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Danton's Death (1978)

Danton's Death, adapted from the play of the same name by Georg Büchner, is a one-off drama.  It was produced by the BBC and first broadcast on Sunday 23 April 1978 (BBC1, 8:05-9:35pm), as part of the Play of the Month strand of programmes.


Büchner wrote Danton's Death in 1835, when the French Revolution was still in living memory.  It dramatises some of the political intrigues and bloody events of the revolutionary period in late eighteenth-century France, focusing on the bitter in-fighting between the revolutionaries.  The BBC's version of what the Radio Times described as 'arguably the most dramatic and penetrating study of revolution ever written' is particularly unsettling.  With long shadows and sparse sets, the programme evokes fierce debates, brothels and executions.

Dressed in white, in stark contrast to her gloomy surroundings, Zoë plays Lucille, the loving wife of doomed revolutionary and journalist Camille Desmoulins.  Lucille's husband is a well known friend of one of the leading figures in the Revolution, Georges Danton.  During the play, which explores the period in 1794 when the Reign of Terror became a bloodbath, both men fall foul of perhaps the most controversial politician of the Revolution, Robespierre, and his ally, Saint-Just.

Danton disagrees with Robespierre and Saint-Just, leaders of the extremists, about how the Revolution should proceed.  He hopes for an end to the terrible bloodshed and excessively repressive measures imposed on French society.  Danton and his supporters, including Desmoulins, are seen as a threat to Robespierre's power: they are condemned to death.

Her husband's impending demise severely traumatises Lucille; when visiting Desmoulins in prison, she is clearly being driven out of her mind.  With her husband looking on in stunned silence, Lucille rambles one moment and sings the next.  Finally, she runs away from the prison.

The troubled woman delivers two moving speeches to camera - one before her husband's arrest, the other afterwards - giving viewers a clear insight into the emotional turmoil endured by the couple.  (Shortly after the programme was broadcast, The Stage praised its 'stillness, which allowed the characters to speak their long speeches direct to the camera without any fidgeting or distractions').  In the second of these monologues, Lucille is surrounded by a series of arches that cast long shadows, resembling prison bars, across her path; while she has not been imprisoned with her husband, she is evidently the prisoner of her disordered mind.

Lucille discusses her belief that if she closes her eyes and screams, all of the commotion in the world will cease.  Having put this belief to the test, she opens her eyes - and, of course, finds that the world is in as terrible a state as before.  Lucille's misery is unrelenting.


Georges Danton ... Norman Rodway
Robespierre ... Ian Richardson
Saint-Just ... Michael Pennington
Camille Desmoulins ... Anthony Higgins
Lucille Desmoulins ... Zoë Wanamaker
Mercier ... Don Henderson
Lacroix ... James Aubrey
Collot d'Herbois ... Jonathan Adams
Fouqier-Tinville ... John Woodnutt
Billaud-Varennes ... Michael Cronin
Hérault-Séchelles ... Shane Briant
Barère ... Roger Sloman
Julie ... Katherine Fahey
Rosalie ... Carol Harrison
Marion ... Emma Williams
Eugenie ... Mandy Woodward
Herman ... Seymour Matthews
Legendre ... Michael Hughes
Narrator ... Nigel Lambert


Adaptors: Alan Clarke and Stuart Griffiths
Director: Alan Clarke
Producer: David E. Jones
Set Designer: Stuart Walker
Sound Designer: Brian Hiles
Lighting Designer: Dennis Channon
Costume Designer: Michael Burdle
Make-up Artist: Pauline Cox


The role of Lucille exemplifies the high calibre of the parts that Zoë - whose TV career began in the early 1970s with relatively small parts alongside some leading roles - was being offered towards the end of the decade.  By the time Danton's Death was broadcast, Zoe had received considerable critical acclaim for her acting in both comedy and drama, and was clearly a rising star.  She has continued to enhance her reputation ever since.

Zoë was seen twice on TV during April 1978, as Danton's Death was broadcast a few weeks after an adaptation of a very different play, comedy The Beaux' Stratagem.

Press coverage

The Stage described Danton's Death as 'a deeply felt production'.

Having praised the leading male performers, Ian Richardson and Norman Rodway, The Times added that 'Of the women, only Zoe Wanamaker seemed in the same class' as them.


Unfortunately, Danton's Death is not available on DVD or in any other format.

Related links

Anthony Higgins' Gallery: Danton's Death description and photos

BFI Film & TV database: Danton's Death programme details

Wikipedia: Lucile Desmoulins biography

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