Saturday, August 25, 2012

Shakespeare at the BBC: Prefaces to Shakespeare on Radio 4?

There's been a curious addition to BBC Radio 4's programme database.

During the broadcast period of the BBC Shakespeare series in the late 70s and early eighties, Radio 4 broadcast a series of "Prefaces to Shakespeare" in which well known actors, directors and writers offered introductions to plays.

If that sounds familiar, they were the inspiration for the recent television series, Shakespeare Uncovered, whose original title was to be Prefaces to Shakespeare (and still is on the Amazon listing).

The Hamlet edition of the original radio programme introduced by Derek Jacobi from May 1980 is available to stream at the BBC Archive.

Now, Prefaces to Shakespeare has been added to Radio 4's website, with episode pages added for three of the plays:

Henry V with Robert Hardy (originally broadcast Fri 21 Dec 1979)
King Lear with Tony Church (originally broadcast Sun 19 Sep 1982)
Richard III with Edward Woodward (originally broadcast Sat 22 Jan 1983)

The last one of which has a photograph. Originally I thought that perhaps it was to herald a broadcast on BBC 4 Extra, but there isn't any next on information and only the record of the first and only broadcast.

So either they are soon be broadcast again but the scheduling information hasn't been added yet (which can happen) or this is another occurrence of the BBC website's process of back-filling information from the BBC Genome project (see also the Doctor Who website).

Let's keep our eyes or rather ears peeled ...

02/09/2012  Something definitely is happening.  A 1998/99 series, The Shakespeare Trade has also been added and the Prefaces about Richard III has been assigned a QR code.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Shakespeare at the BBC: Vivat Rex: At a Glance.

Yesterday I completed listening to Vivat Rex and its one of the best drama experiences I've had.  Coincidentally this morning in the post I received the accompanying booklet published in the seventies which has a nice introductions from producer Marin Jenkins and composer Christopher Whelan, a map with notable places, a useful family tree and a synopsis for each of the episodes.

What it doesn't have is a simple list of which plays constitute which episodes so I've produced that list below.

Why is this useful?

The whole of Vivat Rex is available to download on AudioGo at £1.84 an episode.  To buy the whole lot would be £47.84 which is still a bargain but you could understand if someone might want to pick and choose individual plays, especially since as I mentioned the other day, Vivat Rex includes rare dramatisations of Edward IIEdward III, Thomas of Woodstock and Perkin Warbeck albeit in abbreviated versions.

Vivat Rex: At a Glance.

1/26 The King's Favourite
Edward II

2/26 Revenge
Edward II

3/26 Obsession
Edward II / Edward III

4/26 The Black Prince
Edward III / Woodstock

5/26 Treason
Woodstock / Richard II

6/26 King of Snow
Richard II

7/26 Victims
Richard II / Famous Victories of Henry V / Henry IV, pt 1

8/26 Vulgar Company
Henry IV, pt 1

9/26 Rebellion
Henry IV, pt 1 / Henry IV, pt 2

10/26 Corruption
Henry IV, pt 2

11/26 Deception
Henry IV, pt 2

12/26 Tennis Balls
Henry IV, pt 2 / Henry V

13/26 Harfleur
Henry V

14/26 St. Crispin's Day
Henry V

15/26 Joan of Arc
Henry V / Henry VI, pt 1

16/26 The White Rose - And The Red
Henry VI, pt 1

17/26 Witchcraft
Henry VI, pt 1 / Henry VI, pt 2

18/26 Jack Cade
Henry VI, pt 2

19/26 The Paper Crown
Henry VI, pt 2 / Henry VI, pt 3

20/26 Warwick The Kingmaker
Henry VI, pt 3

21/26 The Tower
Henry VI, pt 3 / Richard III

22/26 The Little Princes
Richard III

23/26 Ghosts
Richard III / Perkin Warbeck

24/26 The Pretender
Perkin Warbeck

25/26 Divorce
Henry VIII

26/26 Elizabeth
Henry VIII

Some notes:

The Edward III, Woodstock and Perkin Warbeck are heavily truncated and edited for the elements which reflect most on the Shakespeare/Marlowe portions of the piece.  That said, the Henry VIII though also shorter is coherent in and of itself.  The Famous Victories of Henry V contributes is just one scene.

The episodes are available here.

The above information is on the individual programme pages but I still hope you'll find this at a glance version.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Audio Early Modern Drama: A Proposal.

With some time to spare I'm spending this week listening to Vivat Rex, the twenty-six part BBC Radio series which utilises a range of Early Modern plays, mostly from Shakespeare to offer a chronicle of the English crown from 1307 to 1533, from Edward II to Elizabeth I.

