Sunday, 22 July 2012

Simon Schama's Shakespeare BBC Two ... one month ago ...

Simon Schama: TV dumber-down or simply the greatest? in The Guardian Tv&Radio Blog

From A History of Britain to Simon Schama's Shakespeare, the historian has it covered – but what do you think of his presentation style?

Some people think Simon Schama – garlanded academic and presenter of such fabulous series as A History of Britain and Rough Crossings – is full of crap. There have been grumblings that he dumbs down and simplifies his history shows, taking a sweeping view of history designed more for the verbal flourish than historical accuracy.

Few people have summarised these criticisms better than the Sunday Times' Adrian Gill who took a swipe at Schama's 2006 series Power of Art: "The point of these authored, visually clotted documentaries is really to be infomercials for instant coffee table tomes". And yes, it is true that even Schama's premium brand of TV history cannot help skating over the deeper complexities of historical truth. But while it's always tempting to point a mocking finger at a man with a plum job as Columbia professor of art history and history, and lucrative TV contracts coming out of his ears, I love him and make a beeline for him every time. I'd go so far as to say he is easily Britain's best arts presenter.

He can be seen again tomorrow night on BBC2 in the concluding part of Simon Schama's Shakespeare, a riveting tour-de-force about how the Bard shaped our sense of Englishness through the history plays. As always, Schama's scripts have been razor sharp, with not a wasted word. And they are aided by a very direct and uncompromising delivery; the historian narrowing his eyes and seeming to stare straight at the viewer as he delivers each punchy line like a hammer blow.

What he does best though is convey both expertise and a real and personal human passion for his subject. Enthusiasm is a rare and valuable commodity – and he has it in spades. Schama doesn't do TV about things he doesn't love, but while he communicates that love brilliantly he always seems to put the subject first. It is quite a conjuring trick and something which another academic's recent TV take on Shakespeare – James Shapiro's The King and the Playwright – didn't quite manage. That series seemed all about James Shapiro.

Of course Schama's rapturous zeal can mean that he sometimes overdoes it. I wasn't quite sure about his description of Henry VI pt 1 as "Kill Bill in tights" in the first episode of Schama's Shakespeare. And in a playreading session with Harriet Walter in the same programme he proved that his acting abilities were probably on a par with his knowledge and understanding of Hackney's grime scene.

But he has me watching every time. I was hooked in 2000 by Schama's History of Britain, his energetic gallop through our island's history with little recourse to expensive re-enactments (in fact they looked quite cheap). The historian gripped us simply with the power of his narrative and I remember actually looking forward to each nightly date with my box set. Whatever that says about me, it also speaks volumes about that series. How many history programmes can you say that about?

The same enthusiasm was seen in Power of Art, where he picked on key paintings in art history – not just examining their story and his personal love for them, but asking some of the most important questions it is possible to ask. "Just how powerful is art? Can it feel like love or grief? Can it change the world?"

In that series an actor was hired to play "young Simon" complete with long coat, long hair and specs, recreating his first ever sighting in 1970 of the haunting set of Rothko's Seagram murals at the Tate. Yes, it was a little self-regarding. Yes it makes him a walking shoo-in for Private Eye's Pseuds Corner. But the point of that moment was to show just how important these paintings were to him and how deeply they touched him. And for me the joy and enthusiasm wins over every time.

Question is: do you agree?

Simon Schama's Shakespeare, BBC Two, review
Michael Pilgrim reviews Simon Schama's Shakespeare, the historian's BBC Two programme in which he says to understand the Bard we must appreciate how he was of his time.

By Michael Pilgrim 22 Jun 2012 in The Telegraph
Can Simon Schama do no wrong? Probably not. A six-part exposition on cat food down the ages would be a joy in his hands. We’d learn about the influence of feudalism on cream provision, 19th-century Quaker attitudes to sardines and the 1927 Whiskas Riots.
Requiring no moggies, Simon Schama’s Shakespeare (BBC Two, Friday) was an altogether easier prospect. A two-part exploration of the Stratford man’s role in forging the national character, it had all the usual Schama-isms. There was the oscillation between big-picture thinking and trivia, between slapstick phrase-making and owly haughtiness.
Trundling round teeming modern-day London, his nostrils gave the impression of being assailed by the inadequacies of Tudor sanitation. Looking down from the Globe gallery on players and audience, he seemed pleased with himself. Somehow even the familiar Schama cadences were more curlicued. Perhaps it’s just because it’s Shakespeare. Even great historians can’t help themselves.
Happily, Schama has a self-regulating mechanism. Every time he over-intellectualises, he knocks it back with a populist kick. The early, action-packed, Henry VI, he declared, was “Kill Bill in tights. Or rather Kill Humphrey, Henry and Dick”. Jack Cade, the yobbish Kent rebel leader in this trilogy, was “the first poet of class war”. The South Bank, home of the Globe, was where “the nasty and exciting stuff” occurred.

Yes, it’s been said before, but Schama said it better. The Reformation whitewashed over Catholic church imagery and miracle plays, replacing it with Protestant English words. Shakespeare’s dad was a whitewasher; his mum was a Catholic. Again, the detail.
The language itself was newly minted, with hundreds of new words and phrases migrating from the street to the theatre. Many of them were picked up by Shakespeare, wiring together two linguistic worlds. As a result, we all think bigger, richer and in brighter colour.

