It ain't Shakespeare without the language

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The Independent Online

I recently encountered Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC, at the opera. This was no surprise. The new DG is a very cultivated man and a regular operagoer. I hope that this might bode well for the future of the cultural side of the BBC's programming.

I recently encountered Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC, at the opera. This was no surprise. The new DG is a very cultivated man and a regular operagoer. I hope that this might bode well for the future of the cultural side of the BBC's programming.

The arts, and quality drama, did not fare particularly well under Greg Dyke, a fact that was overlooked in the eulogies to him after his resignation. "It's the programmes, stupid!" Dyke was wont to say when explaining the proper place for funding to go within the corporation. Yet, arts and quality drama never seemed to be top priority.

However, my hopes of a new dawn under Mark Thompson, in particular a new dawn for classic plays on the BBC, took a knock this week. It was reported that the corporation is considering updating some of Shakespeare's works and broadcasting them, or rather the broad story outlines, with modern language and in modern settings. In other words, they won't be Shakespeare at all.

I blame the governors. The governors, in the BBC annual report, singled out for praise an adaptation of Chaucer's The Wife of Bath. Bold, brassy and with a class act in Julie Walters, it was raunchy fun. But it bore no relation to Chaucer. It was a modern-day tale of a lusty matron in modern language. But what a gift the governors' praise was for BBC programme makers. They can kid themselves that they were giving the viewers Chaucer. Could there be any better definition of public service and educational broadcasting?

And now, to salve their consciences over the lamentable fact that the nation's public service broadcaster never puts on a play by the national playwright, they can do the same with Shakespeare.

Great fun can no doubt be had with a bloodthirsty, power-mad despot, an old man who falls out with his kids, a young aristocrat who drives a pretty girlfriend to madness and suicide before killing his uncle. But they won't be Macbeth, King Lear or Hamlet. It is the verse and the imagery that make these dramas poetic, lyrical, moving, unforgettable. That much should be obvious. Why is the BBC so fearful that viewers will not stand for two hours of Shakespeare on screen - or come to that, Ibsen, Chekhov or any other classic dramatist?

The corporation is, I fear, about to embark on an updating which might satisfy the governors, but continue to leave viewers culturally undernourished. This planned set of tales from Shakespeare will not be Shakespeare for one very transparent reason. As Greg Dyke might have said, "It's the language, stupid!"

Gay whales against racism revisited

A small but perfectly formed exhibition opened at the British Museum this week. It was a display of the wide-ranging collection of badges the museum has built up. There are all the usual suspects: badges of political campaigns, sexual politics, national or ethnic identity, and, of course, the "badges are not enough" badge. It was good to be reminded of the badge that satirised every slogan going, the "Gay Whales Against Racism" badge, and the badge that comfortingly showed that politically incorrect movements can't spell - the "National League For Opposing Woman (sic) Suffrage."

The arts over the centuries have provided precious little for badge wearers. I suspect that in the era of anti-nuclear slogans on badges, the warning "VAT on Books is Dangerous" will have cut little ice. But, the exhibition does remind us that one of the most potent political badges (and slogans) of the Eighties, "Gis a Job", came from Alan Bleasdale's 1982 play Boys from the Black Stuff (pictured). There's another reminder to the BBC of the lasting power of quality drama.

¿ It's the 50th anniversary of Simon and Garfunkel meeting at the age of 11. It's a point Art Garfunkel has been stressing at the pair's reunion concerts. Paul Simon has been stressing that that made it the 48th anniversary of when they started arguing. The evening I attended, there was an unintentionally entertaining moment, when a crowd of people moved to the front and started dancing. The security men pushed them back, arguing that they were blocking the view of the £100 seats. There's the story of rock'n'roll. When bands start up, their fans spontaneously dance; in their middle years they beg the audience to get up and dance; towards the end, the few fans that manage to dance are shooed out of the way of the top-price seats.

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