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  • Marlowe and McKellen on screen:The Prospect Theatre Company Production of Edward II 1969–70
  • James Wallace

In the summer of 1970, BBC2 broadcast a color recording of Prospect Theatre’s production of Edward II. Directed for the stage by Toby Robertson and for the screen by Robertson and Richard Marquand, this television transmission is significant on several counts. It is the earliest complete screen version of Christopher Marlowe’s play to survive, it featured the first gay male kiss on English (but not British) television (as well as the second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth), and—which makes it of more than mere historical interest—it records Ian McKellen as Edward at the moment he burst into stardom. The qualities of McKellen’s performance were first recognized at the Edinburgh International Festival in the summer of 1969, when he played the part in repertory with Richard II, and when the plays began an autumn tour at the Mermaid Theatre in London the praise continued. “Nothing like this unrestrained recognition of a great actor had been seen in Britain since Gielgud’s Richard of Bordeaux in the 1930s,” declared The Sunday Times’s Harold Hobson of the reaction in Edinburgh. This article details the background to the television recording of the production, identifies the earliest recording of any of Marlowe’s plays, and reflects in personal terms on the achievements of McKellen’s central performance and the staging’s “language of kisses.”

Edward II on screen, 1906–1969

The Prospect Theatre staging and the BBC broadcast are the focus of at least two previous extended critical discussions. Within a detailed consideration of the play’s political drama and its interaction with the love story between Edward and Gaveston, David Fuller argues that the [End Page 595] production circumstances of the original staging, which are considered further below, “meant that attention was focused on love and sexuality, and deflected from politics” (91). Pascale Aebischer reviews the core corpus of Marlowe feature films and considers the relationships between Derek Jarman’s Edward II (1991) and the 1970 Prospect recording, both in its original moment and at the time of its release on DVD in 2009. Neither exploration notes, however, that there had been an earlier television production of Edward II. In 1947, producer Stephen Harrison mounted the play for a live transmission from a studio at Alexandra Palace between 8.30 and 10.15pm on 30 October (Radio Times).1 The presentation was given again as a live reprise, with the actors repeating their performances, at 3pm the following day. As with all of the drama output from before 1953, this production was not recorded. The settings were basic, with the disparate locations of the play suggested by elements of furniture and “Penumbrascope” projected shadows on screens. Several surviving publicity stills show the effect, as well as the manner in which the poor image resolution of early television technology required actors to stay close to each other in the center of the camera’s limited field of vision. One of these stills is reproduced below (Fig. 1), and shows Philip Leaver as Lightborn alongside a reclining David Markham as Edward II, presumably from the climactic moment of the assassination in scene 24.

Two other screen curios constitute the only surviving screen traces in Britain of Edward II that predate the Prospect production. Both feature extracts from the play rather than offering a full production. The first, while not exactly unknown, appears to have gone unremarked in editions of the play and critical studies of Marlowe in general, and so although it only consists of roughly a minute of shaky silent footage, it is worth detailing what is seemingly the earliest surviving film adaptation of Edward II, of any play by Christopher Marlowe, and almost certainly of any text by Shakespeare’s contemporaries. In 1906, the Charles Urban Trading Company shot 1,526 feet (which run for approximately 17 minutes) of silent black-and-white film of The Warwick Pageant. This was captured during the three-hour long dress rehearsal of the event. The BFI National Archive has no viewing copy of this but it does hold master preservation material, and two reels...


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