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The Marlowe Inquest


The Daily Telegraph, 4th September 1986


The scene is a mock-up courtroom somewhere in Television Centre, gaunt and gloomy like something out of Kafka. The witnesses, all actors, wear ruffs and speak in measured Elizabethan periods. Their interlocutors are modern, real life barristers minus wigs. The total effect is unexpectedly impressive, and not a little chilling.


This was the second of the BBC’s reconstructed inquiries into the deaths of famous historical figures. Mozart last week (the lodger did it), Marlowe last night. Did he really die in a tavern brawl at Deptford? Was he murdered on orders from the Star Chamber, because he knew too much? Was he really spirited away by powerful friends, most probably his patron and lover, Thomas Walsingham, leaving an anonymous corpse to be buried in his name?


Mozart I found a little less than compelling, probably because 18th-century wigs and hothouse artistic rivalries become eventually tedious. ‘The Marlowe Inquest’ (BBC2) was dark, glittering, and savage, like the Elizabethan age itself. The darkest moment came with the appearance of John Savident as Lord Chancellor Sir John Puckering, explaining the proceedings and penalties available to the Star Chamber. They included hand amputation, and sending unsatisfactory witnesses to the galley. “And the rack?” “Oh, yes. But that was quite normal.”


Limping in Puckering’s wake, one of the victims, Thomas Kyd (otherwise Michael Pennington), author of ‘The Spanish Tragedy’, was asked about his subsequent writing career. “A man who has been on the rack,” returned Kyd softly and terribly, “is scarcely able to write his own name thereafter.”


‘The Marlowe Inquest’ left you with a vivid understanding of why the Elizabethan theatre dealt so bloodily in death and betrayal. So potent was the atmosphere that the fate of Marlowe – accused, with fine impartiality, of both atheism and Papistry – seemed almost secondary. Not, however, to the jury, who plumped by 35 votes for murder, with 33 for escape and a mere 11 for accidental death. It was hard to believe from the ringing authority of John Woodvine, and the feline menace of John Savident that actors (Shakespeareans, surely) were all improvising. They had clearly laboured many hours over their homework: for this view it was worth every moment.



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