Part of the UnLOCked series of screenings at the BFI Southbank, showcasing British television plays which were wiped by the BBC (mainly) and then rediscovered in prints sent to American for showing on public television, this adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is notable as it was the first time the entire play had been adapted for television.
In 1965 Franco Zefferelli had directed this production for the National Theatre, and most of the cast reprised their roles for the screen (with one exception – Ronald Pickup replaced Albert Finney as the evil Don John). This is part comedy, part mistaken identity – and there are some delightful performances here, notably Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens as the sparring Beatrice and Benedick (they would soon become a married couple in real life), Caroline John as the unjustly accused Hero, Frank Finlay as dumb policeman Dogberry, and Derek Jacobi, oddly accented, as the good Don.
Using a mix of extreme close-ups and clever sets (including a number of ‘living’ statues) to highlight the text, the audience is pulled right into the action, and despite a poor print which has muddy picture and sound, the play transfers across with all the wit and energy it must have had when first staged. It’s also a good game of ‘spot the familiar face’ including Graham Crowden (‘Waiting for God’), Christopher Timothy (‘All Creatures Great and Small’), Michael Gambon (‘Harry Potter’) and Barry Evans (‘Mind Your Language’).
This play though belongs to Smith and Stephens. Even in her youth she has the imperious vocal tones we recognise from her recent stint in ‘Downton Abbey’, while he has all the buoyancy and energy of an actor who was at that time feted as the new Olivier.
Hugely enjoyable, although whether we will get a chance to see it again in any form is debatable. But I’m glad it has been found, if only for the wonderful way bushes and a washing line are employed while Beatrice and Benedick are teased of each other’s professed affection!