Mash to the future

25th October 2013

On Thursday evening Arena premiered the first of two films looking back at the history of the National Theatre. I am going to wait for the second to air before posting about them, but I do want to look today at significant developments on the Arena website. Initiatives there seem to me to be pointing towards the future of British television.

First off, there are two mash-ups of Shakespeare speeches, both of which I have embedded across the jump. (Yes, embedded – that I think is a first for BBC content.) And it’s worth musing on each of these for a moment. One, perhaps inevitably, is Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be…’, the other is Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene. Both feature extracts from Illuminations productions, and part of why I am writing this post is to help me work out quite what I feel about that.

Disappointingly, I cannot find full credits online for the extracts that are included, but in order of appearance this is my sense of them – many of the links take you to the BUFVC Shakespeare database, which is an invaluable reference source:

• Laurence Olivier in the 1948 feature film of Hamlet that he directed;
• Christopher Plummer in Hamlet at Elsinore, directed by Philip Saville for BBC television in 1964;
• John Gielgud reciting the speech for (I think) the 1970 BBC documentary Hamlet Revisited, which was written by Patrick Garland and produced by Ron Hobin;
• Ronald Pickup in a 1971 BBC radio adaptation directed by John Tydeman;
• Derek Jacobi in the 1980 BBC Television Shakespeare studio production of the play directed by Rodney Bennett and produced by Cedric Messina;
• Kenneth Branagh in his 1996 feature film adaptation;
• Adrian Lester from The Tragedy of Hamlet, 2002, directed by Peter Brook after his own staging;
• David Tennant in the Hamlet that we made in 2009 for BBC Two from Gregory Doran’s Royal Shakespeare Company production.

The edit is skilful and thoughtful, the graphics are neat, and – importantly – the original frame ratios of the clips have been respected. It’s a smart and enjoyable four minutes of media which I can see being widely enjoyed. So why am I not more whole-heartedly enthusiastic about its appearance? To start with, although I recognise that the BBC formally has the right to use extracts of ‘our’ 2009 Hamlet in this way, as the co-producer of that film I would have liked at least a courtesy e-mail to let me (and the RSC) know about this project. Then there is the question of whether a mash-up like this detracts or distracts from watching a sustained performance from a single actor. Is there any sense in which this cheapens or devalues a full performance?

(Incidentally, the BBC has the contractual right for such uses (I think) only in the United Kingdom. Alternatively, Arena may be relying on the ‘fair use’ provision of the Copyright Designs and Patents Act, but that too is only applicable in the UK. So the lawyer buried deep inside me (really deep, I promise) hopes that these mash-ups are geo-locked to the UK. I would love to know whether they are – so perhaps could one of this blog’s friends in the States let me know if they inaccessible there?)

While we ponder on all of that, here is ‘Out, damned spot’, which makes extensive use of Kate Fleetwood’s performance in the 2010 Macbeth directed by Rupert Goold that we produced from an original Chichester Festival Theatre production.

So who is here and where do they come from?

• Kate Fleetwood, along with Paul Shelley and Polly Frame, from the 2010 Illuminations film for WNET13 and BBC Television;
• Heather Chasen from a 1958 production for schools by Ronald Eyre, with Michael Bates as the doctor and an unidentified nurse;
• Peggy Ashcroft in John Tydeman’s 1966 BBC radio adaptation, in which Paul Scofield played Macbeth;
• Janet Suzman in John Gorrie’s BBC television production from 1970, with John Bailey and Rosamund Burne;
• Judi Dench in Philip Casson’s 1979 television version for Thames Television of Trevor Nunn’s intimate and intense Royal Shakespeare Company production for The Other Place;
• Jane Lapotaire in in the BBC Television Shakespeare production from 1983 directed by Jack Gold;
• Susan Vidler from Penny Woolcock’s underrated Macbeth on the Estate, made for BBC television in 1997.

This seems to me a great selection of performances – and more than anything else it makes me want to see that 1958 production and to revisit the 1979 Trevor Nunn production and to hear Peggy Ashcroft from 1966… So let’s acknowledge that this is a legitimate use of archival material, and that our doubts should be dismissed.

Except that… quite why have these two cut-ups been produced as part of the National Theatre at 50 project? Here is what the Arena website says:

To celebrate 50 years of treading the boards at the National we have compiled performances from two of Shakespeare’s biggest speeches from Hamlet and Macbeth.

Well, yes, but not a single one of the performances featured originated at the National. Two are from RSC productions, one is from Chichester and one from Peter Brook’s Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris, two are feature film extracts and the rest come from in-house BBC productions.

Why else should we be paying attention to the Arena site with these mash-ups? First off, it is significant that these are short original productions created specifically for online. As far as I know, there are no plans to broadcast them. Which is rather more revolutionary than it might seem, since until recently all original production had to be broadcast before it appeared online. That’s no longer the case, as – among other examples – is demonstrated by the recent web premiere of three Storyville documentaries. But it is still rare to see a broadcast strand like Arena make media specifically and solely for the web.

Also comparatively unprecedented is the fact that the website is offering a small number of extended extracts from rushes, offering us more material than we could see in the completed documentaries. So we have uncut material from interviews with Dame Joan Plowright, Sir Derek Jacobi and Dame Maggie Smith – and each is compelling exactly because it hasn’t been cut down and tidied up.

Then there’s the fact that you can embed these films, just as I have above. That is a facility that I cannot previously recall being offered for BBC content. Plus, it seems that there is no date at which these pieces will disappear. Can it really be the case that there’s no 30-day rule here as there is elsewhere for BBC iPlayer? So what we seem to have is ‘television’ being made for online only and available in perpetuity. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Shepherd’s Bush anymore.


  1. Interesting observations, and interesting conflicts of mind. Would you be as troubled by the use of Illuminations material if it had been a private individual who had produced the mashups rather than the BBC? The same laws apply to all of us, but this seems more a case of common courtesy required than legal or contractual obligations. By the way, there is no ‘fair use’ in UK law – we have ‘fair dealing’ instead, which is more specific (such as being able to photocopy parts of texts for research, or quoting material ‘for purposes of criticism and review’).

    I have to admit that my first thought on seeing the mashups was that the dividing up of a speech into individual performers’ versions has become a bit hackneyed. I think it was the South Bank Show that first did it with Hamlet back in 1989. Can we not mashup Shakespeare in any other way?

    • John Wyver says:

      Many thanks, Luke – and, apologies, I meant ‘fair dealing’ of course. Yes, it does make a difference that this is being done by the BBC rather than an individual – and that it, potentially, has a major institutional marketing heft behind it.

      I would still love to know if the mash-ups can be viewed abroad. Can anyone help with that, please?

      • Kathrin Franke says:

        Well, I can’t watch the clips in Ireland. So it would seem like they are indeed ‘geo-locked’ as you said.
        I’d love to see them though.

  2. Duncan says:

    Can’t access them here in Toronto, Canada, sadly, at least as embedded on the blog.

  3. Duncan says:

    (3 mins later) But I AM able to watch all the other videos, and I just checked the arena website, and the mash-up speeches aren’t working there either, so it’s just a problem with those specific videos. Maybe your write-up made them re-consider using the footage! (?)

    • John Wyver says:

      Thanks, Duncan – in fact I think this means that the mash-ups are geo-locked, which is what I expected but I’m very grateful to have the confirmation.

  4. John Wyver says:

    Kathrin, I think you might find that someone has quite illegitimately uploaded them to YouTube. But don’t say that I told you.

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