Review: TV: THOMAS SUTCLIFFE

Most intriguing of all, was the woman who suggested that the readiest equivalent we have for Shakespeare's Chorus is Kate Adie

Within the first 10 seconds of Conjuring Shakespeare (BBC2) you have a pretty good idea of where it is coming from: you hear the rich tones of Sir Larry declaiming "O for a muse of fire", then there's a quick burst of Frankie Goes To Hollywood singing "War, what is it good for?" and then James Cameron starts to reflect on the damnable ironies of battle. All this is over archive footage of a night-time artillery barrage. The style is instantly recognisable as Open University demotic - a form of address which is one part instruction to two parts reassurance (honestly, it isn't going to be dull and boring). For similar reasons, the academics who talked in the programme about Shakespeare's Henry V did so in locations that were as far away from a book-lined study as could be achieved; one stood in front of a large tank in the Imperial War Museum while another shared his knowledge of 16th-century conscription and training while a group of Royal Marine commandos tackled an assault course in the background. (He should be grateful, I suppose, that the producer didn't make him abseil down a cliff.) Such scenes, and the use of pop music, figure as ritual sacrifices to the god Relevance, whose holy name is almost always invoked when television tries to persuade viewers that something more venerable than itself might be worthy of attention.

This determined sprightliness couldn't quite disguise the fact that Simon Eliot's programme was less a thematic essay than an selection of illustrated footnotes, attached to the text at fairly random points. They were pretty good footnotes though. Even if you already knew that Olivier's film of Henry V had been part of the war effort, it was interesting to learn that some of the extras in the battle scenes were American GIs, preparing for their own invasion of France. That intersection between life and art was matched by a far more ancient one - the revelation that one of the hazards of theatre-going in Shakespeare's day was the possibility that you might be forcibly conscripted to act out what you had just seen performed - on one day, 4,000 men were rounded up from London theatres and forced into service. Most intriguing of all, though, was the woman who suggested that the readiest equivalent we have for Shakespeare's Chorus (a persistent embarrassment in later productions) is Kate Adie - a flak-jacketed figure who turns up now and then to update the audience on the unfolding drama of war. (In his recent film of Romeo and Juliet, Baz Luhrmann made the same leap of association, depicting his chorus as a television anchor person - and it was startling to see how well Shakespeare's lines sustained the synthetically urgent cadences of broadcast news.)

Coronation Street (ITV) is unlikely to need similar kinds of explication in 400 years' time because in 400 years' time, Coronation Street will probably still be on - the Rover's Return might have been redecorated (there could even be a sub-plot about the removal of the juke box that has just been installed) and there will be new tenants at the Cabin - selling internet browsers and chocolate eclairs. But the same dependable engines will still be turning the dramatic carousel - betrayal, romance and disputed paternity swinging round and round with a mesmerising regularity. If you haven't watched for some time, though, it does take a little while to get used to the dramatic conventions again, the strangest of which is the way that people have intimate conversations in public or discuss third parties only a few feet away from the characters they're talking about - a suspension of realism that is a kind of soapy equivalent of the dramatic aside. The revelation of Fiona's pregnancy has been the occasion for some mildly comic business about the gossipy prurience of the older women. But you don't really need to be prurient or inquisitive to find out about people's affairs in this imagined world - you just need to be conscious and sooner or later they will spill it all out in front of you.

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