emily watsonProduction has begun in London on BBC Two/Starz drama The Dresser. Richard Eyre is directing the adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s classic portrait of theater life backstage. Teaming for the first time on screen, Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins star. The two-hour TV movie has also now added Emily Watson, Happy Valley‘s Sarah Lancashire and Edward Fox — who appeared in the 1983 Oscar-nominated Peter Yates version of The Dresser that starred Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay. An airdate is to be set for later this year.

sarah lancashireColin Callender’s Playground Entertainment and Sonia Friedman Productions are producing the story of one fateful night in a small regional theater during World War II as a troupe of touring actors stage a production of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Bombs are falling, sirens are wailing, the curtain is up in an hour, but the actor/manager “Sir” who is playing Lear is nowhere to be seen. His dresser “Norman” must scramble to keep the production alive — will Sir turn up in time and, if he does, will he be able to perform that night? The production is working off of Harwood’s original text and presents the play as it was written for the stage.

Callender says, “There is a long rich tradition of British television honoring the text of the great British play and presenting audiences with virtuoso renditions of them on the screen as the playwright originally wrote them. The single drama is an endangered species in both film and television and this production is a harking back to the great days of Play for Today and testament to the commitment of the BBC and Starz to bring quality drama to the screen. It is also testament to the enduring power of Ronald Harwood’s glorious writing that we have been able to bring together such a wonderful creative team from the worlds of film, television and the theater.”

(Coincidentally, both Hopkins and McKellen have played Lear to great acclaim on stage and Eyre directed an award-winning production of the Shakespeare play with Ian Holm in 1997.)

Also in the Dresser cast are Vanessa Kirby (Jupiter Ascending), Tom Brooke (Sherlock), John Ashton (Call The Midwife), Ian Conningham (Poldark), Annalisa Rossi (Miranda), Helen Bradbury (The Paradise), Carl Sanderson, Matthew Cottle (Citizen Khan) and Martin Chamberlain (Lewis).

Callender is producing for Playground with Friedman for Sonia Friedman Productions. Polly Hill, BBC Head of Independent Drama, and Ben Stephenson, Controller BBC Drama Commissioning, are exec producers. The BBC announced the project ahead of the holidays in late 2014 and Starz partnered with its frequent collaborator in January.

Starz retains all U.S. multi-platform pay-TV rights as well as worldwide multi-platform distribution rights. The BBC has UK television rights.