The BBC is to give young children an early introduction to Shakespeare with excerpts from plays including Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest in the schedule of its pre-school channel CBeebies.
The initiative will culminate later this year with a CBeebies interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, filmed at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool and starring the channel’s best-known presenter, Justin Fletcher, as Bottom, and his side-kick Steve Kynman as Shakespeare.
The channel’s controller, Kay Benbow, said that the CBeebies audience, aged six and under, could benefit from hearing the words of the Bard. “We are introducing the language,” she said. “Nobody is going to be saying, ‘We want five-year-olds to be quoting Shakespeare.’ I just want them to hear the language, understand the stories and just get a sense of it.”
The excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays will be performed in sign language as part of the poetry-based programme Magic Hands. Other plays featured include Twelfth Night and As You Like It. “Shakespeare is meant to be performed; it’s much harder sitting reading it in the classrooms. If you see it performed, it brings it to life even if you don’t understand every single word,” said Ms Benbow.
She is determined to give young children greater exposure to the arts. On Easter Monday, CBeebies will be screening Tortoise & the Hare, made in association with Northern Ballet. A production of The Nutcracker, made with the same company, is planned for Christmas.
The controller said that some primary schools – but “not everybody” – offered children the chance to perform at events including Nativity plays. “Being part of a team that puts on a show is incredibly positive and empowering,” she said.
During six years as controller, Ms Benbow has attempted to look beyond the narrow definition of “children’s programming” and turn CBeebies into a “multi-genre channel” that incorporates drama, factual and entertainment shows. Family drama Topsy and Tim was its best performing show last year, while an adaptation of the Katie Morag books has won it two Baftas.
Among public service broadcasters, the BBC is fighting a lone rearguard action in continuing to make children’s television. But even here, the genre has become big business. Almost all the big shows generate significant revenue from merchandising.
In the case of Go Jetters, made with the broadcaster’s commercial arm BBC Worldwide, the revenue from merchandising comes back to the organisation. “An awful lot of our shows do have a commercial aspect,” said Ms Benbow. “But I’m still fortunate enough to have decent budgets so I can commission purely based on content. I haven’t got to think about the range of merchandise.”
The BBC faces a challenge from Sky this month when the broadcaster launches its Sky Kids app, offering a wide range of shows in an advertising-free environment. Ms Benbow says she welcomes competition and that she is convinced that her channel’s output will remain distinctive.
The CBeebies observational documentary Time for School – filmed in primary schools – was intended as a primer for young viewers about to join Year One, and their parents. “We have a dual audience on CBeebies and you need to have their trust and faith,” said Ms Benbow. “The parents are the gatekeepers and want the best for their children.”
She is equally mindful of the need for more “overt learning” shows and has commissioned a new numeracy-based show Numberblocks. CBeebies secured a coup by hiring Maggie Aderin-Pocock to present its Stargazing science series. In January, the astronaut Tim Peake sent Stargazing viewers a message from the International Space Station.
“Social media went into meltdown as parents and children alike were besides themselves,” said Ms Benbow. “You can make something entertaining, but still have the curriculum in there.”
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