Screening the RSC, 4.

25th June 2019

Publication day for my book Screening the Royal Shakespeare Company: A Critical History looms, and so here’s another instalment in my chapter-by-chapter breakdown. The third chapter, ‘Making Movies, 1964-73’ is really an essay of two halves. The second part considers the remarkable trilogy of feature films that Peter Brook made from his productions with the RSC during the 1960s: Marat/Sade, 1967; Tell Me Lies, 1968 (the Godardian trailer for the recent French restoration of which is below); and King Lear, 1971 (based on Brook’s 1962 Stratford production with Paul Scofield).

I also explore other moving images traces of Brook’s work during this extraordinary decade, and the Guardian last week ran an edited extract about my search for film records of his ground-breaking 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. By contrast, although with all sorts of links to this story, the first part of Chapter 3 relates the almost-entirely-untold relationship in the 1960s between the RSC and the Hollywood ‘mini-major’ production outfit, Filmways.

The RSC under Peter Hall in the early 1960s was obsessed with making movies. Hall and his confrere producer Michael Birkett argued that this was a way for the company to tackle its perpetual lack of cash, but for Hall feature films were above all another creative field for him to take on and triumph over. Except that it never really worked out like that, and his debut film, Work is a Four Letter Word, 1968, is – as the director himself acknowledged in his diaries – dire. Viewing it on television some years after production was, he wrote, an ‘appalling experience… I watched with glazed horror.’ (For more on the film, and the Henry Livings play, Eh?, on which it was based, see my blog past from August 2016.)

Undaunted, Hall and Birkett persuaded the RSC’s Council that making movies was the way forward, and the company engaged an agent to find a financier. Dick Patterson hooked them up with Marty Ransohoff, whose Filmways company made sitcoms like The Beverly Hillbillies as well as classier features such as Jules Dassin’s Topkapi, 1964. Hall had a far-sighted vision for this venture, because not only would the resulting films be seen in the cinema and on television but ‘they will be turned into long-playing visual records. You buy the tape, just like a gramophone record, then slot it into your TV set and watch when you want.’

The RSC Council was cautious about hitching their wagon to Hollywood, but in those times of limited public support (and ambitious Hall-inspired plans) the company was really struggling financially. A plan was hatched for a three-picture deal: Peter Hall would direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream, based on a proven production; Hall would also direct Paul Scofield in Macbeth, a role the actor was to play in an imminent Stratford staging; and Peter Brook would also work with Scofield to film Lear. Filming on the Dream went ahead in the rain-soaked autumn of 1967, and although it took some time for Michael Birkett to admit this to the Council, the production went 50 per cent over budget. The problem was then compounded when the film guarantor company that should have protected the RSC was declared bankrupt.

Paul Scofield and Vivien Merchant, Macbeth, 1967; photo Reg Wilson © RSC

Further travails followed. Macbeth (above) opened to middling reviews in the summer of 1967, and early the following year Scofield decided he did not after all want to make a movie from it. His agent had at the last moment negotiated a deal that effectively gave him right-of-refusal, and the problem was compounded when Scofield angrily and very publicly resigned from the RSC. As Kenneth Pearson reported in the Sunday Times, ‘[Scofield] was not too happy with critical reaction when the production was first launched at Stratford, and obviously would not want to see his discomfort enshrined forever.’ Relations are, to put it mildly,’ Michael Birkett wrote to Marty Ransohoff, ‘strained.’

The Filmways execs were understandably upset, believing that they had a commitment from, not to mention a contract with, the theatre company to deliver the star. And so began years of troubled negotiations about what fees would be paid, whether Filmways had exclusive rights to further RSC productions, and more. In the meantime, Hall’s Dream was released, to negative notices from some film critics (‘Just damn silly,’ was Richard Roud’s assessment in the Guardian) but to an enthusiastic response from the US network CBS which had picked up broadcast rights. The film has divided critics and scholars ever since.

I found it fascinating to read through and endeavour to make sense of the rich archive of documents left from the RSC-Filmways encounters, and I’m surprised that the tale has not been previously told. The book includes a good deal more of the detail, as well as my more considered, but I fear no more enthusiastic than Roud’s, assessment of Hall’s Dream. And among the detail is a rueful note about making movies in the Council minutes for 30 November 1969, when the row with Filmways was far from resolved:

Sir George Farmer [chair of the Council] thought that our future activities should be exploited through the employment of experts and that we should not again attempt such activities ourselves.

In a continuing series of posts, I am offering further fragments of the book, which I hope you might consider recommending for purchase by a college or other library.

In Screening the RSC, 1, I introduced the book and outlined the arguments in the Introduction.

Chapter 1: Beginners, 1910-59: engagements with the varied early engagements with the screen of the Stratford company before it became the RSC in 1961, including Frank Benson’s silent Shakespeare, documentaries in the 1930s, radio recordings from the 1950s, a first live television broadcast in 1955 with part of The Merry Wives of Windsor, and a recording of Peter Hall’s 1959 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, shot for American television but never broadcast.

Chapter 2: Television Times, 1961-68: consideration of the RSC’s profoundly collaborations with BBC Television, including on a glorious The Cherry Orchard (1962), a vivid As You Like It (1963) and The Wars of the Roses (1965).

Still to come:

Chapter 4: Intimate Spaces, 1972-82: exploration of the decade of Trevor Nunn’s television productions, including his great Macbeth (1979) with Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, plus the work that culminated in the wonderful adaptation for Channel 4 of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1982)

Chapter 5: Toil and Troubles, 1982-2012: a chronicle of the years of strikingly few mainstream adaptations, whether for television or the cinema, but when archival recordings and more began.

Chapter 6: Now-ness, 2000-18: an engagement with Gregory Doran’s trilogy of BBC films – Macbeth (2001), Hamlet (2008) and Julius Caesar (2012) – together with the RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon broadcasts, plus a few thoughts about the future.

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