Launching the Shakespeare season on the BBC

Monday 2 April 2012, 17:18

Mark Bell Mark Bell Commissioning Editor, Arts

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Editor's note - The forthcoming Shakespeare Unlocked season on the BBC forms part of the London 2012 Festival and Cultural Olympiad.

In this blog interview, Commissioning Editor, Arts, Mark Bell highlights some of the programmes that form part of the season and what he hopes viewers and listeners will get out of it.

Why Shakespeare now?

Around the country there is an amazing festival of Shakespeare related activity - the RSC, The Globe and many theatres are mounting productions.

The BBC is broadcasting four film originations, notably the four history plays that cover the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V and a film adaptation of the new RSC production of Julius Caesar to join in those celebrations.

The BBC has also made some factual output across TV, radio and online to add context in the hope of adding to the audience's appreciation of Shakespeare's skill as a writer.

Filming Henry V on location

Filming Henry V on location

It's been 400 years since Shakespeare was writing and we wanted to explore what makes his work stand out. Why does everyone still know about him after all this time? Many of his tales are about universal human preoccupations - love, death, power, corruption. Many of us know something at least about his plays but he does have a reputation for being hard work and difficult to understand.

We hope that with greater understanding of the history and of how his plays work, then people will get more out of it. We want this season to bring Shakespeare alive to a modern audience and celebrate his work.

What are you hoping the season will achieve?

I'm hoping it will show people just how rewarding Shakespeare can be. Yes the language is tough but it's well worth sticking with it. I wanted the season to explore the historical context in which Shakespeare was writing and also celebrate his language and try and understand what made him just so incredibly good at capturing all it means to be human.

James Shapiro presents The King and the Playwright: A Jacobean History

James Shapiro presents The King and the Playwright: A Jacobean History

We're kicking off the season this April with a look at the historical context in which Shakespeare was writing. We want to bring his times alive and explore why he told the stories he did. On BBC Four, historian James Shapiro examines the second half of Shakespeare's career - the dark and turbulent times during which he wrote some of his most powerful plays (The King and the Playwright: A Jacobean History) . Meanwhile, on BBC Two Francesco da Mosto visits some of the spectacular locations in Italy that fired Shakespeare's imagination (Shakespeare in Italy, BBC Two).

I also wanted to look at how the language Shakespeare used works and what makes it so special. Many children study Shakespeare's texts in school. When you hear the words aloud the sense is more immediately evident - it really helps bring Shakespeare alive. Off by Heart is a competition for secondary school children that opens up the language of Shakespeare to a new and younger audience. I was there for the final and it was deeply moving to see young people putting new life into Shakespeare's language with such understanding and passion.

Off By Heart

Later on in June, Simon Schama argues that it is impossible to understand how Shakespeare came to belong "to all time", without understanding just how much he was a product of the time he was writing (Shakespeare and Us, BBC Two). And you can't do much better than have Oscar-winning Director Sam Mendes at the helm in four new adaptations of Shakespeare's history plays.

You've worked with the RSC and the British Museum. What do you think these partnerships have brought to the season?

These partnerships have proved to be incredibly fertile. Bringing Shakespeare to the screen is very different to a stage adaptation and I think we've really learnt from each other.

The RSC have brought their depth of understanding of Shakespeare and, through their actors, have made the language come alive visually for a modern audience. Shakespeare Unlocked, the online digital resource we've produced together with BBC Learning, will be a great legacy for the future.

When it comes to the British Museum, we have of course already worked with Neil McGregor on his History of the World series. It's been great to build on the success of that series with Neil bringing his incredible insight and knowledge to the season by exploring some of the objects from the turbulent period during which Shakespeare was writing (Shakespeare's Restless World, BBC Radio 4).

What these partnerships give us is great expertise, access to different and often deeper knowledge of the subject and a new perspective. And it gives us the chance to encourage our audience to go and visit an exhibition or a see a play on stage. The combined force of a single season like this is greater than the sum of its parts and very exciting.

RSC Artistic Director Michael Boyd talks about the partnership between the RSC and BBC.

Julius Caesar offers to take an innovative approach to bringing the live experience to viewers. How do you aim to do this?

Julius Caesar is one of the plays that feels most politically relevant, particularly if you think about what events in Libya over the last year or what has been happening in Mali now. I think it's a really innovative and brave idea to set a modern Julius Caesar in an African state and will create something very fresh and thought provoking for viewers. With the RSC taking such a radical approach it seemed only right that we try and do something just as experimental in the way that we bring the performance to the screen.

The production team have found an amazing disused shopping centre in North London and are busy turning this into the set for our African state. We're filming some of the scenes there and combining them with footage from one of the stage performances. I'm very excited about this new way of bringing theatre to television and I hope it will really energise viewers and bring the performance alive for them.

What do you hope viewers will get out of the Shakespeare season?

I hope that they'll think we've stayed true to Shakespeare and that we've conveyed some sense of the real wonder of his language and ideas - there's a reason why Shakespeare continues to be the world's greatest playwright nearly 400 years after his death.

The BBC has an opportunity to reach a really broad audience and I hope that by the end of the season we'll have gone some way to explaining why it is that the themes and ideas that Shakespeare explored resonate now just as clearly as they did when he first wrote his plays.

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