‘How many ages hence…’ [day 9]

2nd May 2012

‘… Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown?’

There is a slate-grey sky over the Edgware Road this morning. But at least it’s not raining. Inside the location the sparks have hung out to dry over a scaffolding frame drapes which got soaked over the last few days. We are finished with the staircase to the Senate House, and Mark Antony has (wonderfully, thanks to Ray Fearon) cried Havoc and let slip the dogs of war. Everything that we are filming on location to the end of Act III is now complete and we have re-set at Brutus’ encampment for the two-hander that is Act IV Scene III.  Taking its cue from Cassius above, this post – written across the day – starts to consider some of the eight (!) previous BBC productions of Julius Caesar. Plus, I want to thread through this a few other thoughts about The Space which I started to consider yesterday.

While we are with The Space, I note that the new offerings for day 2 are the presntation of Ken Russell’s charming 1958 short Amelia and the Angel, courtesy of the BFI (there’s more information about it on BFI ScreenOnline than on The Space site), and a live stream from Leicester organisd by The Vanilla Galleries. Part of the Art of the News strand, Jonathan Ryall’s Testing for a Living MatterMutter Public Sculpture (2012) is a performance that runs today from 9am to 3pm.

Have you noticed that already the tagline for The Space has changed from ‘Art 2012 – Live, Free and On Demand’ (which you can see in yesterday’s screengrab) to simply ‘The Arts – Live, Free and On Demand’? My guess (and it’s only that) is that the Olympics brand ‘police’ (or worry about such) nobbled the original.

And while we’re thinking about branding, it is weird too that, despite carrying the video recording of Globe to Globe’s Venus and Adonis presentation by the Isango Ensemble (which is a great and glorious thing) there appears to be no, er, space anywhere on The Space for the London 2012 or the World Shakespeare Festival 2012 logos. Which seems odd to me, given how precise are our Julius Caesar contracts about the inclusion of these logos on each and every copy of the finished film.

Now… back to the past. Given that eight previous full productions of Julius Caesar have been made for BBC Television, the play must surely be the Shakespeare that has been most performed on British television. And this history goes back a long way. Just three months after the official BBC Television service from Alexandra Palace started in early November 1936, Scenes from Shakespeare featured the film actor Henry Oscar giving Mark Antony’s funeral ovation. The ten-minute programme was shown at 3pm on 11 February 1937.

Six weeks or so later, the same series offered a 15-minute extract (which is unidentified) of the play with Cassius (Robert Holmes), Brutus (Malcolm Keen) and Portia (Mary Hinton). No recording, of course, exists today, and nor does any audio-visual trace remain of any of the productions before 1959.

Julius Caesar in 1938

The first full production was mounted in 1938 by producer Dallas Bower (the muddy still above is perhaps the only visual trace of the production). In television’s earliest years he pulled together a range of fascinating studio productions that tested the limits of the medium and challenged its modest audiences with rigorously intellectual fare. He was committed both to experimenting with what television might achieve and to the masterpieces of the European high art tradition.

In the summer of 1938, as the television service was beginning to put together increasingly ambitious studio drama productions, Bower decided to present Julius Caesar in a contemporary setting. The previous year Orson Welles had made a significant impact on Broadway with his Mercury Theatre Julius Caesar which set the play in Fascist Italy, but Bower maintained that he was not influenced by this.

In an unpublished fragment of autobiography titled ‘Playback’, Dallas Bower reflected on his production:

I had decided to update my Julius Caesar cast to the style of the full Nazi regime.  And in casting I was again fortunate, having a first-rate Brutus and Cassius in Sebastian Shaw and Anthony Ireland – quite wonderful in the tent scene quarrel – and a fine neurotic Caesar in Ernest Milton, and, contrary to most productions of Caesar due to the ungratefulness and relative smallness of the parts, a fine Portia in Carol Goodner and an equally fine Calpurnia in Laura Cowie.  D. A. Clark-Smith as Anthony was perhaps not quite up to the stature the part demands.

Writing in The Listener, the critic Grace Wyndham-Goldie was enthusiastic about the live production:

[T]he contemporary central European settings, Julius Caesar as a Dictator, gunmen in uniform armed with revolvers ranging streets and cafés and the like revealed the amazing topicality of the play. So that although some of the detail was exasperating yet the production as a whole was continuously interesting because in it television was giving us something fresh…

The next BBC presentation was in 1951…

Later: In fact, I didn’t have the chance to take the story to 1951 and beyond. That will hav to wait until a future post. Somehow the afternoon was taken up with a good beef stroganoff followed by various visitors to the location, including the Chair of the RSC Trustees, Nigel Hugill, then a bit of an availability crisis, a viwing of rushes (truly scary assassination footag) and somehow the day had gone. By the end we were on slate 146 and halfway through Act IV Scene 3, and everyone felt that we had had another good day.

Previously on the Julius Caesar blog:

‘The Ides of March are come’, 30 April
‘Good words are better than bad strokes’, 27 April
‘Whoever knew the heavens threaten so?’, 26 April
‘Peace. Count the clock.’, 25 April
‘When it is lighted, come and call me here’, 24 April
‘Tell us the manner of it’, 23 April
‘Their battles are at hand’, 21 April
‘A very pleasing night to  honest men’, 17 April
‘Be patient till the last’, 12 April
‘Now they are almost on him’, 6 April
‘A mourning Rome, a dangerous Rome’, 2 April
‘Tell us what hath chanced today’, 30 March
‘Shakespeare’s Africa play’, 29 February
‘Friends, Romans, countrymen…’, 24 November

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