by Stephen Vagg

The ABC were fond of doing Shakespeare on television in the old days. True, it was a little expensive (all those costumes and beards), but was culturally respectable (all those words), with a guaranteed audience (all those high school examinations), and was less likely to be criticised (all that BBC heritage).

I have written several pieces so far on different Shakespeare adaptations done by the ABC: The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew, The Life and Death of Richard II, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. In this piece, I’m looking at two less typical productions of the Bard, both shot in Adelaide, incidentally: The First 400 Years and King Lear.

The First 400 Years (1964)

This was an adaptation of a stage revue by Alan Dent. I say “revue”, rather than “play”, because it consists of a series of scenes and speeches from eleven different William Shakespeare works, a sort of “greatest hits of Stratford” – the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, the wooing scene from Taming of the Shrew, the end of Hamlet, etc.

The First 400 Years was used as a star vehicle for two hugely popular actors: Keith Michell, the Adelaide boy who’d discovered fame at Stratford and Broadway, and Googie Withers, a British film star who became “Aussie Googie” when she married her dashing co-star John McCallum.

The support cast included Raymond Westwell (who also directed) and his wife Joan MacArthur, not particularly well remembered now but very respected in their day, plus a young John Derum.

The title came about in part because the work had its world premiere in Melbourne on 23 April 1964, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday (I think they may have been out a few days, but hey, when it comes to Shakespeare, part of the joy is arguing the toss).

The production toured around Australia in 1964, presented by JC Williamsons, a theatrical management not known for their Shakespeare, but like I say, this was more a star-driven revue – Shakespeare for people who don’t really like Shakespeare, as one critic put it.

The ABC arranged for The First 400 Years to be filmed in their Adelaide studios over the course of one day in June when the production was in that city (this must have tickled Michell, who began his career in Adelaide and was born in the city).

The production, which was adapted for TV and directed by William Sterling, was broadcast over two nights at 30 minutes a night.

The First 400 Years is, inevitably, a very theatrical piece of television but it is wonderful to watch Withers and Michell in action, and this is worth it for them alone. It is “greatest hits”-y but there’s nothing wrong with that. John Bell should consider doing something like this one day for some easy cash.

King Lear for Schools (1967)

In addition to prime-time Shakespeare adaptations, the ABC would also show the playwright’s work for high schools for broadcast during the day… no doubt to the eternal gratitude of high school teachers everywhere who could go “here… watch this”. I’m sure actors appreciated the work as well. Mostly, these were imported from the BBC, but occasionally, the ABC did their own, such as King Lear in 1967. I think this was done out of the Education Department rather than the TV Drama Department.

King Lear ranks among Shakespeare’s masterpieces, the title role being the one most actors would like to tackle before they head off into the great Green Room in the sky. It’s the tale of an old king of Britain who decides to divide his kingdom into parts to distribute amongst his daughters and comes to regret it. The play has been adapted a heap of times, often very loosely (eg Kurosawa’s 1985 film Ran) but it is a magnificent piece of material.

The ABC filmed King Lear in Adelaide in 1967, with the titular role played by Peter O’Shaughnessy (1923 – 2013), a hugely experienced stage actor and producer.

The play was divided into five chapters, each around 25 minutes each (though I understand all episodes were combined and played at once in some cities).

The action is occasionally interrupted by a bespectacled man in a modern day suit who talks about the themes of the play, which does ruin the dramatic momentum, but at least makes you feel smarter.

It’s a decent version of Shakespeare’s classic, marred by some unfortunate fake beards and I’m glad the ABC did their own version instead of just importing it from the BBC.

The First 400 Years and King Lear – two productions in the long, long, long tradition of trying to get people into Shakespeare against their will. And GO Adelaide, btw – these were both polished productions.

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  • Veronica Nayon
    Veronica Nayon
    1 October 2021 at 2:41 pm

    I was working at JCW in the publicity office at the Comedy Theatre when The First 400 Years played. It was indeed the celebrity names that brought the punters in. Theatre was going through a hard time. Musicals didn’t live up to My Fair Lady in the eyes of the audiences and they figured they could watch a play on the TV. Charles Deardon was the Publicity Manager and Keith Michell and Mr Deardon didn’t get on and it was hilarious.

    • stephen
      1 October 2021 at 9:12 pm

      Fantastic story!

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