The Beggar's Opera Review

The early eighties proved a productive time for Jonathan Miller’s television output. The start of the decade had seen the BBC turn their attentions to Shakespeare resulting in individuals adaptations of each of his dramatic works. Miller was responsible for eleven of them between 1981 and 1982, and in 1984 once again worked for the Corporation resulting in The Beggar’s Opera, an all-star production of John Gay’s 1728 play. Its arrival on disc also marks an equally productive time for his output on DVD as DD Video set about systematically releasing the Shakespeare plays thereby adding to the classic sixties ventures - Alice in Wonderland and Whistle and I’ll Come to You - and a number of his opera works.

Being both an opera and a work for television, The Beggar’s Opera should see Miller at the top of game and indulging his two great loves. Certainly, there’s huge amount of respect for his source, here undiluted and accompanied by period perfect instrumentation during the musical passages. Yet coming from the eighteenth century, such reverence does reproduce itself as immediacy. The groundbreaking qualities of Gay’s original - its anti-authoritarian stance, its introduction of highwaymen and whores into the high art of Italian opera formats - cannot be denied, but understandably they are groundbreaking no more (though the latter element does perhaps give it a kinship with Jerry Springer the Opera). Indeed, The Beggar’s Opera in the early eighties is an anachronism, an artefact from another time.

To a degree, it is understandable as to why Miller would make such choices. The moments in which the cast break into song, for example, do not seem as incongruous as they could in other contexts, yet these remain minor concessions. Whereas his previous forays into M.R. James, Carroll and Shakespeare territories produced timeless pieces of television, The Beggar’s Opera only provokes interest courtesy of its details. The art direction - even when captured on videotape - is superb and inviting, whilst the initially curious casting of Roger Daltrey unexpectedly pays off and brings some glamour to the part of Macheath.

No matter how good these component elements, however, The Beggar’s Opera still prevents of from becoming fully involved. Though not filmed theatre in the strictest sense (there is no audience leaving the camera to roam where it will), Miller never allows us to progress from merely watching what is occurring on-screen. As such it’s a strikingly cold production - which only serves to emphasise its antiquity - meaning that fans of Gay will be better served by Peter Brook’s 1953 adaptation for the big screen or G.W. Pabst’s 1931 take on Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, itself derived from Gay’s original, both of which are also available on disc.

The Disc

Shot on videotape The Beggar’s Opera looks as good as could be expected on disc. Certainly, there’s an orange glow courtesy of the lighting design, but this is solely the result of its original recording and nothing to do with the disc’s manufacture. Otherwise, the image remains as crisp as possible and the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 is adhered. As for the soundtrack, the DD2.0 mix is surprisingly clean and clear; the studio hum and echo can be easily discerned during the quieter scenes. With regards to extras, The Beggar’s Opera sadly only offers detailed biographies for Gay, Miller and the leading cast members.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 09:07:07

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