Women and Shakespeare

S2:E2: Andrea Smith on Radio Shakespeares

February 23, 2021 Dr Varsha Panjwani Season 2 Episode 2
Women and Shakespeare
S2:E2: Andrea Smith on Radio Shakespeares
Show Notes Transcript

We discuss Radio Shakespeares in the UK, accents, silent characters, and teaching resources.  Check out http://www.womenandshakespeare.com for a complete transcript. Contact Andrea Smith @AndreaUEA for more listening suggestions!

Interviewer & Producer: Dr Varsha Panjwani
Guest: Andrea Smith
Artwork: Mr Wenqi Wan 

Varsha:

Hello, and welcome to 'Women & Shakespeare' podcast. I'm your host, Dr. Varsha Panjwani. And I'm thinking about that moment that Hamlet is laying a mousetrap in the form of a play for his uncle Claudius and he says, "We'll hear a play tomorrow." Not see, but hear. This has led a number of scholars and practitioners to repeat that plays in Shakespeare's theater were primarily acoustic rather than visual experiences. Now, this is definitely overstating the case because the theater was a feast for all senses in Shakespeare's time. What is not an overstatement, however, is that Radio Shakespeare, the primary producer of audio Shakespeare experiences, where one can be led on a synesthetic journey by hearing a play is vastly overlooked in Shakespeare scholarship. This is why I jumped at the chance to talk to our guest for today, Andrea Smith. Andrea started working as a journalist for local papers before joining the British Broadcasting Corporation or the BBC Radio, where she worked as a reporter, news reader and primarily a producer for more than 20 years. She's now doing a PhD with the University of East Anglia and working on Radio Shakespeares. So any publishers listening to this podcast, take note and offer her a book contract straight away because Andrea's scholarship is much needed in the field.

Varsha:

Andrea, you are so, so welcome to Women and Shakespeare Podcast. So glad to be talking to you.

Andrea:

I'm really, really pleased. And it's lovely you chose a subject that most people either are unaware of or just haven't really given any thought to actually.

Varsha:

Absolutely. So I'm very excited to learn a lot from you about audio Shakespeares, but let's begin by asking you something I ask everyone. When did you first encounter Shakespeare and what was the nature of that encounter?

Andrea:

When I was a kid in the 1970s, you didn't get as much children's TV as you get now. So you'd often get old black and white films put on for essentially children's entertainment. And there are two in particular that I can remember really enjoying and that had Shakespeare in them. One of which is Carry On Teacher. So the Carry On films have a reputation of being a bit bawdy and the later ones very definitely, but the very early black and white ones were actually quite sweet and quite lovely old fashioned British films. And in Cary On Teacher, the students have to put on Romeo and Juliet. So there are lots of extracts of Romeo and Juliet in it to the point that the opening speech, the prologue, I actually know the words incorrectly because I learnt them from the film. And then there's also a series of films called St Trinian's films, which is set in a girl's boarding school where the children behaved very badly.

Andrea:

And in one of those, they put on an arts and culture festival and one of the girls recites, "To Be, or not to be", from Hamlet while she's doing a striptease. I remember this really clearly, but as a child you don't pick up that this is in any way inappropriate. I watched it again recently and went, gosh, okay, is this children's entertainment in the 1970s? But I think what it really tells you is that in the era which I grew up in, Shakespeare was imbued in lots of different forms of entertainment.

Varsha:

It's so much fun. After you had mentioned this scene of striptease and "To be, or not to be", that you were obsessed with I checked it out. I mean, there's two ways to look at it. Either you look at it as, oh, so inappropriate, or of absolutely radical revision with a woman stripping and thinking, well, do we exist or not? And I actually thought it pretty avant garde.

Andrea:

It's just this weird thing, but it's where you first encountered it and I think that's interesting that you just absorb this stuff from all sorts of different places. So it really felt, when I was growing up, that Shakespeare was just kind of in the national psyche.

Varsha:

I do think that Shakespeare does get embedded in the cultural fabric of nations. And I would say UK and US certainly, but other nations as well. So I would argue India too, but I want to now turn to Radio Shakespeare. You have a professional background in radio. And is that when you became interested in Radio Shakespeare? So tell us a little bit about your experience in the industry and what you're researching at the moment.

