“Shakespeare Uncovered” – Exclusive Interview With Producer Richard Denton & WNET Head Of Programming Stephen Segaller
By Abbie Bernstein
Some people love Shakespeare. Some people – especially high school students being introduced to the Bard for the first time – find Shakespeare daunting, or even incomprehensible.
The six-part documentary SHAKESPEARE UNCOVERED, which airs its final two hour-long episodes this Friday night, Feb. 8 on PBS, is aimed at both groups, plus everyone in the middle. David Tennant hosts the segment on HAMLET and famed Shakespearean director Sir Trevor Nunn guides the final hour.
At the Television Critics Association press tour, WNET vice-president of programming Stephen Segaller and SHAKESPEARE UNCOVEREDproducer Richard Denton are joined by actor and fellow Briton Jeremy Irons for a panel about the program. The panel also encompasses THE HOLLOW CROWN, a series of four feature films that encompass Shakespeare’s RICHARD II, HENRY IV PARTS 1 and 2, and HENRY V, with Irons appearing as the older King Henry IV.
The panel is frequently hilarious. One journalist notes that his first experience of HAMLET was via THE LION KING, with Irons voicing the villainous Uncle Scar. The journalist then asks whether Irons feels it’s important for people to experience the actual Shakespearean text, or whether it’s worthwhile to get the story through another means, like THE LION KING.
Irons seems amused, and responds, “Well, they say there are only eight stories in the world, and that every story is an adaptation of that particular one of those eight. So, yeah. I’m not sure I would say to somebody, ‘You’ve seen THE LION KING, don’t bother with HAMLET.’” When the room calms down, Irons adds, “But yeah, that’s another retelling of a story that’s been retold a few times. It’s a great introduction. I am, sadly, known to many people who are now in their teens as Scar. It’s very difficult if one has had a career full of fairly interesting things to be remembered for that, but there we are.”
Denton says, “I had to ask Jeremy to autograph a picture of Scar for my daughter. And that was quite embarrassing.”
“Yeah, I’m used to it,” Irons confirms. “I have no pride.”
More seriously, Irons points to Simon Russell Beale, who appears in both SHAKESPEARE UNCOVERED and THE HOLLOW CROWN, as an ideal Shakespearean actor. “He speaks it as if it’s contemporary and that’s what I try to do. It’s practice, practice, practice. You can’t sort of mutter it.”
Denton elaborates on Russell Beale’s performance. “It actually presented us with a problem. We interviewed Simon, who’s playing Falstaff, and then we intercut that with a clip from the film in which Falstaff is talking about honor. And because Simon’s delivery of that part is so natural, you can’t tell whether it’s the interview or whether it’s Shakespeare.”
After the panel, both Denton and Segaller obligingly stick around for a little follow-up discussion. Denton clarifies, “I’m not a producer of THE HOLLOW CROWN, the dramas. I’m strictly on the documentaries.”
There is, however, cross-casting between the interviewees in SHAKESPEARE UNCOVERED and the upcoming HOLLOW CROWN dramas, Denton adds. “Tom Hiddleston gives us a wonderful interview about playing Hal and playing King Henry. Simon Russell Beale is in that film – he’s also in our film about HAMLET because he’s played Hamlet. So they do contribute to our films, as do all of our academics.”
Segaller explains why there’s so much talk about THE HOLLOW CROWN here. “This panel was intended to be for SHAKESPEARE UNCOVERED, but inevitably, there was going to be talk about HOLLOW CROWN as well. It’s a separate presentation of GREAT PERFORMANCES later in the year. SHAKESPEARE UNCOVERED is a free-standing six-part series. In [HOLLOW CROWN], we are a minor co-production partner. For SHAKESPEARE UNCOVERED, we [WNET] are the primary production partner, we raised the vast majority of the funding.”
Segaller says that, although SHAKESPEARE UNCOVERED looks like a BBC production, the British network came in after the fact. “They finally bought it after we had produced it. But it was unlike almost every British series that you see on public television. Richard Denton came to me, pitched me – he was pitching the BBC at the time – and I said, ‘I think this is a terrific idea.’ I think people are intimidated by Shakespeare – I’m not personally, I love it, but I think people are intimidated, they’re wary, but Shakespeare is taught in every American high school, all over the country. Most kids get MACBETH and ROMEO AND JULIET and as Richard says, they do treat it as a fearful or boring burdensome problem in most cases, not often well-taught. We thought, using some real star power and telling stories – not performing the plays, in this case, but telling the stories about the plays and how they got written and what Shakespeare was reading that allowed him to create these characters and so forth – we thought they were all good stories to tell and then with six presenters [Irons, Tennant, Sir Trevor Nunn, Ethan Hawke, Sir Derek Jacobi, Joely Richardson] of this caliber, we thought a little star power goes a long way. And we are about to have these this huge anniversary [Shakespeare’s 450th birthday], where there’s going to be a lot of talk about Shakespeare.”
SHAKESPEARE UNCOVERED is Denton’s first go-round with producing a Shakespearean topic, but he’s got a hefty background in the documentary arena. “I’ve done arts documentaries, I’ve done science documentaries and I did a couple of series with Jonathan Miller, HISTORY OF ATHEISM and HISTORY OF MADNESS, I’ve done a variety of different documentaries, but my passion at this stage in my life is to do documentaries about Shakespeare – to introduce new generations to Shakespeare. Because Shakespeare’s just bloody marvelous. It’s such good fun and it’s definitely worth trying to introduce people to it.”
As for how Denton decided on which Shakespearean experts to include, he says that when it came to actors, the question was largely one of availability. “I asked Ken [Branagh] to be in it. I met him at this event [Television Critics Association press tour] a couple years ago, and we talked about it, and he just didn’t have time. And the problem with actors like Jeremy is they are incredibly busy guys, even if you only want them for four or five days. And we can’t pay them anything, you know, we’re paying them peanuts. They do this for nothing, effectively. So trying to find people who can spare you the time to do that in an incredibly busy schedule is difficult.”
Segaller notes, “Of all the actors we approached, everybody was enthusiastic about it, but lots of people were not available, because they’re busy doing movies and TV series and so forth. But we didn’t have anybody say, ‘That sounds like a terrible idea, I don’t want to do it.’ And we’re now approaching people to do a second run later.”
What did Denton learn while producing SHAKESPEARE UNCOVERED? He sighs, daunted by the potential scope of the answer. “Masses. There were so many different things that I learned. I suppose the thing that really surprises me is, when I watch the news, I keep on seeing Shakespeare plots. I keep on seeing things that Shakespeare wrote about four hundred years ago being played out on the news screen today, and the insights that he therefore has – if you went and read RICHARD II or watched RICHARD II and then look at what’s happening in Syria, or look at what’s happening in Libya, you see that he knew all about this stuff, because basically, humans haven’t changed.”
Are there some insights into Shakespeare that have previously been voiced that are being included in the documentaries because Denton and his team feel they’re important?
“I suppose so,” Denton replies. “Basically, what we’re trying to do is to make in one hour a program that will introduce you to the play, show you clips from it, tell you something of the story of it, and give you some idea of how exciting it actually might be to watch. And a lot of the Twitter that came out when we were doing the series – we’d get people Twittering, saying, ‘That was good, I might watch that play.’ I think, ‘That’s all I want! Go and watch it, go and watch it! It’s fantastic, go and watch it, go and see it!’ That’s all. It’s a big advertisement. I’m making hour-long advertisements for Shakespeare, really.”
Interview By Abbie Bernstein
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Abbie Bernstein is an entertainment journalist, fiction author and filmmaker.