:

    I just wanted somewhere to express my appreciation of all four plays in’ The Hollow Crown’ -well worth the expense and at least one repeat .

  15. craig melson says:

    Only just read this (been travelling!). Genuinely angry about this. I can’t really contribute much that differs from above, but it’s angering. Why does he get to be the arbiter of what’s ‘proper’?

    Maybe he forgot about the award nominations, Amazon bestseller status, plus stellar reviews by a Prime Minister. Or maybe he’s just an idiot that didn’t realise that one of the hollow crown directors also did one of the not proper ones….

  1. […] Shakespeare’s plays for transmission on TV. Respondents to Richard Eyre’s piece on the Illuminations blog have taken widely differing views of these plays. They are often remembered as clunky, […]

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