It is hard to believe but in 1978, ATV, a constituent part of the ITV network, was willing to commission a six part, 300 minute long biography of William Shakespeare with The Rocky Horror Show's Tim Curry starring as the man from Stratford. They asked John Mortimer to write the script and, in an effort to attain authenticity, he has largely downplayed the kind of sensationalism that would be required to persuade TV producers to take up such a project three decades on.
The first episode is as much about Ian McShane's Kit Marlowe as it is the nominal lead, following the Kentish playwright's drunken, libidinous path to an early death. At the opening, Shakespeare was still tending horses outside the theatre, while Marlowe was writing Tamburlaine the Great and Dr Faustus.
It is cheering to believe that the more experienced man would mentor his rival, which ultimately makes Marlowe's early death following his involvement in espionage that much greater a tragedy.
The second episode, Alms for Oblivion, tries to bring together a louche Earl of Southampton (Nicolas Clay), the devastation wrought by the plague and the development of Richard III.
The halfway point is reached at the end of Of Comfort and Despair. This pleasurable 50 minutes is a precursor to Sir Tom Stoppard's Shakespeare in Love, featuring the boyish Lady Fleminge (Janet Spencer-Turner).
This lovely aristocrat is a combination of Juliet, the Dark Lady of the sonnets and Twelfth Night's Viola, seducing the great man thus ensuring that both he and viewers might all too easily forget that the Bard has a wife and family back in Stratford. If nothing else, this winds up the really rather unpleasant and not wholly believable Southampton, and in doing so creates the kind of melodramatic plotting that Shakespeare would never have stooped to.
In The Loved Boy, Shakespeare, now surprisingly supercilious and arrogant, makes a short visit home to Stratford where he does little but argue with the almost forgotten Anne. This shrewish wife gives him a parting gift, their silent son Hamnet played by the cherubic Joshua White. The youngster accompanies his father to the fleshpots of London where he is able to share a little in the life of a successful writer and theatrical entrepreneur. Once he finds his voice, the custard-loving boy becomes not only the writer's muse but also self-appointed moral guardian to his father during a period when A Midsummer Night's Dream was written and put into production.
The venerable Patience Collier, almost 80 at the time, plays the virgin Queen Elizabeth in Rebellion's Masterpiece, torn between the ministrations and vying affections of the Earl of Essex and Lord Cecil.
The sixth and final film shows the passage from Elizabethan to Jacobean England with Bill Paterson playing a very jokey James I and VI. Of more interest to those of a literary bent is John Mortimer's theory as to how the sonnets got published during Shakespeare's lifetime and the damage that they wrought on his relationships with his two great loves, the Earl of Southampton and Anne Hathaway.
One of the games that one inevitably plays when watching DVDs from the past is spotting youngsters who go on to greater fame. This series is no exception, with amongst others Roger Lloyd Pack long before Only Fools and Horses; a particularly fine Ron Cook, who ironically made the switch from the boy playing Lady Anne in this series to Richard III in the BBC's complete sequence; and the current star of Spring Awakening, Richard Cordery.
At times, this vision of Will Shakespeare seems to have more in common with the modern lawyer-playwright than the 400 year old version with the sensibilities quite often as 1970s as the hairstyles. Even so, for those who know nothing about the life of the Bard (although it could be argued that with so little information available nobody does), it will provide good measures of education and entertainment. The more knowledgeable will inevitably find this a good opportunity to take a fresh look at William Shakespeare's life and if nothing else, phone and the series will engender many nods of approbation but also quite possibly a number of raging disagreements.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher