Sunshine is something to be savored in Scotland and the BBC chaps could hardly believe the sort of sunshine they were getting early last month. Day after day it streamed effortlessly down. Their TV crew was at Glamis Castle to shoot "As You Like It" for the BBC's six-year series of all 37 of "The Shakespeare Plays." Built where Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, lived, the castle might look forbidding in darker weather, but today it looked fabulous. The lawns and gardens and woods surrounding the castle were glistening green stages lit exactly as the BBC liked.
On one of these natural stages, a wrestling arena had been erected. As the cameras rolled, Elizabethan-dressed extras from the tiny town of Glamis watched the mighty Charles and the puny Orlando fight. Playing Charles was David Prowse, who provided the body - though not the voice - for Darth Vader in "Star Wars." Between takes he cheerfully signed autographs for the little Glamis kids, one of them wearing a "Star Wars" T-shirt.
Many Americans are looking forward to seeing "The Shakespeare Plays" in their living rooms next winter and spring. The series will run on PBS as well as the BBC, probably beginning in February with "As You Like It."
It could introduce more Americans to more of Shakespeare than any other single project ever has done. There will be six plays a year for five years and seven plays one year. They will be repeated, and schools will study them. WNET in New York, which is officially presenting the plays on PBS, wants Paul Sills to create 30-minute "Story Theater" versions of the plays to run as companion pieces. There will be taped introductions, and study guides, and any number of other educational paraphernalia. Don't be surprised if Shakespeare T-shirts replace "Star Wars" T-shirts.
However, not all Americans are rolling out the red carpet for "The Shakespeare Plays." Because the BBC is producing them, the plays will be presented completely from a British perspective, with British actors speaking British sounds. The word is out among some Americans that the Redcoats are coming.
The controversy began last year when the Corporation for Public Broadcasing in Washington announced that it was chipping in $1.2 million of the $13.5 million production cost of "The Shakespeare Plays." Opponents came running. There were two primary objections to the plan.
One was financial - American tax money should not be used to help pay for British television production, said a band of critics led by organized labor. The CPB scrambled harder to find a commercial corporation that would take over its share of the cost and finally did so, thus defusing most of the financial argument.
The other argument was less tangible but more durable - that the British should not be allowed to dominate Americans' perceptions of Shakespeare. Those who took this position said that Americans (maybe themselves) should do the job, that an all-British version would discourage American productions of Shakespeare on television and teach a generation of Americans that Shakespeare is more foreign and less universal than these critics believe him to be. This argument is still going on.
The BBC has tacitly recognized the resistance by withdrawing the completed "Much Ado About Nothing" from the first season's schedule because the accent used in some of the speeches "would be unintelligible to people outside Britain," according to BBC-TV Drama Group head Shaun Sutton (and also because the use of "Much Ado" in the second season will provide a better balance of comedies, histories and tragedies). The scenes with the difficult accents will be reshot. Sutton says that thanks to Hollywood, the British have been accustomed to American accents for years but that the reverse has not been true.
The two other nearly completed plays, "Romeo and Juliet" and "Richard II," have been seen in rough cut versions by several Americans and drew mixed comments. Maynard Mack, the Yale professor who heads a committee that is advising WNET how to use the series for educational purposes, said the "Romeo and Juliet" was "really quite exciting" except for a Mercutio who "almost tosses his words out simultaneously." The rough version of "Richard II," said Mack, "should be considerably shortened" because it allows more time for the full-length soliloquies than is advisable for a general audience.
But both of these at least were deemed fit for eventual American broadcast. Next year Americans can expect to see "Romeo," "Richard II," "As You Like It," "Measure for Measure," "Henry VIII" and "Julius Caesar" (the sequence has not been settled). Macks says that Joseph Papp, the most prominent critic of the American use of the series, "refuses to face the fact that our TV so far simply hasn't succeeded in doing this thing with the same level of skill."
Papp, the boss of the New York Shakespeare Festival and perhaps America's most influential producer, refers to the series as "Bundles From Britain." He indicates doubts that the quality of the series will be very high. But he stresses that his primary argument is not with the British, who would probably do the series even if the United States didn't exist. His beef is with "American public broadcasting, for not trying to find another way."
Papp isn't alone. An AFL-CIO official says that although federal money is no longer being used to produce the plays, he still wishes that the producers were using international talents. To say that only the British can do Shakespeare well, he says, is equivalent to saying only Italians can sing Verdi well.
Louis Scheeder, producer of the Folger Theatre Group in Washington, finds the series "absolutely outrageous" and "an insulting gesture to the American theater." Peter Zeisler, director of the Theater Communications Group, says he abhors chauvinism, but he believes Americans will see "The Shakespeare Plays" only because it's cheap, not because it's the best possible way to present Shakespeare on television. He doesn't think Americans could necessarily do it better, he says, but it would be different, "more vital, with no preconceived notions" if Americans did it. Zeisler stresses, however, that he doesn't object to the series as much as to the fact that "there isn't the funding in America to do it."
