Something wicked this way comes

Rapping witches, soliloquies from soap stars, Mark Lamarr as Jacques - the Bard is getting a makeover from BBC3. Sarah Shannon reports
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The Independent Culture

"All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players..." Ah, good old Shakespeare. Men in tights and extravagant ruffs, the gentle strumming of lutes and a thespian projecting his lines to the back of the stalls.

"All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players..." Ah, good old Shakespeare. Men in tights and extravagant ruffs, the gentle strumming of lutes and a thespian projecting his lines to the back of the stalls.

But hang on a hey nonny-nonny-mo. The man on my TV screen doing Jacques's famous "seven ages of man" speech is no classically trained act- or. It's that bloke Mark Lamarr off Never Mind the Buzz-cocks. He's sitting in a greasy-spoon café and, far from adopting thrilling thespy tones, he talks to the viewers in a conversational London accent, much as he does on his irreverent BBC2 music quiz.

Lamarr's appearance is as part of a bold BBC3 experiment to make Shakespeare appealing to the cash-rich, time-poor younger TV viewer. The rather cringingly titled series, From Bard to Verse, shows Lamarr and others reciting excerpts from Shakespeare - soliloquies, sonnets and dialogues. These are performed solo, with the television camera as their sparring partner. The episodes (each lasts a palatable 15 minutes) feature a cast of names more naturally associated with TV entertainment and comedy - among them the former Emmerdale actor Lisa Riley, the impressionists Ronni Ancona and Alistair McGowan, the multitalented Meera Syal, Little Britain's David Walliams, and Charlie Brooks, the evil Janine from EastEnders. In between their efforts, groovy tunes and psychedelic graphics remind us that this is Shakespeare for the MTV generation.

The controller of BBC3, Stuart Murphy, commissioned the programme from Henry Normal and Steve Coogan's production company Baby Cow, which is usually associated with offbeat comedies such as Nighty Night and Marion and Geoff. "We decided to make it a challenge to take the most difficult subject possible and to trick people into enjoying it," Murphy says. "People associate Shakespeare with nightmare school-lessons and boring English teachers. We wanted to bring the romance and excitement of Shakespeare to people who thought they hated him."

The way to do this, they decided, was to put familiar TV faces in familiar settings such as a park, a cinema and a classroom. This non-threatening approach aims to achieve one thing - to encourage Shakespeare-phobes to stick with the unfamiliar language, and even learn to enjoy it.

"'Accessible' was the word that became our mantra," says the director, Neil MacLennan. "Shakespeare's a genius, but it is dense, convoluted writing that takes getting your head around. We wanted it delivered in as normal a way as possible. There's no need for that proclamatory style that actors often use for Shakespeare. We've got lenses and microphones: they haven't got to reach people in the back row."

Anthony Head is familiar to younger viewers as the librarian in the hit US series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He agreed to perform in the show (even though Baby Cow admits it couldn't come within a mile of his usual Hollywood rates) largely because he wanted the chance to experiment with Shakespeare. Head finds that American actors treat the playwright with kid gloves because they're terrified of getting him wrong. He points out that even a brilliant actor such as Al Pacino put on a "Shakespearean voice" when playing Richard III in the film Looking for Richard.

"There's definitely a preciousness about the way people think Shakespeare should be performed. There's an old school that thinks we must stick with iambic pentameter. Personally, I think you're better off making sense of the lines and allowing the verse to come through," Head says.

To add to From Bard to Verse's modern feel, the actors were not dressed in costumes of any kind - they performed their pieces to camera in the clothes they turned up in on the day. Probably the most experimental part of the project comes when three young theatre performers - Delroy Atkinson, Ashley Campbell and Oliver Mason - do hip-hop renditions of episodes such as the three witches in Macbeth's "Double, double toil and trouble" scene. MacLennan says: "I was worried that it would be like guys in their forties trying to get down with the young people, but we were blown away by the results. People today are more familiar with rap than with lutes, so why not use it?"

