I've just watched Off By Heart, a really stimulating BBC2 programme about nine talented teenagers acting their socks off at the RSC in Stratford with soliloquies from Romeo and Juliet, Henry V and Hamlet. It's part of the Shakespeare Unlocked season, which reintroduces our national playwright to the small screen after a long and shameful banishment. I'm talking not about BBC radio, which has continued to perform his works, but about BBC television, which since the mid-90s has done its best to pretend that Shakespeare didn't exist, or if he did, he was far too difficult for its audience to understand without a lot of major rewriting. Like Prospero on his desert island, Shakespeare was sent into exile by Mark Thompson and his wretchedly philistine former TV drama supremo Jane Tranter, who once declared that people who wanted to see Shakespeare should push off and watch him in the theatre, because television had better things to do. But as in the best five-act dramas, we now seem to have a happy ending of sorts. The tide began to change when the RSC cast David Tennant as Hamlet a few years ago, creating the kind of theatrical buzz which even TV executives couldn't ignore. Yes, we want a bit of that! the BBC top brass decided.
In the spirit of kicking the shins of the sinner who repenteth, I've dredged up a piece I wrote for the Guardian five years ago on this subject before the policy changed. While the BBC is now happily garnering applause for belatedly recognising the blindingly obvious fact that Shakespeare makes good television, it ought to be reflecting on its past responsibility for depriving a whole generation of young people of the chance to discover his plays on the screen. The next step, in my view, should be to realise that world theatre has other dramatists as well (apply to me for a short list of names) whose works might also make good television.