One of its great joys, other than the rather epic cast list, is that it includes within its make up sections of Edward III, Thomas of Woodstock, The Famous Victories of Henry V and John Ford's Perkin Warbeck in what may be their only radio outings, providing useful context to the action within Shakespeare's more famous plays.

Finally we can understand Henry IV's fear that his son Hal, by loafing around with Falstaff is repeating the mistakes of his predecessors Edward II and Richard II (albeit without the homo-erotic subtext of their acolytes) and that Richard's "hollow crown" speech is a near synopsis of the action in Edward III, including the appearance of a "ghost".

Listening to these rarities reminded of a proposal I wrote a few months ago suggesting that an audio or radio company produce a line of full text adaptations of just these kinds of rarely produced early modern dramas so that an interested public might be able to experience the work which was around at the time Shakespeare wrote the dozen or so plays which are constant production.

Disclosure: I did send a version of this to a company but it wasn't something they were really interested in doing which was understandable since its not necessarily a sure fire winner and would need to be planned and executed careful if it's to work as a business proposition.  I wouldn't know where to begin myself even.  It probably needs an existing production infrastructure and some hope.

I know that some people aren't fans of audio but it offers two benefits.  Firstly it's relatively cheap in comparison to video at least in production terms and from an artistic perspective since this would potentially be the only copy of the play available, the idea would be to follow ArkAngel's lead and produce something which emphasises the text.

Anyway, on with the proposal:

Audio Early Modern Drama: A Proposal.


Lesser known plays by William Shakespeare and his contemporaries as audio productions.


William Shakespeare is back in focus this year thanks to the Cultural Olympiad with a season of programmes on the BBC and the World Shakespeare Festival across a number of venues. But he’s largely receiving the lone genius treatment even though he was influenced by earlier playwrights, was part of a thriving theatre community collaborating with others and would go on to influence writers within just a few years.

Writers like John Fletcher, Francis Beaumont, Thomas Middleton, Philip Massinger, John Ford, John Webster and George Chapman were once household names, some of them collaborating with Shakespeare and succeeding him during his retirement and although some of their work is produced its not in the same bulk as Shakespeare and treated as something of a novelty by comparison.

Except that’s also true of some of Shakespeare’s own plays too especially in the late period, which ran rather further than the conclusion of The Tempest suggests. Collaborations which thanks to the latest techniques are becoming considered part of the canon, Sir Thomas More, Edward III, Arden of Faversham and Double Falsehood (or Cardenio) are again not accessibly available to watch or listen to outside of the theatre despite their high curiosity factor.

All which became abundantly clear last year when I was reviewing Arden Shakespeare’s own Early Modern Drama series and found myself unable to source recordings of these plays so that I could experience them in performance rather than simply as scripts. All are filled with extraordinary poetry but none of them can truly be understood or enjoyed without an actor’s intent behind the words and a directorial thought process interpreting the story and themes, especially by laypeople like me.


That these plays be turned into audios on cd or for download, bringing together actors with the high production values.  Advertised correctly these should draw a curious general audience, one which is already eagerly seeking out what material is available in their local theatre. But of course there would be students and academics wanting to access high quality recordings of these plays especially those for which there is either only a single option or none at all.


The scripts are obviously already written. Editorial choices would be in which texts to produce and preparing those scripts. I’m obviously unaware of budgets, but a writer’s fee (since these are four hundred year old plays) could be ploughed into the cost of the pre-recording rehearsal time which must be required

The texts could be those already in circulation through academic publishers, a collaboration which could go as far as branding the releases to tie-in with the books already available allowing for cross promotion, perhaps even utilising the same artwork:

With the plays also being sold through their website and through the audio producers, perhaps even as a set containing cd/download and book.

The trick would be to produce the Shakespearean curiosities along with the other work. An experimental series of four or six to test the market and then on from there. A Shakespeare collaboration, a Marlowe, a Beaumont and Fletcher, perhaps a Webster. A tie-in with Arden for example, would mean these choices are already made.


Of the complete or near-complete Shakespeare works available only the ArkAngel production of The Two Noble Kinsman is already available, but the others listed above are under produced. Of the others, even the better known playwrights, Kit Marlowe or Ben Jonson’s greatest plays, some of them on school curriculums, have no unabridged audio productions available.

There are amateur crowd-sourced productions online if you know where to look, but not professional and not consistent. Shakespeare’s Globe has monthly series of this material called “Read or Dead” but as yet none of it is available outside their library’s archive. Modern productions of this material even on BBC radio is rare (most often the Drama on 3 slot of the kind already downloadable) and usually heavily abridged.


This could become a very exciting series for whichever company accepts the challenge, taking their work into new markets and creating a legacy of material which could have commercial potential for years to come.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Shakespeare references in the Sight & Sound Greatest Films Poll #1

Twelfth Knight Bar in Vertigo. Next door to the Empire Hotel.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Shakespeare's Sonnets.

