The Wednesday Play: Romeo and Juliet (1978)

Sir John Gielgud in Romeo & Juliet

Since we were talking about youthful suicide pacts very recently, it seems appropriate that this week’s Wednesday Play should be the 1978 BBC production of Romeo & Juliet.

Although it might be tempting to be incredibly awe-struck by the ambition of the BBC’s recent The Hollow Crown season, which this year adapted four of Shakespeare’s history plays – Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 & 2 and Henry V – step back in amazement at the ambition that was the BBC’s seven year-long Television Shakespeare project between 1978 and 1985: a series of adaptations, staged specifically for television, of all 36 First Folio plays, as well as Pericles (but not The Two Noble Kinsmen and Edward III).

Co-productions with the US Time-Life Television, controversially, the plays were originally planned to be staged conventionally in Shakespearean costumes and sets, and to be abridged to fit an allotted length of two and a half hours. However, when it was realised that that would kill most of the tragedies stone dead, the time limit was lifted, even if all the other restrictions were left in place – something that resulted in director Michael Bogdanov resigning from his modern-dress interpretation of Timon of Athens (Jonathan Miller replaced him) when it failed to be appreciated by Time-Life.

The result was a slight reputation of the series being staid and dull productions of the texts. Nevertheless, the project did have virtues, in some cases producing the only ever televised versions of some of Shakespeare’s more obscure plays, such as The Life and Death of King John, which starred Leonard Rossiter in his last screen role. Other notable and surprising actors to appear in the series included Roger Daltrey, Derek Jacobi as Hamlet, Anthony Quayle as Falstaff, Anthony Hopkins as Othello (no really), Bob Hoskins, John Cleese as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, Donald Sinden, Alan Howard as Coriolanus, Laurence Olivier, Brenda Blethyn, Jonathan Pryce, Felicity Kendall, Diana Rigg, John Hurt, Bernard Hill, Zoe Wanamaker and Robert Lindsay.

The plays quickly found love in schools, thanks to the arrival of VHS recorders, and although the BBC only made them available as a set on VHS, they eventually became available individually as well as a collection on DVD.

The 1978 production of Romeo & Juliet, directed by Alvin Rakoff, was the very first of the adaptations. It sees Patrick Ryecart and Rebecca Saire as the star-crossed lovers, and also features Celia Johnson, Michael Hordern, John Gielgud, Anthony Andrews, Alan Rickman, Jacqueline Hill and Christopher Strauli to name but a few. If you like it, as always, buy it on DVD to support those nice BBC people who made it. Enjoy!


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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