Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

Since we are going to have a Christmas by ourselves, we are going to use the time to watch some of our large collection of Shakespeare DVDs. We have seen quite a lot of his plays since we first went to see “Macbeth” together forty years ago – and we had both seen a few before then. This might be the opportunity to watch the rest of them.

We settled down on the afternoon of 16 December 2020. Today would have been Gareth’s 31st birthday, and he loved his Shakespeare.

Our version of “Twelfth Night” was recorded for the BBC between 16-21 May 1979, and first transmitted on 6 January 1980. The Amazon review of it says “In 1978, the BBC set itself the task of filming all of William Shakespeare’s plays for television. The resulting productions, renowned for their loyalty to the text, utilised the best theatrical and television directors and brought highly praised performances from leading contemporary actors – Twelfth Night [1980] Viola and Sebastian are identical twins, separated by a shipwreck. Landing in Illyria, Viola disguises herself as her brother and goes in to the service of Duke Orsino. When the Duke sends her to help him woo the Lady Olivia, the obstacles of unrequited love, self-deceit and mistaken identity soon lead an assortment of lovers on a merry dance. Perhaps the most popular of Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night considers the nature of love, true love, self-love and friendship. This star-filled production won great acclaim for its energy and for its inclusion of the play’s often overlooked darker elements.”

The BBC Television Shakespeare was created by Cedric Messina. Born in South Africa, he moved to Britain after the War, and joined the BBC. Transmitted in the UK from 3 December 1978 to 27 April 1985, the series spanned seven seasons and thirty-seven episodes. Wikipedia tells me that the series got mixed reviews, and several of them were quick to blame Messina for a series they thought was rather uninspired. I remember watching several of the earlier ones when they were first broadcast – I was doing my A levels at the time – but would have been at University for many of them. It seems a little silly that none of these BBC productions are available on the BBC website, nor is there any of information about the production. You can find a complete cast listing at A chap called Alistair Nunn has blogged about all the BBC productions, and you can read his review at

The play was directed by John Gorrie. I had not heard of him – apparently he started his career as an actor, then joined the BBC in the 1960s. He even directed a series of “Doctor Who”. He directed this BBC “Twelfth Night” and the video (it was video in those days) of “The Tempest”. He has set the play in the Seventeenth Century. It’s nearly all filmed around one house, which is actually a TV set, and is a very logical set. Everything flows beautifully. He uses Civil War characters, a conflict between festivity and Puritanism.

Being a man of a certain age, I have to say that the highlight was Felicity Kendal as Viola. She was in her early 30s when she filmed this. She had just finished being Barbara Good in “The Good Life” – another part of my formative years, produced between 1975 and 1978. How anyone can think she is a man, I cannot imagine.

Sinead Cusack played a lovely Olivia. I remember her name, but I can’t say I can place her in any other productions or programmes which I’ve seen. Clive Arrindell is Orsino, again not an actor I recall.

Trevor Peacock was Veste. He sings very well, but you can’t help seeing him as Jim Trott from “Vicar of Dibley” – “no, no, no, no, yes”. If you search youtube, you can watch many different versions of the songs.

Robert Hardy (Siegfried Farnon) was Sir Toby Belch, not the sort of part you expect him to play. Ronnie Stevens was Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Robert Lindsay Fabian. I remember Robert Lindsay as Citizen Smith. My dad nicknamed Harry “Trotsky” and purchased him a red tie – “power to the people”.

Alec McCowen played Malviolio. The yellow stockings and cross garters is often played for laughs, this is a darker production. I remember seeing him recite Mark’s Gospel at the Art’s Theatre in Cambridge while we were at University, and I had his reading on cassette for many years.

Julie says we have seen several productions of it, but can’t remember which ones. I have kept a diary since the early 1970s, but I have never indexed it. Perhaps now would be the time to do it – or can I find a research assistant? Surely someone will give me a grant to index a fascinating archive?

I have the programme for the RSC production directed by Gregory Doran in 2009, but I don’t remember seeing it. The Oxfam shop in Stratford always has a box of programmes for sale, and I suspect it came from there. Apparently the first production was at Candlemas 1602, but it wasn’t published until 1623. Gregory Doran writes that at Candlemas 17 years earlier, on 2 February 1585, the twins Judith and Hamnet Shakespeare were presented for baptism at Holy Trinity church in Stratford. Hamnet died eleven years later, so I wonder what William was thinking as he watched his play, with its twins Viola and Sebastian separated by a storm, then reunited.

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