David Lister: Shakespeare makes great television

Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: When is a baroness not a baroness? Titles still cause confusion

Guy Keleny

CPAC 2015: What I learnt from the US — and what the US could learn from Ukip

Nigel Farage
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?