Another blockbuster season launched at BFI Southbank on Monday with the announcement of Shakespeare on Film, the largest-ever concentration and curation of the Bard’s works in celluloid form.
Sir Ian McKellen was present to deliver his initially conflicted views on taking Shakespeare out of the “wooden O” of the theatre. “Is it appropriate?” he even wondered.
Judging from the line-up looming over the next few months, I would say Absolutely and indeed Sir Ian talked himself round to it, particularly as he warmed to the memories of making his superlative Richard III film with director Richard Loncraine.
He revealed he would even be hosting public bus tours around London between locations used in the filming with ambitious plans to screen the film itself in between destinations which would include St Pancras station, Battersea Power Station and Tate Modern, all of which have changed considerably in the 21 years since shooting.
Sir Ian recalled fondly how he’d initially been outraged at the news when he heard the young Kenneth Branagh, the “whippersnapper”, was filming Henry V. “How dare he, how dare he!” declaimed McKellen. “That is Laurence Olivier’s domain.” And yet, he told the audience, when he saw the end result, he himself felt emboldened to make his own project. “Ken broke the spell of Olivier’s hold over Shakespeare on film, and we owe him, cinema owes him, very much because of that.”
Sir Ian also revealed a bit of baton passing of his own when he congratulated Baz Luhrmann on the Australian film maker’s innovative take on Romeo + Juliet, “which I greatly admired and prefer to the Zeffirelli production”. (Incidentally that famous, hit 1968 film will feature in the season in a specially restored format, complete with that famous refrain that used to accompany Simon Bate’s Our Tune, pop fans will remember.). Anyway, says Sir Ian with actorly modesty, Baz apparently turned to him and said he wouldn’t have been able to even think about making his Romeo had he not seen Sir Ian’s Richard III.
So, a luvvie-in all round. But, to steal McKellen’s great phrase adapted from Henry V: “Shakespeare is a hydra-headed brand”. And so the plays pop up and morph into many shapes over the season. There is a fascinating selection of silent film adaptations which include a young John Gielgud as Romeo in 1924 and an amazing-looking Tempest from 1908.
As well as the must-have classics (Olivier’s Hamlet, Polanski’s Macbeth and Branagh’s Henry V), the re-imagined strand will include some of my favourite Shakespeare-based cocktails, such as Basil Dearden’s brilliant British jazz scene gem All Night Long from 1961, the superb cult critic cull of Theatre of Blood (by Douglas Hickox, in which Vincent Price exacts Shakespearean revenge on reviewers who’ve maligned him) and the 3D version of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate (1953), from which we were treated to a clip of Brush Up Your Shakespeare.
This is a superb-looking season of great cinema and great Shakespeare, committing the fleeting interaction of live, theatrical, 16th century originals with the eternal and global connection possible through 21st century cinema. It’s just what the BFI should be doing and do so very well and intelligently.
For more information on the season, its dates, tours and various strands and events click here.
Featured image credit: The launch of the BFI’s Shakespeare on Film programme. Image: BFI / Richard Hardcastle