wed 24/04/2024

Simon Schama's Shakespeare, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Simon Schama's Shakespeare, BBC Two

Simon Schama's Shakespeare, BBC Two

Sturdy historical analysis of the Bard framed by some hackneyed visual tropes

Simon Schama: 'getting awful grand'

With every new series, as he edges closer and closer to Dimbleby-ian National Treasure status, Simon Schama’s archly mannered drawl becomes more and more pronounced, his camp asides more central to his on screen persona. He is getting awful grand. And he now apparently “owns” our greatest dramaturge. Way to go.

In the first of this two part series Schama engaged with that well trodden theory, of Shakespeare as the very definition of Englishness, of our language, our history and of our way of looking at ourselves. Tick, tick, tick. Falstaff as the archetypal Englishman, humourous, canny, whimsical and all over the shop? Tick. Strolling through a Victorian graveyard, that increasingly portly Roger Allam gave us some of the drunken old rogue’s edited highlights.

Fortunately Schama’s historical analysis was a lot more sturdy than the imagery

Schama’s point is that before Shakespeare came to “belong to all time”, he was very much “of his time”. Cue mash-up imagery across the centuries: a roast hog rotating upon a spit; random youngsters quaffing pints of lager in heritage London pubs; a lot of slo-mo shots of commuters scurrying across bridges over the Thames; medieval country churches as cycled to by John Major's imagined spinsters.

So far, so déjà vu. Likewise, you just knew that when he began to describe the Peasant’s revolt leader Jack Cade, from Henry VI, that we were going to see a skinhead in a hoodie with attitude and an East London accent tramping through a trashed up office before cracking open a can of Tennent’s. Tick, tick, tick, tick. Shakespeare didn’t just talk about kings and queens, we learned, but the common people as well (cue shots of 1970s sink estates).

Fortunately Schama’s historical analysis was a lot more sturdy than the imagery; the protean forces unleashed by the Reformation, from the emergence of the Virgin Queen to replace the Virgin Mary, and the Protestant reliance on “the Word” and “the Meaning” as opposed to “the Spectacle” and the “Mystery” of the previous Catholic settlement were a very good time for an ambitious young playwright to be working in. Especially as the essentially Catholic drama of the itinerant medieval Morality Plays – played by amateurs from the Guilds - were in the process of being replaced by the largely amoral, bawdy proto-capitalism of the first theatres for whom Shakespeare lost no time in catering for.

David Edgar, Michael Boyd, Simon Russell Beale and Harriet Walter were wheeled on to make some fairly conventional points about the language, the cultural context and the cultural revolution that Shakespeare appears to surf so effortlessly, and there was a fair amount of gratuitous gesticulation. It was written as well as presented by Schama, and directed by Ashley Gething. In next week’s episode, Schama looks at Kingship. Hopefully his thoughts will be accompanied by some less hackneyed visual tropes that, unlike the Bard’s plays, do not stand the test of time.


This is a mealy mouthed review and says infinitely more about the reviewer than it ever could about Simon Schama or his programme. Very sad.

On the contrary, I turned it off in dismay too. The imagery was intrustive, often disconnected to the script, and usually ludicrous. We has lingering shots of ammeters, then of puddles. And Simons delivery was a parody of himself. Quite enough for me. Dire!

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