Murphy admits to being nervous about how a bunch of TV entertainers would cope with the Bard. "It was more like an intellectual experiment to see if the idea could be sustained, but I was surprised at how good they were," he says.

The Royle Family's Ralf Little was one of their number. Normal had worked with the actor on the groundbreaking sitcom, but he concedes he had thought of Little as "a loud-mouthed scally". However, "when I saw him doing his pieces, word perfect and brilliantly prepared, I thought, 'My God, he's an incredible actor.'"

Some of the performers were classically trained but had long since given up on Shakespeare. Others had no training at all. The young actor Joe McFadden opens the series with a beautiful rendition of sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"). McFadden says: "Shakespeare's the one everyone's a bit scared of. If it's not done well, it can wash straight over you. It's terrifying when you're not trained."

The last time Little came close to doing Shakespeare was when he won the part of Puck in his sixth-form play. Then, a role in The Royle Family came up, and he had to desert Shakespeare for the sitcom. "My teacher said, 'Are you sure about this? If you want to be an actor, you're better off doing some Shakespeare.'" Luckily, he ignored the advice. "I think the purists will hate From Bard to Verse," Little says. "It's a few soap stars and some untrained fella from a sitcom doing their best. I don't care a bit what they think. Shakespeare was writing for the masses, not some classically educated bunch of clever people."

Some sceptical viewers might question the actors' motives. Isn't this a great way for populist actors to show off their "serious" credentials? Little says he would like to try the challenge of a Shakespearean role, and indeed From Bard to Verse is the start of more heavyweight work - he plans a summer stint in Billy Liar on the West End stage. Anthony Head also confesses that he'd love to do more Shakespeare.

Whatever their motives, the programme hangs together as more than just a showcase for entertainers' Shakespearean talents. "I hope you'd watch this and it would give you the taste to see a longer piece of Shakespeare. It's like a sampler album for a band," Normal says.

MacLennan adds that the extracts were selected to showcase the talents of one person only: Shakespeare. "You realise that he ran the gamut of every emotion. He could do suicidal or drunk or horny or jealous. Those human emotions haven't changed one bit since he wrote the passages."

But if Shakespeare is so marvellous, why not show him off by committing to a full play? And isn't BBC3 patronising its viewers by saying that they can handle the Bard only in bite-sized chunks? "I wouldn't see it like that at all," Normal says. "We make about 10 hours of television a year at Baby Cow, so we try to make the things that interest us and that we'd watch ourselves."

Stuart Murphy confesses to some concern that the project might come across as patronising. "But I'm realistic about the time pressure that people in their twenties and thirties are under. As much as we'd like to convince ourselves that we're going to make it along to the National to watch Twelfth Night, it's not going to happen. Most of us have kids and mortgages and long working hours that get in the way."

However, Murphy does plan a full-length Shakespeare in the near future, a project that would normally be the domain of his highbrow colleagues at BBC4. You get the feeling that his channel's interpretation of Shakespeare would be rather different. He's already rejected various "modern" ideas, including setting a Shakespeare play in a Glasgow council estate. Instead, he wants a "normal middle-class setting that most people will feel at home with".

Murphy has discovered that more intellectually rigorous work plays well on his channel, even though its reputation is for offbeat comedy and wacky entertainment coverage. A series of science programmes called Body Hits rated as highly on BBC3 as the acclaimed comedy Little Britain. "When we launched, I never thought these would be the things people talked about. But I think there's a yearning for programmes like From Bard to Verse. People want to know more.

"Nowadays, culture is disposable. People cannibalise ideas so quickly that we get through them at a rate of knots. I think there's something exciting about showing things that were written 400 years ago but which still resonate now."

It only remains to be seen whether the series can live up to the high hopes of its creators. If it proves a success, a transfer to BBC2 would be on the cards. Neil MacLennan is optimistic: "In the Globe, Shakespeare had to compete with bear-baiting on one side and prostitutes on the other. And we think that multichannel television is a competitive world?"

'From Bard to Verse' is on nightly, 5-8 April, at 7.15pm (repeated 6-9 April, 3.50am) on BBC3

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