During a summer when the world’s eyes are focused on London for sport, it’s fantastic that the BBC are also turning their attention to its cultural, literary background. They have presented a whole host of programmes dedicated to Shakespeare. He is our most famous Londoner, and one of the world’s most famous Englishman, so it is fitting that the Beeb are giving him the attention he deserves. He is completely synonymous with English literature and drama. He is often people’s lasting memory of it. I’m sure to some people the mere mention of his name draws out a yawn, or evokes bad memories of being stuck in a classroom listening to a stuffy teacher drone on about Richard II. However, I do not fall into this category. As a self-confessed English nerd, I am a Shakespeare fan and always have been, so I have enjoyed the BBC’s selection of programmes as a way to expand my knowledge and be reminded of his brilliance. But, I also think they have given Shakespeare-haters, or even people who felt little towards him, a chance for conversion if they give it the time. A wide variety of adaptations and documentaries have been on, and I think amongst all of this there has been plenty of opportunity for people to begin, or continue, to appreciate the world’s most famous writer: Shakespeare.
The King and the Playwright, presented by American academic James Shapiro, is my favourite of the programmes. It explored Shakespeare’s later plays chronologically, in relation to historical events during the reign of James I. It showed how events, which are integral to British history, are related to the work of Shakespeare. For example, it showed links between Macbeth and the Gunpowder Plot which made for very interesting viewing, as it would have been equally thought-provoking for somebody interested in Jacobean history as it was for someone who was watching with an interest in Shakespeare. If any clips are still available on BBC iplayer, I would highly recommend watching them.
The King and the Playwright was reasonably fast paced, which made it very watchable, whereas Simon Schama’s Shakespeare felt a little slow. Although it was packed with fantastic information, and painted a really good backdrop to understand Shakespeare’s career, it was slightly more trying to watch than Shapiro’s programme. I think that Schama’s Shakespeare was more appropriate for people who are already fans of Shakespeare, so don’t mind the slower pace, whereas The King and the Playwright made entertaining television for any viewer. For this reason I think the Beeb may have benefited in switching the channels they chose to air each programme on. If they had put Shapiro on BBC 2, instead of BBC 4, they would have given viewers with less of an interest in Shakespeare a better opportunity to watch it.
Shakespeare’s Italy with Francesco da Mosta provided viewers with the opportunity to look at Shakespeare from a slightly different angle. Although The Globe’s home, the Southbank, is my favourite place in England, it was good to see one of these programmes having a different, sunnier setting – Italy. Most of the programmes I watched reverted to shots of the Thames from the Southbank from various bridges, or the presenter wandering past The Globe for transitions between sections, but Shakespeare’s Italy provided a welcome change with stunning shots of Italy- particularly Venice. Shakespeare’s Italy was also another series appropriate for Shakespeare novices; it went through the plots of several plays in an easy, entertaining way, and featured Emma Thompson, which provided a different insight.
I think the BBC have been quite brave to fully commit to their Shakespeare season- it ran from March through to July. But, I think it was a good choice. They have provided viewers with the opportunity to fully appreciate Shakespeare for the first time, or to develop their appreciation. During a summer when it is tempting to focus purely on sport, the BBC have bought our cultural, literary heritage to the British public’s attention instead.