The BBC Television Shakespeare: Julius Caesar (1979)

Another library find; the library’s got a few installments of this series (I don’t think the big box of all 37 plays was released here and neither were all the individual plays), and I’ll probably get through the rest over time. Until now, I think the only other one I’ve seen in full is Antony & Cleopatra, plus bits of Hamlet, so really I only know this series through reputation, which I gather is a bit mixed, largely thanks to Cedric Messina’s grand vision for the series and the strings attached by the series’ American financiers; the latter were insistent that the adaptations should be as conservative as possible to maximise ratings, and though Jonathan Miller would apparently push the envelope more when he took over the series Messina went along with the dictate.  That meant director Herbert Wise’s plan to do Julius Caesar in Elizabethan dress—on the grounds that the play was always really about the fears of that period surrounding Elizabeth’s succession and whether or not the country would descend into civil war like Rome upon her death—was scuttled by Time-Life’s insistence that the Roman plays should be in Roman dress. Although others have tried to claim the series’ reputation for staidness is undeserved, this production, from Messina’s first series, can arguably be summed up by that very word; something about it feels flat and airless, Shakespeare as heavy museum piece… I don’t suppose it’s entirely helped by Richard Pasco as Brutus, he just doesn’t seem right somehow and that’s a deadly flaw given that he is perhaps the key figure in the play (apart from Caesar himself, well-rendered here by Charles Gray). And Wise’s visual handling somehow only adds to the overall heaviness of the thing, too… though the series was made in classic multi-camera setup BBC style, where a scene can be played out in a long take and recorded by a number of cameras, Wise seems to settle for one camera covering the long take rather than switching from one to the next. (Cf. the final scene which plays as an unbroken single shot of about eight minutes or so.) Obviously this technique had some pedigree on the big screen, but on TV it just seemed weird. I mean, I didn’t count and time every instance, but I’m sure it didn’t just feel like the scenes were dragging, I’m sure Wise actually was using long takes… but it didn’t really help the show any.

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