Andrea:

I worked in radio for a long while, but primarily as a journalist. In radio started off as a reporter, a newsreader, but also mainly producer in my later years. So I am kind of slightly obsessed with sound. My colleagues are very aware that I'm very picky about sound. So you develop a hyper awareness. I went into journalism straight from school actually, so I did newspapers and then moved into the BBC. So I didn't do a degree at 18 like most people do. I did my degree and my MA much later with the Open University. And as part of my BA, I did a Shakespeare module and they supplied me with a lot of CDs of audio Shakespeare. Basically BBC Radio productions because you're learning remotely and you need a way to be able to get a handle on the plays. And I found it so fascinating. When I was listening to Shakespeare, I found it much more easy to understand.

Andrea:

And when you're listening to radio, it's the words that you really pick up. So I became very aware that I was picking up on rhyme much more, repetition of words. So I found it very helpful for my studies. And then I wanted to do more and more with it and found there's a lot available that you can listen to and develop this idea of looking at it for my PhD. And I discovered nobody had done it. There are little bits and pieces, but nobody's really written a comprehensive look at radio productions of Shakespeare. We did toy with the idea of doing the entire world. That would be a lot of productions. To be fair, the archive elsewhere in the world isn't great. There's a bit in Australia. There's a reasonable amount in America. There's a few bits and pieces in various places, but there's not a huge amount. So in the end I've basically focused on the BBC entirely, but even so, that's around 150 extant plays. And by my current tally, I think they probably have done about 400 in total since BBC began. I mean, it's huge. So there's a lot of material to work through.

Varsha:

Oh, that's really fascinating. I didn't realize there had been so many. But when the BBC or British Broadcasting Corporation, for anyone around the world, started to program drama on radio, I believe Shakespeare was one of their first choices, but it was a controversial choice then, right? I mean, if I know that correctly.

Andrea:

Well, it was an interesting choice. So the very first, you might call it full length play, two-hour production, they had done a few little snippets, the first full length play they did was Twelfth Night. And that was six months after BBC began. So it was really quite early in its time. There were two different schools having an argument about this very early in the history of Radio Shakespeare. And in Cardiff, the guy who ran the station there, Arthur Corbett-Smith, he must've been obsessed with Shakespeare. He was doing a Shakespeare play every two weeks. I mean, you can't imagine trying to do a Shakespeare play every two weeks. So he was doing a Shakespeare play every two weeks and there was a massive row in the local paper about it. The people going, "I don't want this Shakespeare, I don't like Shakespeare". And other people going, "well, I don't want music, I want Shakespeare".

Andrea:

And there was a really kind of contentious thing about it. And Colbert-Smith basically said, don't think this is about being highbrowed. This is for the people. This is entertainment for the people. Just because we give you Shakespeare and classical music doesn't mean to say this is highbrow. And I think that's been a tension ever since, is Shakespeare for the highbrows or is Shakespeare for everybody? And I think that's going on then. There was also a little bit later quite a row about how Shakespeare was done. There was a very influential critic called Herbert Farjeon who said it shouldn't be cut. So he was advocating three-hour plus productions on radio, uncut, which I don't know. I mean, I've now listened to an awful lot and I would say that is a lot to listen to in one go. Some of the productions of Hamlet I've heard, when you take into account and they had two intervals in them, run for four, four and a half hours. That's a lot of listening.

Andrea:

One of them went out Boxing Day, 1948. If you wanted to listen to John Gielgud do Hamlet, you had to sit down after your Christmas dinner or after your Boxing Day dinner and listen for four and a half hours. That's an awful lot of commitment to ask of people. The head of drama at the time was saying, people don't have that kind of attention span. They don't want to listen for that sort of time. So it's been a real battle throughout the history of the BBC. How do you present it? How long is it? What can you expect people to pay attention to? What do they want and what is it for? Is Shakespeare on radio, should it be full text? Should it be complete? Is it entertainment? Is it educational? And there's been this tension, I think, throughout the history BBC of what it's actually supposed to be doing. And a lot of the time actually it's fallen to individual producers to make their own decision. And so you can see when you listen to stuff that different producers have a different idea on what they're doing with the plays.

