Shakespeare Uncovered and unkind cuts

26th June 2012

After a string of posts about Julius Caesar, this one stays with Shakespeare but shifts the focus to another programme. I want to muse today about the first in the series Shakespeare Uncovered (and I would be grateful if someone can explain to me what the title means.) The idea of these six films, which are made by Blakeway Productions with 116 Films and Thirteen in association with the BBC and Shakespeare’s Globe, is that each one has a prominent thesp (although Trevor Nunn also does one) exploring one of Shakespeare’s plays. To come we have Macbeth with Ethan Hawke (did I mention it is an American co-pro – anyway that’s tonight at 21:00 on BBC Four) and David Tennant on Hamlet. And the first film, shown last week and on BBC iPlayer until 10 July has a radiant Joely Richardson looking at two plays: Twelfth Night and As You Like It.

Having a dual focus is a bit odd, especially as the film cannot quite decide what is the unifying theme. Gender-bending disguise, perhaps, or strong women. Or maybe it is the idea of tragedy in the Comedies. Whatever, it’s a polished by-the-numbers presenter-led film (directed by Janice Sutherland) with rather too many shots of Joely walking by the Thames and one lovely unbuttoned sequence in which she delights in filming during an unexpected (and magical) snowstorm at Shakespeare’s Globe.

The film, however, seems a touch uncertain about its audience, and as a consequence of this, about its tone. So a chatty exchange between Joely and her mum Vanessa Redgrave sits alongside a good deal of penetrating textual analysis from the likes of Professors Jonathan Bate and Marjorie Garber. There are some of the most stimulating ideas of the whole Shakespeare Unlocked season here. I also really like the sequence in which Tom Hollander and Adrian Lester revisit the ground-breaking all-male Cheek-by-Jowl production of As You Like It in which they starred back in 1990.

That As You Like It exists today only as a few stills (and memories, of course) but many other productions of the plays have been filmed or recorded for television. And in keeping with my dominant interests, both here and in the Screen Plays research project, I want to focus on the use in this film of extracts from those audio-visual traces.

The film commendably avoids the laziness of choice that sometimes afflicts documentaries of this kind and for the most part is clear about why it is using which clip and discussing which production. On-screen credits for the clips are also appropriately informative, although quite why Joely watches some of the extracts in a cinema when they were made for television is beyond me. (I should also say here that we have licenced extracts from our RSC Macbeth to the series and helped with access to other master tapes.)

But, but, but…

Yes, it’s this blog’s old friend – the unkind cuts of ratio butchery. The television productions, which include a wonderful-looking 1963 As You Like It (with Vanessa as Rosalind) as well as the later BBC production (1978) with Helen Mirren (who also pops up in interview) together with ATV’s Twelfth Night(1969) and The BBC Television Shakespeare production from 1980, were all shot using a 4:3 screen ratio. That is, standard ‘old’ TV, not the contemporary norm of 16:9 widescreen. But here the tops and bottoms of the 4:3 clips have been removed so that the images fill a 16:9 frame. The same indignity is also suffered by the 1910 Charles Kent Twelfth Night.

This is unacceptable.

These productions are historical documents of great cultural value. To treat them in this way is thoughtless, since it involves losing something like one quarter of the frame. You can see the impact of this above in the way an extract from the 1963 As You Like It appears in the film (and above as it is presented on BBC iPlayer). The top of Vanessa Redgrave’s head is chopped off and the frame feels awkward and ineptly achieved. Yet the production was made for television by Ronald Eyre, one of the supreme craftsmen of studio production. To show his work in this way is disrespectful to him and the team with whom he worked as well as to Vanessa Redgrave and the cast. Not to mention to us as the audience.

Would the makers, who include the highly experienced series producer Richard Denton, present some lines from Shakespeare and remove every fourth word? Of course not, and for precisely comparable reasons nor should they carelessly massacre our audio-visual heritage.


  1. richard denton says:

    Lots of things here. I accept the criticism about the 16:9 v 4:3 ratio. It’s clearly partly policy but I will look into it and see if future programmes can make fewer mistakes. To be honest some of the early filming was less “masterpiece” than others and is not much harmed. However your point is well made. As regards what the title means – that is easy – it mean the BBC is scared of the original title which was simply Prefaces to Shakepeare. I just wanted to make films about the plays (rather than putative adventures in Italy) and to give an general audience enough appealing information to amuse those who know the plays and tempt those who don’t to get to know them. But that title sounded a bit “academic” for the BBC’s tastes – despite it being precisely what these programmes are. The result is that people ask – quite rightly – why the programmes cover a variety of different things rather than focussing on one particular issue – but this was deliberate and in the context of a “preface” it seems quite resonable. Ah well. Hope you enjoy the rest

    • John Wyver says:

      Many thanks, Richard, for such a generous response to what could have been – and should have been – a more generous post. Really interesting about the title.

  2. “That As You Like It exists today only as a few stills”

    Actually the Cheek by Jowl was filmed for inclusion in the As You Like It instalment of the Approaching Shakespeare series created for the Open University, originally sent out on VHS — I have a copy of the dvd I bought from eBay and the way it’s shot it looks like the whole thing was recorded though that might be wishful thinking.

    If Richard’s still around I’d be interested to know why they were included.

    It’s listed on the BUFVC database and a bit of treat if you can track down a copy:

    Fiona Shaw presents most of it from in front of a half completed Globe theatre and there’s a poignant section with her and Juliet Stephenson playing through the text where both of them are clearly looking back at good times.

    As for the new show, I agree with everything you say but enjoyed every minute and makes better sense as a piece of work under the “prefaces to shakespeare” title which I notice has been retained for the dvd release. I suppose I just wanted to see more — more of Joely and Vanessa’s conversation, more of the academia, more of the clips, especially the clips. I do hope we see some sort of release for the 1963 production soon. Not enough room in an hour.

  3. Martin R says:

    Why can’t you have the COMPLETE ‘Shakespeare Uncovered’ programmes on the i.player? It’s very irritating to just have clips. After all, I am a license fee payer.

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