The Bootleg Files: Hamlet

BOOTLEG FILES 839: “Hamlet” (1970 made-for-television film starring Richard Chamberlain).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: There might be a rights issue delaying its release.


In March 1969, Richard Chamberlain traveled to England to play the leading role in a stage production of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” His appearance was heralded as the first time that an American played the role in England since John Barrymore in 1925.

Chamberlain’s appearance was not at a West End venue in London or with the Royal Shakespeare Company, but with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, a major regional dramatic company. His star power in England was considerable – his television series “Dr. Kildare” was broadcast on British television and he gained praise for his role in the BBC mini-series “Portrait of a Lady” – and based on that his “Hamlet” was a major commercial success, with the theater selling out within a week of tickets going on sale.

Buoyed by the success of this endeavor, Chamberlain decided to adapt “Hamlet” into a 1970 television film. He formed Chamberlain-LeMaire Productions with producer George LeMaire and arranged for this work to be broadcast in Britain as part of “ITV Saturday Night Theatre” and in the U.S. as part of “Hallmark Hall of Fame.”

However, there were two problems that needed to be overcome. First, a theatrical film release of “Hamlet” starring Nichol Williamson came out in 1969 and bombed at the box office – whereas audiences embraced the romantic 1968 “Romeo and Juliet,” they stayed away from this considerably darker and moodier work. Then, there was the decision to telescope “Hamlet” into a tight 90-minute running time to fit the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” format – for “ITV Saturday Night Theatre,” an extra 15 minutes was allocated, which was slightly generous considering the full theatrical production could run up to four hours.

To ensure its pedigree, this “Hamlet” brought in a few major dramatic talents – John Gielgud appeared as The Ghost, Michael Redgrave was Polonius and Margaret Leighton was Gertrude. The production updated the setting to the Regency era, thus allowing for more frilly clothing than the Shakespearean era could provide. And the young men in the cast all wore then-contemporary “mod” haircuts, in order to appeal to the youth market.

In the end, “Hamlet” didn’t click, but it is an interesting failure. Much of the problem was due to the reason for the offering – Chamberlain never truly inhabits the difficult role of the doomed Danish prince. I have no clue how he handled the part on stage, but here he is playing to last row of the balcony rather than the camera. His performance never finds its center – he bellows Shakespeare’s text in a declamatory manner but his eyes remain in an unblinking stare that fail to register with the words he is saying. Chamberlain’s Hamlet could have been coached by Jon Lovitz’s Master Thespian – he’s ACTING, and you always know he is acting, but it is a two-dimensional creation. His Hamlet makes it easy to recall another tragic Shakespeare figure’s pronouncement of being full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.

In comparison, most of the British cast wear their roles like an old shoe. Gielgud, looking ridiculous in chalk-white make-up and costuming as The Ghost, nonetheless possesses a vocal majesty that compensates for the comic element of his appearance. Redgrave’s Polonious captures the unctuous nature of the character in a too-ease manner. The one problem comes with then-newcomer Ciaran Madden’s Ophelia, who never quite taps the character’s emotional fragility – her breakdown after Hamlet’s violent rejection seems more petulant than pathetic.

This “Hamlet” was clearly made on a low budget and director Peter Wood tries to hide this shortcoming by mostly framing his actors in close-ups and midframe shots. But while this could have created an intimacy absent from previous filmed versions of “Hamlet,” instead it magnifies the problems with the production, especially with Chamberlain’s interpretation. The hack-chop text editing that cuts out more than half of the play doesn’t help, resulting in a frenetically-paced “Hamlet-Lite.” And for American viewers, the interruptions by commercials only served to dilute the presentation’s attempt at creating a certain vibe.

Still, “Hamlet” had its fans when it first came out. It received 13 Emmy nominations including Outstanding Single Program and won five awards, although Chamberlain’s work was snubbed. When it played on British television, it caught the fancy of a young Kenneth Branagh, who later acknowledged that it fueled his aspirations to become an actor – he would make his own “Hamlet” in 1996 with an all-star cast. And an LP record of the cast reciting the Shakespearean dialogue became a popular spoken-word recording.

To date, “Hamlet” has not been made available in any commercial U.S. home entertainment format. I assume there are problems clearing the rights to this production. This is a shame, because despite its imperfections “Hamlet” was a worthy attempt at creating a small-screen Shakespeare. A not-great copy can be found in an unauthorized YouTube posting, for those curious to see how this adaptation played out.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to Phil Hall’s award-winning podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud and his radio show “Nutmeg Chatter” on WAPJ-FM in Torrington, Connecticut, with a new episode every Sunday. His new book “100 Years of Wall Street Crooks” is now in release through Bicep Books.