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Reviewed by:
  • Shaw at 150: The BBC on DVD
  • Peter Gahan (bio)
The Bernard Shaw Collection. BBC Warner DVD, 16 May 2006. 670 minutes. $59.98. Aspect ratio 1:33 (full frame), color, NTSC (Region 1: U.S. and Canada). Ten plays on six discs—The Millionairess (1972), The Apple Cart (1972), Mrs Warren's Profession (1972), Pygmalion (1973), You Never Can Tell (1977), Heartbreak House (1977), The Man of Destiny (1981), Androcles and the Lion (1984), The Devil's Disciple (1987), and Arms and the Man (1989)—plus "bonus programs": "The Wit and World of George Bernard Shaw," narrated [End Page 222] by Christopher Plummer; "George Bernard Shaw Lived Here: Bernard Levin at Ayot St. Lawrence"; and audio excerpts of "George Bernard Shaw Talks"—"Sixth Form" and "British Drama League."

This DVD collection is a product of the Golden Age of the BBC drama department during the 1970s and 1980s, a time when good actors and large budgets were available for TV drama, with production values that placed a premium on fidelity to texts. In these Shaw productions, as a result, the actors are handsomely costumed; and the sets are attentively dressed with the detail Shaw calls for (e.g., the dentist's room for Act I of You Never Can Tell) and suitable to the period of the play and to the novelistic feel of the early plays in particular. Some fairly unpleasant TV studio lighting and ghastly seventies haircuts are a small price to pay for the set's many virtues. Though the entire span of Shaw's playwriting career is represented by the ten plays on six DVDs (well over half as much again as the advertised 672 minutes), there are significant gaps among the choices. We have Pygmalion and Heartbreak House from among the greats, but there is no Man and Superman, Major Barbara, or Saint Joan or even such television-friendly plays as The Doctor's Dilemma or In Good King Charles's Golden Days—originally conceived as an educational television play.

The DVD is, in some ways, an ideal format for reproduction of Shaw's plays. Video cannot provide the "presence," the present tense, of live theater, but it does bring the viewer closer both to the actors and to Shaw's famous dialogue. Strangely for a comic playwright, he voiced antipathy to the interruptions of audience laughter and clapping, and these video productions allow us to enjoy the flow of the dialogue without pause. Shaw had definite and somewhat controversial ideas on filming plays, which meant, basically, sticking to his text without inserting scenes of car chases, fisticuffs, gun fights, or sex scenes for spurious "movie" reasons. And films by historically important directors Carl Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman, working within the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth-century Scandinavian tradition of theatrical realism, have demonstrated Shaw's prescience. Still, as an admirer of silent film artists like Chaplin and Eisenstein, Shaw did not mean that all films should be made according to this prescription but, rather, that films of plays should; he was happy to provide extra scenes, when necessary, for the screenplays he wrote himself. In a Shaw movie, although the dialogue is the action as much as in a theater production, different directors have different ways of shooting the text. In this collection, for instance, the director of You Never Can Tell shot and cut in sympathy with the ebb and flow of the text while admirably observing Shaw's stage directions; the director of The Man of Destiny, not so technically fluent, nevertheless produced a sensitive production of one of Shaw's cleverest [End Page 223] and most beautiful plays. The notes below follow the order of viewing of each of the plays.

The Man of Destiny presents us with the ideal actor to play the young Napoleon: the young Simon Callow. Callow looks the part and catches the cut and thrust—as well as mellower moments—of his duel with the Strange Lady very well indeed. The only lack in his performance comes in Napoleon's great final "aria" on the English, where Callow misses the rhetorical shift of gear required for the delivery of the long speech. The revelation...


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