Last Night's viewing: The King and the Playwright: a Jacobean History, BBC4 Scott & Bailey, ITV1

 

In Jacobean London, a city of just 200,000 people, there were eight theatres. By my calculation (a phrase that, it might be worth saying, is not an unimpeachable guarantee of mathematical accuracy), that would mean that we'd need more than 300 theatres today to match them, in per capita terms, for the eagerness of their theatre-going. Some qualifications are necessary, though. They obviously couldn't stay in and watch Scott & Bailey instead of heading off to the Globe for Shakespeare's latest. And if they wanted a commentary on contemporary events they couldn't turn to Newsnight. The players were, as Hamlet said but James Shapiro did not, "the abstracts and brief chronicles of the time". What James Shapiro did say in The King and the Playwright: a Jacobean History, the first of his series on the Shakespeare of James I's reign, was this: "Forgive the prop. It's visual shorthand for news." He waved the newspaper he'd been discovered reading at the camera, as if mildly testy at the theatricals to which the modern scholar-presenter has to submit himself.

The point he was making was much the same anyway. The stage could be a kind of op-ed column by other means, heavily coded, naturally, since the price of offending the powerful could be far more substantial than a blistering post in the below-the-line comments. You could have your nostrils slashed and your ears cut off, or find yourself in jail, as Ben Jonson did after unwisely giving voice to widespread anti-Scots prejudice in his play Eastward Hoe. And Shapiro's main business here is to map Shakespeare's late plays on to the politics and the tensions of the Jacobean period, much as he did for Elizabeth I in his bestselling book 1599.

First to get the treatment was Measure for Measure, not the first Shakespeare play to be presented before the new king (he glutted himself with plays during the Christmas of 1603) but probably the first to be written in his reign. James, his biographer told Shapiro, hated crowds and was awkward with people, a man far happier in a library or on a hunting field than playing the part of a king. Or, as the Duke puts it, "I love the people but do not like to stage me to their eyes." What's more, Measure for Measure addresses the very issues of good (practical) governance versus good (pious) governance that were preoccupying James at the start of his reign. Roxana Silbert, director of a recent RSC production of the play that provided illustration for The King and the Playwright, obligingly supplied a contemporary television analogy: "It's not a million miles away from Undercover Boss."

You might jib at that, but a million miles gives you a fair amount of leeway, I suppose. And as the film continued you felt the gap between particular plays and their notional references did need a more generous measure of proximity. Timon of Athens, we were told, alluded to James's problems with profligacy and debt, while King Lear offered a refracted vision of the anxieties generated by King James's vision of political union and tacitly rebuked a king who had "kept perpetual Christmas". "Only Shakespeare could have been so bold," Shapiro said, a phrase that sat a little oddly with his earlier suggestion that Shakespeare was far too canny an operator ever to take the risk of directly offending the powers that be. By the sound of it, Ben Jonson was a lot bolder.

If police dramas are the "abstracts and brief chronicles" of our times then it seems we're very worried about postcode gangs and baby-mothers, at the heart of last night's Scott & Bailey. Or rather, not really at its heart, since the crimes in this series are always subsidiary to the emotional entanglements. In last night's episode, the case was concluded so brusquely that it was as if someone had suddenly noticed the clock and thought, "Blimey, is that the time! Less gossip, more action".

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