Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 November 2008
In the early 1960s the BBC television Shakespeare series, the fifteen-episode An Age of Kings, was a ‘stupendous’ success in America and England, seen by millions of viewers. It received England’s prestigious British Guild of Directors award for Excellence in Directing. Broadcast in America by National Educational Television (NET) it received the Peabody Award for ‘a brilliant and imaginative portrayal of Shakespeare’s rich pageant of English history’. Its ‘magnificent panoply’ was ‘the most exciting drama seen on television’ in ‘an extraordinary piece of work – marvelously made and presented with intelligence and dignity’. Much loved, highly praised, Kings then seemed to disappear from memory for the next forty years, overshadowed by the more visually sophisticated filmed-for-television The Wars of the Roses (1964), the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of the history plays, and the BBC/Time-Life Shakespeare Series (1978–85). An Age of Kings, which marked significant developmental stages for both the BBC and NET, was rebroadcast only once again in England (January–April 1962) and never issued in video, but kinescopes of the BBC and NET broadcasts have been preserved. It is only now that Kings is beginning to re-emerge through the efforts of the British Film Institute, scholarly articles, memoirs of youthful television viewing, internet web pages and, sadly, in the obituaries of its participants.
This article examines the trajectory taken by the first major BBC Shakespeare series – from its creation as an ambitious work of television entertainment to its final incarnation on American television as an educational programme. It looks closely at NET’s financially successful marketing of Kings as a pedagogical tool where an important component was the addition of a wraparound commentary by University of California professor Frank Baxter who introduced each episode with a genial explanation of Shakespeare for the viewer he refers to as ‘the Normal American’. His is an intriguing example of mid twentieth century Shakespeare teaching that presents the text as neither high brow nor low brow, but instead as the work of America’s literary ancestor. Baxter’s ‘normal American’ also represented the audience the newly formed NET needed to attract if its role in educational television was to succeed.