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 on in the cinema. And you can get your Shakespeare in the theatre. Television has other jobs to do.” I cannot imagine the BBC’s head of music telling people who like Mozart to push off and listen to him at the Royal Festival Hall. And for all their professed populism, BBC executives seem to inhabit a rarefied world where we all live within easy reach of a theatre and can afford to drop in to watch a bit of Shakespeare when we choose. All subsidised theatres are making big efforts to attract new audiences, but there are still millions who find the ticket prices beyond their means, or cannot get out for other reasons. The BBC bristles at accusations of “dumbing down,” pointing to its adaptations of Trollope, Eliot and Austen as evidence of a commitment to quality popular drama. The schedulers can indeed look beyond the ratings when they choose, serving up the occasional opera, ballet or Prom concert on BBC2. But the odd thing is that everywhere except on television Shakespeare is thriving. At the Globe on the South Bank, Mark Rylance’s innovative company produced a funny and touching all-male “Twelfth Night” last summer. The Royal Shakespeare Company, despite its problems, has recorded a string of critical successes over the past two years, including “Hamlet”, “Much Ado About Nothing” and a resounding cycle of history plays. Shakespeare also flourishes in Hollywood movies, in regional theatres and on BBC radio, which is broadcasting 17 of his plays over a four-year cycle. Of course, the days when a director could simply film a live performance in the theatre are long gone. The big subsidised companies are not banging on the BBC’s door to offer co-productions, and Rylance is very reluctant to allow cameras into his magic arena on the South Bank. Adapting stage productions for the small screen is an artistic challenge. But the real problem is that while the BBC’s drama output has expanded, its definition of “writer-led” drama has become so narrow that it no longer includes Shakespeare at all. In music, the BBC can claim to be at the centre of British cultural life. In drama, that is not the case. Theatre, the one art form for which Britain is world famous, has disappeared into a black hole, somewhere between drama, arts, education and what one recent policy document described in BBC-speak as “in-house cross-genre projects.” Were the BBC just a commercial broadcaster, its neglect of Shakespeare might be acceptable. But the BBC is different from other broadcasters, as it never ceases to remind us. Whenever its funding and status is under threat the language changes. Postmodernism and cultural relativism fly out of the window and we are back in the world of Lord Reith and Huw Wheldon, with his slogan about “making the good popular and the popular good.” As recently as 1999, when it was campaigning for a rise in the licence fee, the BBC boasted of its role as “cultural patron” in bringing Shakespeare to a wider audience. This was the argument it used: “The BBC has sought to make the arts accessible to all and to act as a civilising force. On average today 55 per cent of the adult population watch or listen to at least one BBC arts and music programme each week. The average play on Radio 4 is listened to by an audience larger than the equivalent of a two-year run in the west end; and more people watched Shakespeare’s “Henry VI” when the BBC screened it than had seen it in the previous three centuries.” The BBC got its increased licence fee and the fine words about Shakespeare were forgotten.