Just two Shakespeare plays in five years on BBC television. That makes 100 hours of EastEnders for every hour of Shakespeareby John Morrison / February 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2003 issue of Prospect Magazine
Did you catch that terrific BBC Shakespeare production? No? Don’t worry, there wasn’t one. You will, of course, switch on the next time the BBC does a Shakespeare play? Don’t rush home. It isn’t planning any.
Only two Shakespeare plays have made it to BBC1 or BBC2 in the last five years. Both came originally from the National Theatre: Richard Eyre’s “King Lear” in March 1998, and Trevor Nunn’s “The Merchant of Venice” in December 2001. These were two of the outstanding productions of the past decade. But at this rate, we shall have to wait until 2030 to see Shakespeare’s 12 most popular plays on the small screen, let alone the lesser known works. Put another way, the BBC now shows around 100 hours of “EastEnders” for every hour of Shakespeare.
Yes, the BBC has shown its share of big-screen Shakespeare films in the past five years, such as Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing”. A few months before my five-year cut-off point it showed Deborah Warner’s “Richard II”, starring Fiona Shaw, and a highly original modern “Macbeth”, transposing the Scottish play to a housing estate in Birmingham. BBC4, the new ghetto for arts and culture, has broadcast a pared-down version of “Hamlet” with Adrian Lester in the title role, directed by Peter Brook. But the record over the past five years shows that Channel 4 has done better by the Bard than BBC1 and BBC2 combined.
The problem isn’t lack of money. Since its licence fee increase, the BBC is rolling in it, with ?2.5 billion of viewers’ money coming in last year, of which ?324m was spent on drama. The BBC simply no longer sees producing Shakespeare as part of its remit as a public service television broadcaster. This was made clear by Jane Tranter, BBC television’s controller of drama commissioning, who said in a Radio 4 interview last August: “I don’t at the moment feel I want to go out to someone and say, okay, the “Dream”, how about it? I kind of think there’s enough of that going…