5 June 2008

"In sooth, I know not why I am so sad..."

On the telly in the studio overnight was BBC2 (sorry, BBC TWO), which had been there by default all evening by the time I got in to do the show. Obviously a studio telly never has sound switched on, but even with this handicap I found the programming oddly compelling.

Have you ever watched overnight BBC TWO? It's the educational channel now. All that GCSE Bitesize stuff has dominated their off-peak, nocturnal schedules, plus the occasional movie version of a book on school or college syllabi. You'd hope the kids it was hoping to enlighten had Sky+, as they'd otherwise be fast asleep when it was all on. Anyway, two such curriculum-friendly movies were on in the small hours today.

I occasionally looked up from my work overnight at the screen. Even someone as well-read as me (ie, someone who is not well-read) can't guess what the production is just from costume, set and mouth movement so I had a quick scan at the BBC website. First up was Death of a Salesman, which I've never read. Warren Mitchell was playing the main character while wearing a preposterous wig, the sort that Roger Mellie would have ripped off on live television for a cheap gag. I read The Crucible for A-level (didn't really get it) and I know Arthur Miller lived a long life and part of it was spent in bed with Marilyn Monroe. I know culture, me.

Then there was a play which I again clearly couldn't identify due to a mute screen, and this time it seemed to be populated entirely by teenagers. A quick glance at the schedules informed me it was a National Youth Theatre version of The Merchant of Venice.

Now, this was the first Shakespeare play I ever read. I think I've only read four in total in any event, but I remember being asked to read the part of Antonio in my GCSE English class in 1988, hence my remembering the words quoted in the title bar here. Marcus Norrison was Bassanio, Rachel Andrews was Portia and Joanne Spratling was Nerissa.

Apart from the stuff that's now in modern usage from Shylock (Philip Mackinder) I can't remember a damned thing about the plot. This is because, like 95% of the 16-18 year olds who have ever had a Shakespeare play thrust into their hands, it was just too much for me to take in. A-level students who aren't at the very, very high end of the intellectual level struggle with Shakespeare, so giving it to 15 year olds whose development was less promising seemed entirely pointless then, and remains so now.

I read As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra at A-level exam level and studied A Winter's Tale for the coursework section. My abiding memory of this was going to see a stage version of the latter at Hull New Theatre and being delighted to see that one of the main characters (God knows which) was being played by Bullet Baxter off Grange Hill (or the builder who smacks Manuel in Fawlty Towers, if you prefer sitcom to titular kids' drama). Michael Cronin, to give the guy his name. That dominated the discussion at the interval, in the minibus home and in the lesson the next day. Miss Hughes must have despaired.

I loved the gag in that Millennium edition of Blackadder in which the eponymous cynic is seen giving Shakespeare an almighty punch in the face, claiming it's on behalf of every teenage student for all of the centuries to come. Punt and Dennis claimed that Shakespeare is propped up by the taxpayer purely because of the belief that "if it's old, it has to be good". Frank Skinner put Shakespeare in Room 101. And Desert Island Discs give you the complete works as a matter of course. If I was on said island, I'd struggle to read much of that, irrespective of how bored I was. After all, what use is a Shakespeare play without the York Notes?

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