British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

BBC Shakespeare

Maggie Smith in the BBC Play of the Month THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, originally broadcast in April 1972. (1972 © BBC).

Maggie Smith in the BBC Play of the Month The Merchant of Venice, originally broadcast in April 1972. (1972 © BBC).

On radio we have all the voices you’d expect to find reading Shakespeare including Sir John Gielgud, Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir Michael Redgrave and Dame Peggy Ashcroft. In the factual category we have Paul Robeson talking in 1959 about acting Shakespeare, the difficulty of English accents and the series of Prefaces to Shakespeare and Shakespeare in Perspective which accompanied the major BBC series of Shakespeare’s works and transmitted between 1978 and 1985.

On the lighter side we have Blackadder punching Shakespeare ‘for every schoolboy and schoolgirl for the next four hundred years!’, as well as Mastermind quiz rounds and a sketch from The Morecambe and Wise Show.

Finding this material, because sometimes it’s not until you look for things that you discover they’re not where you’d hoped, and getting it into a digital format is in itself like doing a jigsaw, not to mention finding subtitles if they already exist and deciding what to spend money to subtitle where they don’t.

It has, however been great fun realising that Christopher Plummer, looking quite mature in The Sound Of Music (1965), is virtually the same age as the ‘young’ prince in Hamlet At Elsinore (1964), showing what magic you can achieve with stage makeup. There’s also triumph in bringing back in to the archive previously ‘lost’ material returned via the BFI from the US Library of Congress. Sadder though was to discover that we only have the first reel, but not the second of All’s Well That Ends Well (1968) by the RSC, which was the first BBC Shakespeare play to be transmitted in colour.

We’ve restored some of the older material too, including the Wars of the Roses trilogy of Henry VI, Edward IV, and Richard III, broadcast in 1965, which was included in the RSC/Barbican’s recent season of Shakespeare on Screen.

All this archive detective work has really been about making as much of this material as possible available in education, as part of the Research and Education Space project, of which more in a moment. So to this end we have set up the BBC Shakespeare Archive Resource at which includes hundreds of TV and radio programmes, including all the BBC Television Shakespeare adaptations and the other gems I’ve mentioned so far. There are also over 1000 photographs of classic Shakespeare productions and performers. Everyone can see the website, but to access and play the media you need to log in. Direct access or username and password are dependent on you being in UK formal education and details of how to get access are on the website.

There’s an even more extended collection of radio and TV material to those of you who have access to the BUFVC’s Box of Broadcasts (BoB) service. Under the Educational Recording Agency (ERA) licence we can also include all the BBC material broadcast since 1989 and the already available BBC archive which starts in 2007. So that’s a huge amount of Shakespeare, including The Shakespeare Animated Tales in English and Welsh, the modern take on the plays in Shakespeare Retold, the Storyville on American prisoners staging The Tempest, In Search of Shakespeare and Bard On The Box with the likes of Damon Hill, the late Claire Rayner and Prince Charles. This larger collection is also available for those of you who subscribe to Planet e-Stream’s Connect service.

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