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TV That's Better Than Downton Abbey

TV That's Better Than Downton Abbey


In Shakespeare Uncovered, Jeremy Irons, Derek Jacobi, and others tell us about the man who invented show business, created gender-bending characters, and wrote plays that leave Downton Abbey in the dust.

Everyone seems to be a fan of a certain high-class British soap opera these days. But Downton Abbey is a Ford Fiesta compared to the Aston Martin-style ride offered by the works of a guy from Stratford-upon-Avon, in the opinion of distinguished actor Jeremy Irons.

Irons and other interpreters of William Shakespeare's plays will explain why the Bard is so great in a new PBS series, Shakespeare Uncovered, premiering tonight.

The series and other upcoming PBS offerings will show audiences "that actually television doesn't end with Downton Abbey," Irons said while promoting Shakespeare Uncovered at this month's Television Critics Association gathering in Pasadena, Calif. "If you think that's good, then watch the Shakespeare productions. You'll see what real writing, what real stories, what real characters are about."

Shakespeare Uncovered consists of six one-hour installments, and PBS will show two of them tonight and the remainder the next two Fridays. Tonight's premiere has one episode with Ethan Hawke dissecting Macbeth, followed by Joely Richardson dealing with the cross-dressing comedies Twelfth Night and As You Like It. Next week will have out actor Derek Jacobi discussing Richard II and Irons guiding viewers through Henry IV and Henry V. The final week will feature David Tennant on Hamlet and director Trevor Nunn on The Tempest.

They and various guests will tell the stories behind Shakespeare's stories, which often reflected aspects of his life, retold (or rewrote) history, or commented on the politics of his times. Guests appearing in the series include Richardson's mother, Vanessa Redgrave, who will join her daughter to talk about the strong women characters in Shakespeare's work; Jude Law, who will speak to the challenges of playing Hamlet, a role both he and Tennant have essayed; and Helen Mirren and director Julie Taymor, who collaborated on the 2010 film of The Tempest, with Mirren playing a female version of the lead character, wizard Prospero.

Scholars have noted that there's ample gender-bending in Shakespeare's work and pointed out that the playwright, a man of sophistication, was certainly aware of same-sex love. Some think he had gay relationships, and most recognize that there are gay characters in his plays. The series will touch on the latter, said producer Richard Denton, in dealing with Twelfth Night, in which one character, Antonio, is obviously in love with another man, Sebastian, and some other characters form relationships while disguising their true gender. Denton, who joined Irons at the TCA event, said he'd like to do another set of Shakespeare Uncovered episodes, in hopes of featuring The Merchant of Venice, which strongly suggests a sexual relationship between two men, Bassanio and (another) Antonio. Whether more installments are to come will depend on the popularity of the current series, he said, although with the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth coming in 2014 and the 400th anniversary of his death in 2016, there's likely to be more interest in the Bard than ever.

Derek-jacobix400Derek Jacobi hosts one of the episodes.

The current series, meanwhile, also incorporates film clips of iconic performances of the plays, among them a group that will air on PBS later this year. Under the umbrella title The Hollow Crown, the BBC filmed four of Shakespeare's most beloved "history plays," Richard II, Henry IV (a two-parter), and Henry V, for broadcast in the U.K. last year, and PBS will show them to U.S. audiences this fall. Cast members include Ben Whishaw and Patrick Stewart in Richard II; Irons, Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale, and Julie Walters in Henry IV; and Hiddleston and John Hurt in Henry V. These are "wonderfully intelligent" adaptations, Irons said.

But he cautions audiences not to be intimidated by the intelligence of Shakespeare's work. "Everybody teaches it badly at school," Irons said, so often people think of the plays as either excessively challenging or something that's boring but good for you, like vitamins. Actually, he and Denton noted, Shakespeare was writing the popular entertainment of his day, and like the popular entertainment of today, his plays had wizards, witches, fairies, special effects, and many other features that still draw viewers in. He also wasn't above plagiarizing others' work, which was considered normal in his time, and was more than willing to bring back well-loved characters, such as the charming comic rogue Falstaff of Henry IV, who appeared again in The Merry Wives of Windsor. "He created show business, really," Denton said.

What's more, Shakespeare dealt with universal issues, such as the father-son struggle at the core of Henry IV. "Why Shakespeare was the greatest dramatist of all time is that he was writing about the human condition," Irons said. "When we see these plays now, they still speak to us."

They've also inspired other works; for instance, Gus Van Sant's gay-hustler film, My Own Private Idaho, drew heavily on Henry IV. And the animated Disney feature The Lion King, which has probably brought Irons (at least his voice) a bigger audience than any other film, has echoes of Hamlet. "The way people use Shakespeare is wonderful," said Denton.

But he and Irons emphasize that it's definitely worth going back to the originals. "I'm not so sure I'd say, 'You've seen The Lion King, don't bother with Hamlet,'" Irons said.

"As an actor, I realize Shakespeare is gold dust," he added, but said becoming proficient at performing the Bard's work takes "practice, practice, practice," as in the old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall. "You can't sort of mutter it in a sort of Downton Abbey way," he said.

His skewering of the popular PBS show, including his comparison of it to an economy car while Shakespeare's work would be a luxurious Aston Martin, made a public TV executive at the TCA event rather apoplectic, so Irons eventually became conciliatory. "I'm an awful television snob," he admitted. "I don't watch much television. I've never seen Downton Abbey. So I don't know what I'm talking about, basically. I'm sure it's splendid."

But Shakespeare Uncovered, he promised, will be television worth watching. The show will air from 9 to 11 p.m. Eastern/Pacific tonight and the next two Fridays; check your local listings, though, as some PBS affiliates opt for different times. And watch video previews below.

Watch Henry IV & V with Jeremy Irons on PBS. See more from Shakespeare Uncovered.

Watch Richard II with Derek Jacobi on PBS. See more from Shakespeare Uncovered.

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