The Weekend's Viewing: Off by Heart Shakespeare, Sat, BBC2 Episodes, Fri, BBC2


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The Independent Culture

Here are the rules. Nine young finalists from something like 2,000 original entrants memorise and perform a short speech from Shakespeare in front of an RSC audience.

The best three then deliver Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy and one of them wins a trophy. And here are the fears that such a proposal might generate: we don't really want to watch children doing Shakespeare because thespian precocity can be really creepy, and we certainly don't want to watch the judges mulling over their performances because they're going to be too tender-hearted to tell it like it is. Neither fear turned out to be justified in Off by Heart Shakespeare, a film that, while appearing to candy-coat the pill of literary genius in a popular talent-show format, got closer to the heart of the poet's art than some of the notionally more scholarly programmes that have preceded it in the the BBC's Shakespeare's season.

The task for the competitors, the voiceover suggested, was "like going from go-cart racing to Formula One in one step". Hardly surprisingly several of them spun-off. One of the inadvertent revelations of the film was the way in which the big night and the big space tugged almost all of the performers over the top, their rehearsals often being more persuasive and more nuanced than what they eventually did in front of an audience. But the quality was remarkably high even so and to their credit the judges – Imogen Stubbs, Simon Schama and Samuel West – found a way to reconcile kindness with candour about where performances fell short.

The besetting sin – and one that you can see almost any night on a professional stage – was semaphore acting, the hands being used to wildly signal the stress and meaning of a line. "If you shut your eyes it's a better performance," said Sam West of a performer whose speaking of the verse was good enough not to require the signing for the deaf with which she accompanied it. The other common vice (again not exclusive to these young amateurs) was the confusion of intensity with volume, the instinct to tear a passion to tatters. But alongside that there were genuinely revealing moments, both in the performances and the preparatory work.

It came down to a competition between analytical intelligence and emotional expression in the end, the former exemplified by Nuha, an unnervingly assured Muslim girl whose father had taught himself English by reading Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, and the latter by James, a boy from a Leeds council estate who absolutely nailed the St Crispin's Day speech. And Nuha eventually won, after daringly leaping the hurdle of the most famous lines in Shakespeare by throwing them away as if they were a joke. But anyone watching won as well: it was touching, instructive and the best of Shakespeare's birthday presents yet.

Imogen Stubbs talked of mid-line pauses as "nerve-wracking" for an actor. That might be true in Shakespeare, but they can be a lot of fun for a comedy actor, offering a space where the performer isn't obliged to share the credit for a laugh with the writer. There were two good examples in this week's Episodes, in which Steven Mangan plays one half of a sitcom-writing team. The first was one of his specialities as an actor – the facial expression of a wrestling match between baser instincts and finer ones, played out here when he's offered a free sports car by the Hollywood star who broke up his marriage. The second came from Daisy Haggard, who played an irretrievably dim American executive giving notes after a script run-through. The line wasn't bad – "Page 18?... will anyone know who Rudyard Kipling is?" – but it was the long pause as she tried to work out how to respond to a counter-argument that was really funny. As Episodes can be, incidentally, when it doesn't get carried away with self-reference.