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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: November 2008

Shakespeare and British Television


‘Cultural values refer to our whole living, and not to a grace note on the margin’

Raymond Williams, Communications



Shakespeare and British television were close companions from the beginning. On 26 August 1936, The Times (London), under the heading 'First Television Broadcast', reported on a demonstration at Radio Olympia where the first experimental transmissions could be seen. Two programmes, lasting approximately ninety minutes, were transmitted daily from Alexandra Palace by the Baird system. At 12.49 and 5.19 visitors could see film excerpts, and among the films selected was Paul Czinner's As You Like It (1936). Elisabeth Bergner's name was mentioned as the selling point, Shakespeare's, the BBC's and Olivier's were not. Five months later on 5 February 1937 the first Shakespeare lines were spoken live on BBC television by Margaretta Scott (Rosalind) and Ion Swinley (Orlando) in Scenes From Shakespeare's 'As You Like It' (3.2) lasting eleven minutes.

Scenes from Shakespeare were transmitted monthly throughout television's first year of broadcasting. Shown in the mid afternoon, they employed actors and actresses well known from the stage, Michael Redgrave as Romeo, Celia Johnson as Desdemona. The scenes appear to have had no linking narration, audiences being expected to derive pleasure with no explanation of plot or setting, the BBC perhaps assuming that audiences would be familiar with the text, or if they were not then presenting famous passages from the greatest dramatist needed no apology or explanation, or perhaps they simply didn’t think of their small audiences very much at all.

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