In the early noughties, television producer and writer Daisy Goodwin presented Essential Poems (To Fall in Love With), a series of programmes to coincide with Valentine's Day in which various verses were presented in the form of mini-dramas with a true galaxy of stars (from Christopher Lee to Julie Delpy with Amanda Holden between) characterising them within a cityscape. Shakespeare’s two contributions were Sonnet 129, in which Greg Wise sighed his way through “the expense of spirit in a waste of shame” slumped on a couch and the outcast state of Sonnet 29 becoming Matthew Macfadyen’s musician’s inability to get solid work from a demo he’s passing around.

Framed by Goodwin popping up in some biographical locations sometimes with family members, the idea was to make the poems accessible to audience brought up on television who might find their existence on the page somewhat intimidating. While it was entertaining in its own way, the obvious set back was that the scenes were often at odds with the poet's original meaning and the readers and actors themselves had various levels of comfort in relation to how they should be speaking the words, contemporary poetry fairing better than most. The best interpretations were undoubtedly when the actor simply broke the forth wall and addressed the viewer forcing us to interpret the words ourselves.

That’s precisely the methodology at play in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the more linear reproduction of the sonnet recordings created for the iPad app produced by Touch Press in association with Illuminations, Arden and Faber. Select “play all” from the menu screen and after Patrick Stewart reads the original title page and acknowledgements, each of the ensuing sonnets is read in turn directly to the viewer by a similar group of actors as the Goodwin project (from Jemma Redgrave to Dominic West with Stephen Fry between). Sonnet after sonnet, face after face appears and the sheer variety of the text and approaches to interpretation even within these limits becomes obvious, especially when Ben Crystal pops up for his original pronunciation of 141.

Shorn of gimmickry, an intimacy is created between actors and viewer which replicates the brief moments in televised plays when a soliloquy has to be addressed to camera. Some performers have a more actorly approach than others, with the younger players often favouring a straight reading over Fiona Shaw or Noma Dumezweni's attempts at providing an emotional context. RSC director John Barton classically utilised sonnets as exercises to help structure the text within performance and it’s certainly the case that actors who’ve been through Stratford provide the clearest readings. But some of the non-professionals are equally impressive, James Shapiro’s Sonnet 138 underpinned by an academic understanding.

Each of the readings is relatively fascinating in and of itself. They beed filmed in a variety of places, in contributors homes and offices, back and on stage at theatres. I imagine director John Wyver and his crew travelling the length and breadth of the country dropping in on the actors depending on their availability and it’d be interesting to know how they were selected. In the main they’re perfectly chosen, some having even appeared in similar sonnet related projects on audio, David Tennant for Naxos’s From Shakespeare With Love (in which he also read “Shall I compare thee …”), Sian Phillips and Fiona Shaw on EMI’s When Love Speaks (different choices).

Watching these sonnets in a three hour block isn’t the best way to consume them and admittedly I didn’t. They were created as part of the app and outside that context they become “just” Shakespeare’s words well read. Perhaps it’s possible for those of us without an iPad to create a low-fi version with this dvd as the cornerstone. The app includes Katherine Duncan-Jones’s notes from the Arden Shakespeare edition which you might have to hand. Fellow contributor Don Patterson has also produced a book on sonnets (and this lengthy article for The Guardian). There are various facsimiles of the 1609 edition of the sonnets at

Apart from added interactivity, about the only element unavailable are the additional interviews with experts and given the dvd is more expensive than the app, it’s a shame room couldn’t have been found for those here. That’s not the only niggle. Each of the actors is given their own biography screen which also lists the sonnets their reading, but there’s no play all for these and after watching one of them the viewer’s kicked back to a list of actors rather than the screen they were working from which means they have to go off and find the actor again to see another of their contributions. There’s a similar problem with the numerical list too, which makes the process of wanting to see a sonnet again quickly less efficient. A subtitle option would have been a useful addition.

Otherwise, the presentation is clear and nicely replicates the design of the app judging by screenshots in the accompany booklet (which also includes the actor profiles from the dvd itself). Once you’re used to navigating the menus there’s a definitely an addictive quality to it, wanting to watch one more sonnet, or the same sonnet again. If nothing else, it’s a way of exploring the less well known poems, most of which are generally ignored the face of the mighty 116, 18, 2 and indeed Goodwin’s choices 129 and 29. Few writers can say that 103, read beautifully here by Kim Cattrall, doesn’t capture the desperation of facing something with near flawless qualities and being infected with an inability to write about it.

Shakespeare's Sonnets is out now.  Review copy supplied.