IF THE English are still People of the Book, then, in terms of international influence, that volume is probably no longer the Bible, but Shakespeare’s First Folio: the unique source of many of his best-loved plays, which inspire and speak directly to every culture in the world.
BBC2 is celebrating the 400th anniversary of its publication with the three-part series Shakespeare: Rise of a genius, which began last week (Wednesday). This programme was a lavish affair, with dramatic reconstructions of life in Tudor/Stuart England; a stunning array of leading thespians, jostling with academics and scholars to share their insights; and a range of clips from famous stage, cinema, and TV productions.
It claimed that we knew very little of the man’s biography, that he was poorly educated, and that the plays provided immediate keys to his life story and responses to the political and social upheavals of the day. Surely, all these assumptions were highly questionable. They cooked up an indigestible banquet of speculation and must-have-feltery, which mostly imposed the emotional reactions of our own times on a world quite different from ours.
The view that the programme took of the creative artist was Romantic and Freudian, ignoring the much older reality of the journeyman creator whose work could have a quite startling (to us) separation from the tragedies of his immediate personal life. It contained some really good things, but they needed to be sifted out from plenty of 21st-century guff.
The realities of power and authority are rightly celebrated as among Shakespeare’s vital themes: he would have recognised many of the gorgeous accoutrements displayed in the coverage of the The State Opening Of Parliament (BBC1, Tuesday of last week). It followed the currently established pattern of a presenter’s commenting on the unfolding event while discussing its details and implications with a group of experts. In the classic televising of state occasions, the commentator was an expert, and other voices were quite superfluous. Today’s mantle fell on Nicky Campbell, who took this process of democratisation rather too far.
The BBC is desperate to prove its descent from Olympian heights: now, we’re all just ordinary people, and no one claims to know more than anyone else. Yet, better explication is needed for our extraordinary system: ultimate authority held by a hereditary monarch, supported by medieval splendours of pomp and circumstance, reading a formal speech whose legislative programme will, the moment the pageantry ends, be scrapped over in a bear-pit of elected politicians who wield the decision-making power.
In Stacey Dooley: Inside the undertakers (BBC1, Thursday of last week), the presenter experienced (briefly) the actualities of funerals, corpses, and embalming. The most impressive sequence concerned the obsequies of Afro-Caribbean Christians, singing joyful hymns as they all filled in the grave.