Arts and Entertainment | Film

Professor talks BBC documentary at screening

  • Douglas Kessel / Senior Staff Photographer
    To BBC or not to BBC | English professor James Shapiro talks to a group of students Monday night after a screening of a segment of his BBC documentary series, “The King and the Playwright.”

English professor James Shapiro’s BBC series on Shakespeare might make him as well-known across the pond as he is on campus. 

Shapiro—who both wrote and presented the documentary series “The King & the Playwright: A Jacobean History”—is a widely published expert on the life of William Shakespeare. He spoke to students and faculty about the documentary process Monday night as part of a screening of a 20-minute segment from the series.

After Shapiro’s book, “A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599,” became a huge success in Britain and was awarded the 2006 Samuel Johnson Prize, various filmmakers approached Shapiro about producing a documentary, to which he agreed. The series, which first aired this past spring, focuses on a decade of Shakespeare’s life, from 1603-1613. 

Shapiro said Monday night that writing for a documentary came with a learning curve—his first draft of the script was over 300 pages—but that he eventually settled into a rhythm. During the 20-minute excerpt, he is seen walking the camera through key historical locations and discussing Jacobean-era artifacts.

“Many of these ideas get pitched and then shot down,” Shapiro said. “So, I learned how to do a documentary by the failures along the way. Or, I should say I learned how bad I was being what they call a presenter.”

Filming ran 12 hours a day for three months. Shapiro was directed in all aspects of his presentation, from his vocal inflection to his wardrobe. 

“Even though I had written the words I was saying, they didn’t let me talk like this,” he said. “Over time, the adjectives get more flowery.”

The series details the influence that the Jacobean age had on Shakespeare’s subject matter. The preview segment emphasized the political themes in his plays. 

Stemming from his thesis on equivocation, which had become ingrained as part of the English psyche, Shapiro spoke in the films on how Shakespeare’s works were artfully “shadowed by real events.”

The biggest challenge for Shapiro was actually memorizing his own words. 

“My nemesis was the piece to camera, or the PTC,” he said about the segments in which he addresses the audience directly.  “I couldn’t do verbatim.” 

To memorize his script, he would habitually take a shot of espresso, write out his lines, and follow this up with filming, which would often be repeatedly shot from every angle.

“I walked 10 miles within the British library,” Shapiro said.

It was important to him to strike a balance between his educational goals and the commercial concerns of the BBC, he said. He was often asked to emphasize his Brooklyn accent.

“They wanted it at street-level to broaden the appeal,” he said. 

Though he worried about how English audiences would react to the film, Shapiro was pleasantly surprised by the reception. 

“I think they know I care about their history,” he said.

Shapiro hopes to reach a wide audience through the film and clear up what he sees as misconceptions about Shakespeare. He said the experience was exhausting but invaluable. 

“I had the opportunity to give a classroom lecture to a million people,” he said.

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