1 9 7 8 (UK)
6 x 60 minute episodes
Rumpole of the Bailey creator John Mortimer was given the task of writing the bard’s life to fill six hours of television entitled Will Shakespeare.
He found that the known facts could be written on one side of a postcard, so he did what all good writers do – made it up, drawing heavily on assorted legends (an apprenticeship with Christopher Marlowe; an ambiguous, possibly gay relationship with the Earl of Southampton etc.)
The part of Will Shakespeare went to a newcomer to television, Tim Curry, who’d made his acting debut in the stage show Hair, starkers, and graduated to a suspender belt, black corselette and high heels in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
Meg Wyn Owen, who’d played Captain Bellamy’s wife in Upstairs Downstairs, played Anne Hathaway.
Nicholas Clay’s Southampton was a charismatic, overwhelmingly masculine figure, explicitly contrasted with the slender, sensitive Will, while Mortimer had a lot of fun imagining what the (real-life) men of Shakespeare’s company must have been like – the all-round virtuoso Dick Burbage (Paul Freeman), in-house comedian Will Kempe (Derek Royle) and Jack Rice (Ron Cook), the leading specialist in women’s roles.
With each episode built around the creation of a single play, a skilful interweaving of known events and contemporary interpretation showed how key experiences may have inspired some of Shakespeare’s greatest works – the death of his young son, and his love for the famous ‘dark lady’ of the sonnets, for example.
The series worried a few scholars but was declared ye showbiz success and was sold around the world. The Russians bought it too, and it became the first ITV series sold there.
The series was also known as Life Of Shakespeare and released on video as William Shakespeare, His Life & Times.
Streets which had been built behind studios at Elstree to represent the potteries in Clayhanger were converted into Elizabethan London for this series, and a multi-purpose Elizabethan theatre constructed. The Clayhanger shop became a collection of taverns and houses, the printing works an inn yard, and one large kiln was demolished in favour of a grand house.
The complete site involved over a hundred sheets of working drawings by the design department and over twenty thousand hours of construction, painting and dressing by ATV staff.
Meg Wyn Owen
Earl of Southampton