Most of all, though, this programme was about Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV parts one and two. His wit, cynicism and love of a quick buck epitomised the English attitude. Elizabeth I loved him. True, the fat knight ran a corrupt army-recruiting business, but, argued Schama, Falstaff embodied a small country with an outsize sense of itself.
And if proceedings occasionally bordered on the snooty, no matter. Were Schama to only agree to appear on television perched on a purple velvet throne dressed in ermine and surrounded by fawning critics, he’d still be the best scriptwriter in factual documentary.

Simon Schama on Shakespeare and Us: interview
Robert Colvile talks to Britain's premier historian, Simon Schama, about his new BBC Two programme, Shakespeare and Us.

By Robert Colvile 22 Jun 2012 in The Telegraph
When Simon Schama was 10 years old, his father - a frustrated actor, who had been advised by his own parents to go into a more sensible trade - took him to see Michael Benthall's production of Henry V, starring Richard Burton. There was, however, one condition: in order to go to the play, young Simon had to learn a passage from it, and then perform it to his father's satisfaction. "I chose the speech before Harfleur - 'Once more unto the breach...'," he recalls. "In fact, I can still do it." Before I have the chance to assure Britain's premier historian that I'm quite sure he can, he's declaiming away, the words tumbling out of him at jet-engine pace.
Schama, it rapidly becomes clear, adores Shakespeare. The list of his favourites is long and well-considered. Henry IV Part Two, "so sad and mellow and autumnal"; Antony and Cleopatra, with its atmosphere of "doomy sexuality"; A Midsummer Night's Dream, whose 1970s production by Peter Brook he considers "incomparably the greatest" staging he has seen.
Now, as part of the BBC's blockbuster celebration of the Bard and his works, he has channelled this passion into two one-hour documentaries. The title, Shakespeare and Us, may suggest pat comparisons with our own era, but there is little that interests Schama less: as he puts it, "the least interesting way to use Shakespeare is as a vade mecum for the survival of the Coalition or whatever". Instead, these are serious and rather riveting examinations of the Bard and his world, with many of our finest thesps (Dame Judi Dench, Roger Allam, Simon Russell Beale) called upon to declaim key passages and add their insights.
What makes the theatre of Shakespeare's day so interesting, says Schama, is that it was the only place in the country - indeed, the only place in Europe - where a single space was inhabited "by both the toffs and hoi polloi". This meant that it could be both populist and intellectual, speaking both to the gut and the brain. This was reflected in its choice of subjects. "What is particularly daring," he says, "is that it's about the big stuff: power, assassination, murder, hypocrisy, rhetoric, lust, all of those things that go on in the political world."
In the first episode Schama focuses on the history plays, exploring how the early, crowd-pleasing Henry VIs and the later, more complicated Henry IVs developed contrasting ideals of Englishness: the rowdy demagoguery of Jack Cade, the bluff pomposity-pricking of Falstaff, the sober authority of Henry IV. Shakespeare was also fascinated by the ways in which these worlds interacted. Queen Elizabeth's famous speech at Tilbury, deliberately echoed in Hal's fictional address on St Crispin's Day in Henry V, encapsulated a very English idea that sovereignty, as Schama puts it, "was dependent on making some sort of direct contact with the people - or at least assuming the air of being one of them."

 For the second episode Schama explores the royal role further, skilfully teasing out connections between the politics of the Bard's own time and the tragedies we think we know so well. The most startling correspondences come with Hamlet. Shakespeare, as court playwright to King James, was writing not just for a monarch with a Danish wife, who had spent his honeymoon in Elsinore, but for a prince whose father, Lord Darnley, had been murdered, and whose mother - Mary, Queen of Scots - had married the suspected killer.

It is possible, Schama admits, to enjoy the plays without such context. "Are you going to enjoy Richard II" - which deals with the murder of an incompetent king - "without knowing there was an actual rebellion going on [when it was written], and that a special production was put up by the Earl of Essex to gee up his supporters against Elizabeth? Yes, you can watch the play without any of that knowledge at all. But does it enlarge your enjoyment? Probably it does."
If it seems surprising that Shakespeare was able to get away with commenting - even elliptically - on contemporary politics in plays written for the touchiest of monarchs, it is because part of his genius lay in his ability to walk between worlds. As Schama says, he was part of Stratford, the court, the theatre, Bankside, without becoming trapped in any of them.
The subject of overlapping roles - as well as possessing a surplus of intellectual energy - is certainly something Schama knows about. Although he has taken a sabbatical from teaching duties at Columbia University in order to film a five-part History of the Jews for the BBC, he still writes regularly.
Given his apparent love for the spotlight, I ask, has he ever been tempted to fulfil his father's thwarted ambition, and tread the boards himself? He bursts out laughing. "It's amazing how many actors ask me that! I would have been a terrible ham - I was the kid who put the ham in Hamlet. Really over the top. But there's still time. I can play an old fart. So maybe a new career awaits me..."
Shakespeare and Us is on BBC Two on Friday, June 22

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