Everyone seems to agree that the British can do the series much more inexpensively than the Americans and that the Americans are getting a bargain with "The Shakespeare Plays." The disagreement is in whether this particular bargain is worth the investment and in what its effect might be on Americans.
Cedric Messina "loves" Americans. As he chats with one of them, sitting in a BBC trailer behind Glamis Castle, he is wearing an American bolo tie and cufflinks made from 1906 American nickels. Big and bubbling, Messina keeps one eye on a television screen as he talks, watching th "As You Like It" shooting. If there's one thing he doesn't understand about Americans, it's why some of them have raised a fuss about the series he created and is producing, "The Shakespeare Plays."
His response to Americans who want to do what he's doing: Do it. "When the PBS is properly funded, I hope they'll do the plays of Shakespeare," he says. Or better yet, do "the entire O'Neill canon" for American television, do some of "your marvelous American musicals." In the meantime, it is not his concern if some Americans don't approve of public television's arrangement with BBC.
"The Shakespeare Plays" will be shown in other countries besides America, and Messina says he is concerned with all of his viewers, whether they're in "Perth, Los Angeles, Peking or South Africa."
Messina himself grew up in South Africa, the son of a Welsh mother and an Italian father. He first encountered Shakespeare in readings of "A Mid-summer Night's Dream" at high school and then in the movie with Mickey Rooney. He has never worked in the theater. "I'm a media man," he says, and he has been one for decades in radio and TV, primarily with the BBC.
He thinks televised Shakespeare has some advantages over stage Shakespeare. "You can't see people's expressions in the theater," he says. "On TV, you can watch their brains working." He says that Americans who might have trouble with British accents in theaters will understand the words better when they hear them on TV.
Words make all the difference to Messina. He carefully avoids saying that the British inherently do Shakespeare better than other actors (while nevertheless maintaining that Americans do American plays "infinitely bettter than we do"). But he will go so far as to say that American actors are less likely to do Shakespeare well, and it's because of the words. Shakespeare wrote in verse, says Messina, "and the sound of the words brings forth the meaning of the sentences, enhanced by the accent of the actor."
It's mentioned that some students of speech believe that certain American accents - in the mountains of Kentucky or New England, for example - resemble the speech of Shakespeare's day more closely than current British stage speech does. Messina is not impressed. "The BBC did some Shakespeare with Elizabethan accents once," he recalls. "It drove everybody potty."
His implicit point is not that British stage speech is Elizabethan but that it has developed over the centuries to the point where it fits Shakespeare as no other speech does. And that British actors are trained to speak it as no one else can.
Is there a chance that such a vast outpouring of Shakespeare could discourage other Shakespeare productions - on the stage or screen - for some time to come? Messina says this reflects an attitude that he likes to tease his American friends about: that many Americans go to the theater "for the plot" and lose interest once they learn, say, that Romeo and Juliet die. This , he explains, is why there are fewer revivals in America than in Britain, where it's understood that "different interpretations keep these works going."
All the same, he is not taping these plays for "the metropolitan London theater audience" who frequent revivals.
"These days, the British themselves can hardly afford to go to the theater. I just think all the plays should be available (on tape) as a library, as a reference. A lot of students haven't the capacity to invest the lines fo Shakespeare with characters in the mind. A lot of people can't read plays - that's why they seldom sell well." Messina says his versions will be simple and straight and accessible. The most obscure jokes and references will be cut, but there will be no updating or personalizing.
Most of the plays will be kept to 2 1/2 hours, though "Hamlet" will be longer and "The Comedy of Errors" shorter. Only one play each season will be shot on location. "We're not doing them for experts, and I'm sure a lot of purists won't like the way particular plays are done," says Messina. "But maybe they'll like the one next week."
Many of the actors will be unknown to Americans, though Michael York is in "Much Ado About Nothing," Derek Jacobi ("I, Claudius.") is Richard II, and supporting roles are taken by John Gielgud, Celia Johnson and Cyril Cusack in "Romeo and Juliet" and by Gielgud and Wendy Hiller in "Richard II." Messina hopes Robert Shaw will be his King Lear. Messina says he hasn't ruled out using Americans, but not one has been cast so far. If he had to choose between an all-American cast and a mixed British-American cast, he says he would choose the former. But obviously an all-American cast is a remote possibility in a BBC production. Nevertheless, America, take heart. Messina says "we're not using any Turkish or Martian actors."
It wouldn't be completely accurate to say that Messina has used no Americans in "The Shakespeare Plays." On the day he was making these remarks there was one American serving as an extra with all the Glamis folk, dressed in jerkin and tights and sweating under the Scot sun.
He was Bruce Roberts, a vice president of Morgan Guaranty Trust, one of three American Companies that is providing $1.2 million each for "The Shakespeare Plays" (the others are Exxon and Metropolitan Life Insurance). Roberts happened to be passing through the area and thought he would take a look at what his corporation's dollars were supporting. When he heard that extras were being cast and someone suggested he might like to try it, he said yes, he would.
Roberts was convinced his company has made a sound investment. The rest of America will find out in February.