British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

BBC Shakespeare

HilBishThis year will see a national celebration of the Bard’s work, as Hilary Bishop, Director of the RES Project for the BBC and Editor for BBC Archive Development explains.

‘Who will believe my verse in time to come…’

It seems odd to make a particular fuss about the year and day of someone’s death – a little macabre perhaps – but so it is with Shakespeare, 400 years on. This year will see a national celebration of Shakespeare in theatres, cinemas, museums, galleries and certainly on TV and radio. The theme, I suspect, will be how to make Shakespeare meaningful and relevant in the twenty-first century, and how to foster a new generation of Shakespeare lovers.

At the BBC, we’re making a large collection from the BBC’s archive available to those in UK education; a Festival of new material will be broadcast, including a journey around the country with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) as professionals join up with amateur theatre companies to put on A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation; Shakespeare on Tour which explores the locations where Shakespeare’s works have been performed, possibly near you and ShakespeareMe, a piece of fun which allows you to sum up your daily mood using emojis and Shakespeare quotations.

 The BBC Archive

The fuss for someone like me, who’s been busy working to make lots of Shakespeare material available for 2016, makes me grateful for the excuse and the opportunity. So it was in 2014 that I asked one of my colleagues to begin the extensive task of discovering everything the BBC had produced which related to Shakespeare. It’s harder than it sounds because firstly, there’s a lot of it over the entire life of the BBC from 1923, and also because some of the most interesting references are not the works themselves, but oblique references, which demonstrate the extent to which the playwright has influenced British culture. Given the volume and the impact, I started to feel that maybe the 400 year fuss might be justified after all.

…The most complete list of BBC productions includes over 1,200 programmes of the sonnets and plays

The most complete list of everything the BBC has ever done (but not necessarily has copies of) includes more than 1,000 TV and radio programmes of the plays and about 200 radio and TV programmes of the sonnets and poems. Excerpts from Shakespeare have been included in another 560 programmes and there are about 275 versions of opera and ballet. Factual TV and radio programmes about Shakespeare yielded another four hundred or so and there are hundreds of programmes which reference Shakespeare in passing. Aside from the programmes there are thousands of still images from the productions, as well as scripts, music scores, audience research, set layouts and camera position charts.

Of course the other question to answer is how much material from this vast catalogue the BBC actually has copies of. The answer is not all, but quite a lot. Since the 1960s the situation is quite promising, but there’s much less beforehand. As many of you know, in 1923 technology did not exist for easy capture of radio output and even as this facility developed it was still very expensive to do. It wasn’t possible to record TV output electronically until the late 1940s and even then it was not introduced into some production techniques until the 1950s. The collection we have called the BBC Shakespeare Archive Resource (, is made up of a healthy selection of all the material I have described above.

The earliest highlights include part of the 1955 production of The Merry Wives of Windsor starring Anthony Quayle, Angela Baddeley and Joyce Redman, and the RSC’s production of As You Like It, broadcast in 1963 starring a young Vanessa Redgrave as Rosalind. For your further delight we also have the BBC’s Audience Research Report on that production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s good to know that a significant part of the 1955 audience found the play to be ‘delightful, high-spirited and altogether rollicking good fun’, in contrast to the ‘minority group who have no liking for televised Shakespeare and who particularly resent its appearance in the Sunday evening programme.’

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