Media: Television lacks the right Will: With much fanfare, the BBC is launching a two-month Shakespeare season. David Lister deplores the absence of the actual plays

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The Independent Online
HAS ANYONE noticed something missing in the much vaunted, two-month Shakespeare season, which starts on BBC2 next Sunday? In what the BBC terms 'the most comprehensive Shakespeare season ever seen on television' there is exactly one Shakespeare play - a new production of Measure For Measure. For the most comprehensive season ever, that has to be an astonishing statistic.

The season is indeed extremely wide-ranging. It has documentaries, animations, short films, workshops, special events, even a Bardbrain of Britain quiz. Nice season, shame about the plays.

But, let's not be unfair, there are also two feature films - Laurence Olivier's Henry V and the Mel Gibson Hamlet. In all, three works from the whole canon.

So here's a question for the Bardbrain of Britain. What did Shakespeare actually do for a living? Playwright? Correct. Would you like a supplementary? Why is the BBC so scared of putting his plays on television?

For behind the most comprehensive Shakespeare season ever is the fact that the BBC is guilty of a bewildering neglect of Britain's national playwright. Measure For Measure is the only Shakespeare production this season in a drama department that has spent a budget of pounds 200m.

Yet that's an improvement on the last few years. Since 27 April 1985 when it transmitted Titus Andronicus, the last of the BBC Television Shakespeares, the corporation has not produced a single Shakespeare play - the Disneyesque animated tales being the only offerings in recent years.

The BBC's own 1992 mission statement, 'Extending Choice' (designed to deliver the corporation a new charter), said that the BBC should be 'the National Theatre of the Airwaves' and ensure a 'coherent and planned output of classic plays, which over time will provide every viewer and listener with access to theatrical works of the great dramatists of our culture, from Shakespeare and Jonson to Shaw and Osborne'.

Ironically, part of the reason lies in those BBC Television Shakespeares, the corporation's filming of every single Shakespeare play, which started in 1979. They must bear some responsibility for the BBC neglect that followed. The project has cast a long, and mostly unwelcome, shadow over the relationship between television and Shakespeare. The productions were by and large pretty unmemorable and failed to grip or even attract a new audience. The BBC now knows they were too often second-rate and never repeats them. But, having completed them, it was clearly loath to shoot any more productions. So a generation has grown up without seeing Shakespeare on the box.

Kim Evans, BBC head of music and arts, who is presiding over the Bard On The Box season, seems to agree: 'Probably in the last 10 years it has been neglected,' she says. 'There have been some good productions from outside the BBC, Trevor Nunn's Macbeth and Othello (in fact these are the sum of the productions in the last nine years), but the BBC had such a glorious history of putting the plays on TV, it had to draw a breath.'

It has, though, been an unconscionably long breath. And it is an irony that the BBC does not seem to grasp that in its publicity material for the new season it cites the considerable public and political interest in Shakespeare at the present, quoting Prince Charles' recent statement that Shakespeare is every child's national birthright and the fact that he is the only compulsory author in the national curriculum. But the majority of children studying him as part of the national curriculum will not be regular theatregoers; many will never set foot inside a theatre. They all, though, watch television. Yet another reason for the BBC to put on the plays.

Kim Evans says it was time to reverse the balance: in the past the BBC put on the plays but never anything about Shakespeare. 'But this is the one thing television can do. Theatre always gives us the plays,' she says. 'TV can give the background to the plays, the context in which they are being performed now. You say why aren't there more plays. You could equally say why aren't there more documentaries about who our national playwright is. So for the next generation we wanted to look at Shakespeare in a different way. Not just the plays, but to look at them in context and, in a sense, test the claim that Shakespeare is our most popular playwright.'

But one can't help but feel that, in addition to wanting to give the context and background to the plays, there is another agenda, another reason for what really is a staggering neglected opportunity. And at length it emerges, first from Roly Keating, the season co- ordinator, who says: 'If you give the plays cold, people will feel they are being force-fed.'

This is interesting language. BBC executives do not use the phrase 'force-fed' about EastEnders or a detective series. Why use it about Shakespeare?

Kim Evans adds: 'If we had said, 'here are six full-length productions', people would have said, 'here's the BBC telling us what's good for us'. Instead of saying, 'we're doing this, it's good for you', we're saying, 'here's your chance to engage and ask questions'.'

This does indeed happen in the new season, most notably when the English Shakespeare Company director Michael Bogdanov spends three weeks on the Ladywood estate in Birmingham, involving a deprived community in Shakespeare. For fascinating experiments like that, Kim Evans deserves considerable praise.

But her fear of 'telling people what's good for them' and of 'force-feeding' is important. Shakespeare is difficult, but supremely rewarding. He is also on the national curriculum, and the BBC has a duty to put on productions. It also has a duty, unfashionable as it seems to sound, to lead, to be unafraid of mounting acknowledged classics, of which there are precious few in the head of drama Charles Denton's pounds 200m season. If viewers were able to view and enjoy Shakespeare in the Sixties and Seventies (in 1963 there was a nine-part cycle of Shakespeare's Roman plays), why is it that they will apparently run away screaming in the Nineties? They won't; but it demands that the BBC has the courage of its convictions and puts on the plays.

Having said that, how should they do it? The BBC Shakespeares can find few champions, and as there is nothing worse than Shakespeare done badly, the BBC should make use of the wonderful resource available, the classically trained players of the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre, and film some of their productions. It should also show more often acknowledged cinematic masterpieces such as Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, Olivier's Richard III, Branagh's Henry V, etc.

Enthusiasm in the theatre for televising Shakespeare is not always forthcoming. Carole Winter, former education officer with the English Shakespeare Company and now a West End producer, says: 'I would suggest a moratorium on Shakespeare on TV until the technology is in place to give an integrated multi-media package; live performance in the theatre backed up by CD-Rom where kids can fashion their own designs and costumes on computer.'

Adrian Noble, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, does want to see Shakespeare on television, but fears the difficulties.

'It tends to be done so badly,' he says. 'The BBC Shakespeares were awful. The tragedy is they are still seen in Hicksville, Ohio, and kids watch it and get depressed.'

Noble believes theatre productions should be used as a bridge. TV producers should come in to see the relationship between actors and audience, then try to re-create what they have seen in a studio.

Certainly television is at present making no use of this fantastic resource. Whereas in the mid Sixties a seminal production such as Peter Hall's Wars of the Roses did come to BBC television, productions of the past 20 years, including Noble's The Plantagenets, Trevor Nunn's musical of The Comedy of Errors, Bill Alexander's The Merry Wives of Windsor set in the 1950s, and countless other hugely acclaimed theatrical events have disappeared without any record.

When Middlemarch won both acclaim and a huge audience, Michael Jackson, controller of BBC2, acknowledged that programme- makers had misjudged their audience for years in believing there was no desire for the traditional classic serials.

I fear that in five years' time he will acknowledge that they have also misjudged their audience in believing that there is no desire for well performed, well directed Shakespeare plays. If the BBC were to start believing it could be a banquet rather than force-feeding, it would be a healthy start.

(Photograph omitted)