November marks the 400th anniversary of arguably the greatest work of English literature, the ‘First Folio’. It was published seven years after William Shakespeare’s death, without which much of his work would have been lost to future generations.
The BBC is commemorating this extraordinary milestone with an ambitious season of content across TV, Radio, BBC iPlayer, and BBC Sounds. They aim to explore why Shakespeare’s relevance and influence remain as potent as ever after four centuries. A wealth of programming featuring esteemed actors and leading experts, including new documentaries, performances, music, drama, comedy, news coverage, and the finest selections from the BBC archive, will honour the man, his era, and his timeless writing.
Notable features include:
A significant three-part box set for BBC Two and iPlayer titled ‘Shakespeare: Rise of a Genius’. It boasts an A-list cast, including Dame Judi Dench, Dame Helen Mirren, Brian Cox, Adrian Lester, Lolita Chakrabarti, Martin Freeman, and Jessie Buckley. Accompanied by academics and writers such as James Shapiro and Jeanette Winterson, they offer fresh insights into the life of our greatest writer. The series is narrated by Juliet Stevenson.
BBC Four will showcase a star-studded selection of archive performances throughout October, complemented by specially filmed introductions from eminent figures such as David Tennant, Sir Richard Eyre, Sir Simon Russell Beale, Sir Ian McKellen, Dame Janet Suzman, Gregory Doran, Russell T Davies, Dame Helen Mirren, Steven Berkoff, and Hugh Quarshie. Additionally, a new rendition of Hamlet from the Bristol Old Vic, starring rising talent Billy Howle in the lead role, and ‘Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A Modern Love Story’ featuring performances by Rose Ayling Ellis, Eloka Ivo, Eben Figueiredo, and Ioanna Kimbook, will be showcased.
Shakespeare-themed content will air on flagship BBC shows like Bargain Hunt, EastEnders, and The One Show in the lead-up to Folio Day on 8th November.
BBC Radio 4 will present a new comedy-drama, ‘First Folio’, while Dame Judi Dench will be the guest on ‘This Cultural Life’ with John Wilson. Greg Jenner will host a special edition of the popular podcast ‘You’re Dead to Me’.
BBC Radio 3 will dedicate a day exclusively to music inspired by Shakespeare, and will also present audiences with new dramas inspired by Hamlet.
BBC Teach has crafted a brand new nine-part animation of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ tailored for primary schools.
Suzy Klein, Head of BBC Arts and Classical TV, says: “Shakespeare lived in a dangerous age of plague, violence, vicious rivalries and political assassinations and his very survival is something of a miracle. His work was almost lost to history, and without the First Folio being published in 1623, eighteen of his greatest plays would have been lost forever. We would have none of those immortal characters such as Cleopatra and Marc Anthony, Macbeth or Malvolio, Prospero and Ariel. Shakespeare changed the way we talk, the words we use, our films, books, catchphrases and memes, the very way we think – and yet we know very little about him. This major new season pieces together the clues from his life and work to reveal the driving forces behind the glover’s son from Stratford upon Avon who became the greatest writer that ever lived. ”
Charlotte Moore, BBC Chief Content Officer, says: “The BBC has a rich history of showcasing Shakespeare and bringing his works alive to successive generations. The 400th anniversary of the publication of the First Folio is an important opportunity to build on this legacy with an ambitious array of programming across the BBC celebrating the genius of our greatest writer. With documentaries, performances, music, drama, comedy and educational content as well as the very best of the BBC’s extraordinary archive, this season demonstrates our commitment to offering audiences programming they wouldn’t find anywhere else.”
The centrepiece of the season is a gripping three-part documentary series for BBC Two and iPlayer, ‘Shakespeare: Rise of a Genius’, featuring an A-list cast of actors, including Dame Judi Dench, Dame Helen Mirren, Brian Cox, Adrian Lester, Lolita Chakrabarti, Martin Freeman, and Jessie Buckley, alongside academics and writers James Shapiro, Jeanette Winterson, Lucy Jago, Jeremy O’Harris, and Ewan Fernie – who provide fresh insights into the incredible story of our greatest writer, the place and time he inhabited and the work he produced. The series is made by 72 Films (a Fremantle company), the award-winning producers of ‘Rise of the Nazis’ and ‘Elizabeth’s Secret Agents’.
Contributing to the series, Dame Judi Dench, says: “His understanding of everything, of love, of anger, of jealousy, of rage, melancholy – who did it better, who has ever done it better? I wish I’d met him, oh I wish I’d met him.”
Accompanying the series, BBC Four will feature a star-studded selection of archive performances with specially filmed introductions from David Tennant on Hamlet, Sir Richard Eyre on King Lear, Dame Janet Suzman on Wars of the Roses, Gregory Doran on the Shakespeare Gala from the RSC, Russell T Davies on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dame Helen Mirren on As You Like It, Hugh Quarshie on Othello, Steven Berkoff on Hamlet at Elsinore, Sir Simon Russell Beale on The Hollow Crown, and Sir Ian McKellen on All is True.
BBC Four will be showing a number of acclaimed performances of Shakespeare’s greatest plays including Hamlet from the Bristol Old Vic featuring rising star Billy Howle in the title role; Henry V from Shakespeare’s Globe with Jamie Parker in the lead role; the RSC’s Henry VI Part 1 with Sir Antony Sher in the role of Falstaff; and the RSC’s Much Ado About Nothing.
‘Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A Modern Love Story’ features actors Rose Ayling Ellis, Eben Figueiredo, Eloka Ivo, and Ioanna Kimbook performing a collection of sonnets in a fresh and innovative way.
On BBC Radio 4 – Dame Judi Dench, one of Britain’s foremost Shakespearean actors will be John Wilson’s guest on ‘This Cultural Life’. A special edition of ‘Front Row: 1623 Review Show’ will see the panel and guests go back in time to review the music, poems and plays from the year that the First Folio was published. In addition, ‘First Folio’, a new semi-fictionalised comic drama tells the story of the creation of the first book of Shakespeare’s plays and ‘You’re Dead To Me’, has a special edition recorded in front of an audience at the Shakespeare North Playhouse.
Radio 3 will dedicate a day exclusively to music inspired by Shakespeare, while Drama on 3: The Hamlet Season will feature three contemporary dramas based on Hamlet, the Shakespearean play that has been put on the most times around the world plus a new production of the hit Elizabethan play that inspired it, The Spanish Tragedy. Al-Hamlet Summit, Hamlette and Hamlet Noir and Sunday Feature: Shakespeare’s Rival. Meanwhile, Nandini Das explores the work and theatrical ideas of Shakespeare’s contemporary and hostile critic, Robert Crowe – famous now only for dismissing Shakespeare as the “Upstart Crow” in Sunday Feature: Shakespeare’s Rival.
In addition, BBC Teach will publish a collated collection of resources for primary and secondary schools to mark the anniversary, including a new nine-part video animation of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for primary schools.