William Shakespeare

Directed by David Giles

Prospect Theatre Production by Robert Chetwyn

March 1972, BBC-2

Produced by Knightsbridge Theatrical Productions UK/CBS Cable

Ian McKellen in the role of
Prince Hamlet

Hamlet on television
by Peter Fiddick

There would be little point in my merely adding my voice to the considerable chorus of praise which has greeted the Prospect Productions Hamlet and Ian McKellen's Hamlet within it. It was evident from Saturday night's version of it on BBC-2 that both were substantial achievements. Hamlet is a very big play, perfection is a very difficult thing, and like several one has seen, this did bits of it better than ever, though without necessarily leaving one thinking "That was the greatest." What I was left thinking, indeed, was probably a little unfair on the overall effect, since the end was curiously flawed - a fight and deaths so emphatically melodramatic that it was a surprise to see William Nobbs name on the credits, and a sense of uncertainty in handling Fortinbras's closing scene.

Still, it was overall a distinguished piece or work, with a fine Prince, a solid Claudius from John Woodvine, moments of splendour from Faith Brook's Gertrude, and from Susan Fleetwood an Ophelia that must join her totally contrasting performance as the passionate acid-thrower in last week's "Country Matters" in at last imprinting her talents on television producers' memories.

But perhaps the greatest achievement of the night was the strictly television one. The actors, after all, had mostly had months of work in their parts. David Giles, directing for the BBC, had the unenviable task of making Robert Chetwyn's already successful stage production into television, and his success was virtually complete.

The most obviously technical device was the bold approach to the soliloquies, shot in very tight close-up, often with McKellen's mouth out of view as he spoke, giving a much stronger effect of internalisation than the prerecorded voice over an unspeaking head we see so much these days. But this was just a part - one always had a sense of something that had been done for the cameras, and from the performers as well.

I will never say a bad word against ATV for doing the play in their two-hour version with Richard Chamberlain but I did say at the time that serialisation might have been the better television answer. Shakespeare's was best of all.