1978 BBC’s Romeo and Juliet

So, let’s start the Alan Rickman Memorial Festival with his first-ever screen appearance.

Everyone always talks about Rickman’s impressive debut in Die Hard,  but technically it’s only his film debut because Rickman had been acting on stage and the British small screen for years before. His television debut actually came a full ten years before Die Hard, in the BBC’s Television Shakespeare version of Romeo and Juliet. BBC Television Shakespeare was a seven season effort to broadcast all of Shakespeare’s plays on that channel, and Romeo and Juliet was the first episode to air. Rickman was tapped to play Tybalt, Juliet’s hotheaded cousin who hates Romeo and his whole family with a fiery, fiery passion.

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Now, I should preface this post with a two-part disclaimer:

1. I don’t really like Romeo and Juliet, though I do like Shakespeare. I love me some Shakespearean tragedies and some Shakespearean problem comedies, and I even like those history plays that bore most people to tears. Therefore, in the course of getting a B.A. and M.A. in English, I voluntarily took 2 Shakespeare elective classes and also was pathetically excited about the semester I got to work as a TA for a class dedicated to the Bard.

But, despite all that, I just don’t like Romeo and Juliet. I can recognize the play has technical merit and some beautiful passages and that part of my problem is probably over-saturation because the tropes in the play are so common in pop culture. And I can even admit I went to a well-staged, well-acted outdoor version of it that I thoroughly enjoyed.

My problem with the play is I just don’t give a shit about the main characters–I think they act like idiots (and not even entertaining idiots), so I just can’t feel any sense of great loss when they are all dead and/or miserable at the end. Frankly, the only character I really like is Mercutio, and he departs, taking his sass and dirty puns with him, halfway through.

I console myself with the theory that Shakespeare doesn’t really want us to be sympathetic to them, but that doesn’t make me like the play any more.

2. I also have mixed feelings about the BBC Television Shakespeare series this film is a part of. On one hand, I salute them for making fairly complete versions of all of the plays and casting a lot of great actors–some of whom were just up and coming stars–for them. I’m also okay with the somewhat dated late 1970s/early 1980s production values. I love a lot of shows from this time period with dated production values. I, Claudius is exhibit A here. As long as the writing and acting is good, I can forgive wonky production values.

But I have also found some of these BBC Television Shakespeare productions uneven in quality. Their 1980 Hamlet starring Derek Jacobi is a prime example of this. Jacobi’s interpretation of Hamlet is my absolute favorite–more so than Branagh’s more famous 1996 take on the character–and there are a lot of other great actors I like in the cast. I’ve watched this version several times, so it’s not like I don’t enjoy it. But even Jacobi’s presence; an I, Claudius reunion that includes Patrick Stewart in a bitchin’ wig and a young Dr. Clarkson 30 years pre-Downton Abbey; and a gloriously snide young Jonathan Hyde as Rosencrantz can’t salvage the fact that when Jacobi is offscreen, this movie is pretty tedious. Some parts in the latter third of the movie when Hamlet is absent for substantial stretches feel like slow fucking death.

For these reasons, I didn’t really have high expectations for this Romeo and Juliet production, but I also didn’t assume that I would absolute despise it. Indeed, I figured my reaction to it would be my reaction to most stagings of this play–I’d enjoy Mercutio, I’d appreciate the spectacle and the acting, even if I don’t like the story, and then I’d move on with my life.

Next page: Now, on to the movie itself. (SPOILERS FOLLOW!)

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