David Lister: Shakespeare makes great television

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The Independent Online

It's Boxing Day and so you might think it's not a day when you are going to see something wildly innovative and mould-breaking in the arts world. Wrong. Today there is an event so unusual, so radical, so gobsmacking that I'm prepared to call it the biggest arts event of the year. The BBC is putting on a Shakespeare play. And it's doing so on one of its mainstream channels.

Such things are so rare that when I recently asked the corporation when the last Shakespeare was on screen it refused to tell me. Perhaps it was coyness, perhaps sheer embarrassment. It eventually said that there was, in fact, a Shakespeare season in 2005. There wasn't, in fact. There was something called a Shakespeare season. It just happened to lack a single Shakespeare play.

The BBC, and television in general, does not like plays. It has multi-million pound budgets for drama, but one of the little acknowledged linguistic changes of the last couple of decades is how TV chiefs have redefined the word drama to exclude the one genre that for the rest of the population does define the word drama – plays.

As I have lamented before on this page, you can search in vain on the BBC's main channels (and with precious little success even on BBC4) for a glimpse of the classic dramatists, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen or indeed modern dramatists, Pinter, Stoppard, Caryl Churchill. Well, today, that changes – a little. David Tennant's celebrity as TV's Dr Who, aided by his superb performance and Greg Doran's terrific production for the RSC, has persuaded the BBC to put on their production of Hamlet. And there's more. Patrick Stewart's performance in Rupert Goold's Macbeth is also being recreated for the BBC in the coming weeks.

Yes, it's only two plays. But two is more than we have seen on the screen for goodness knows how long. And with the transmission go all the tired old arguments that television controllers have come up with – the audience don't have the patience, you can't really resurrect a stage production, directors of the original don't want it on screen, and all the other excuses for being embarrassed by something they see as offputtingly high culture.

As Tennant and Doran show today, Hamlet can be accessible and spellbinding, a truism to anyone not working in television. But, that's enough negativity. This is the season of goodwill followed by a new year, and with it, let's hope, a new leaf by the BBC. If David Tennant has convinced them that classic drama can make great television, then he will have achieved a feat that is outside even Dr Who's powers.

And who knows, maybe 2010 will bring an array of plays on television. It's the 150th anniversary of Anton Chekhov's birth, and I would expect our national broadcaster to offer the licence fee-payers a substantial taste of his work. And there's an awful lot of other dramatists that should be in the schedules, even without the help of an anniversary or a David Tennant.

It's going to be a tough year for the BBC, arguing for its survival against whichever government is in power. It might actually help it if it can argue that as our national broadcaster it has a place for our national playwright – and playwrights in general.

It's a shame about Ray's bearings

Ray Davies ended his gig in Hammersmith last weekend with the words: "Remember, when I'm gone there won't be another." It wasn't the most modest exit. But after one of the best gigs of the year, it was hard to argue. The former Kinks front man gave a generous three- hour show, starting with an acoustic set followed by a rousing set with a rock band and climaxing with a reinterpretation of Kinks' classics with the Crouch End Festival Chorus.

The idea of using a choir alongside a band for rock music proved so effective, and at times so genuinely moving, that I wondered why it was such a rare occurrence. Davies is one of the greatest English songwriters, yet still curiously underrated. What was strange was that such an accurate chronicler of English and particularly London life should have said at the start of the concert:" It's good to be here even if it is the wrong side of the river." The champion of north London, Muswell Hill born and bred, clearly believes that Hammersmith is south of the Thames. It isn't, Ray. But after a night as good as that, who cares?

Spielberg may find that theatre can trump Hollywood

The National Theatre's immensely popular adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's War Horse is still pulling in the crowds in the West End. And it has "pulled" one very famous fan. Steven Spielberg has said that he is going to make a film of War Horse.

It's no great surprise that this entrancing and poignant First World War tale told through the drama of a boy and his love for his horse (throwing light on the animals that were part of the war's carnage) should appeal to Spielberg. But perhaps he should be a bit careful. What most people were dazzled by in War Horse was the astonishing puppetry, and how lifelike the puppet horses seemed.

Unless this is a very odd film, Spielberg will use real horses or at least computer- generated ones. There will be no puppetry, and therefore none of the wonder that the puppetry produces in audiences. Spielberg might end up reflecting ruefully that theatre has certain advantages over film.