Varsha:

I think this debate in Radio Shakespeare is very reflective of the debates we have already, right, about what Shakespeare is for and who owns Shakespeare and so on. So I think it's interesting that this was, again, something that came up in radio as well. I know this is a strange question. We don't know what Shakespeare would have done, but in their quite fun book, 30 Great Myths About Shakespeare, Emma Smith and Laurie McGuire suggest that if Shakespeare were alive today, he might pick radio as his medium. Would you agree?

Andrea:

I think it's really interesting. Yeah, it's impossible to know what he would think of it. I mean, because you get like the cliche, oh, Shakespeare would be writing the soap operas these days. People say that all the time, but I think it does suit radio. But it often needs a little bit of clever adaptation to make it work. But I think it absolutely does. Look at the plays. There's quite a lot of stuff that does signal what's going on in the text. I did a tour of the Shakespeare's Globe not so long ago before lockdown and so on. And they were talking about the fact that because the construction of that place, that the sight lines aren't always very good. So that might explain why a lot of it is in the text. So it is absolutely true to a certain extent, but Shakespeare does have problems in that there are things like the classic being the duel at the end of Hamlet. How do you know Hamlet and Laertes have swapped swords?

Andrea:

It's not written in the words. They don't say, oh, you've got my sword now. So how do you convey that on radio? So you've got to find ways to do that so that. So there's things that it seems like a good idea, is it? But the things like the soliloquy work really well on radio because on stage sometimes that can feel slightly weird. So it's an interesting idea whether he would have written for radio, but certainly I think the plays do work, or can work very well on radio. I want to say they do always, but they can work very well on radio.

Varsha:

Fantastic. And now that you've mentioned what people can see and cannot see, I'm very curious because I keep thinking in radio or actually more broadly about audio performances on Shakespeare is about silent characters because I think that this does affect more women characters of Shakespeare, such as Gertrude in Hamlet, who are on stage quite a lot of the time, but don't say very much. Now, if we are on stage or in screen, we can at least see their gestures, but what happens on radio? So my fear is, does Radio Shakespeare further marginalize such women characters of Shakespeare who are there, but not speaking.

Andrea:

It's really an interesting point I think. A lot of it is down to the way they're adapted. So you're absolutely right. A lot of the female characters are just silent, almost absent. You might not know that they're there. The more clever, more interesting adaptations will perhaps add a line or add non-verbal sounds so people making yes or whatever, to add into it. Or just little acknowledgement. I mean, the character that immediately leaps to mind for me is Isabella in Measure for Measure and how you deal with the end. And I think what's interesting about that one is that she is silent at the end when the duke has his speech, but after he finishes speaking, you can hear the sound of people leaving and her sobbing. And that is how the play ends. So yes, she's silent. They haven't added in any extra lines, but it is quite clear how she feels about what's happening. So you can do it even without fiddling with the text. So it's all to do with adaptation. Now we have some really amazing female producers of Shakespeare on radio who do some incredibly creative things.

Varsha:

That's great to hear and I'm relieved to hear it. And just for people who might not know so much about Measure for Measure. So what happens with Isabella is that duke comes back and proposes marriage to her. And she has been insisting throughout the play that she wants to be a nun, but we don't have a dialogue indicating how she feels at the end. So how does one do that on radio? But I am interested that actually in this case where she sobs at the end, we have much more of a reaction from her. So instead of marginalizing her, the radio done cleverly has the potential to actually amplify it by giving a reaction. That's really interesting. But as we are talking about marginalization, I want to ask that on film of course, and on stage, there has been a really long history of marginalizing black and brown actors. And I wonder, is it similar with people of certain accents in Radio Shakespeare? Do you get a lot of variety of accents of people performing Shakespeare on radio?

Andrea:

It takes a really long time for that to kick in. People might have heard the phrase RP, received pronunciation. It's basically posh BBC speak. So it's that very clear, precise, that kind of clipped English voice. And that really lasted for a hugely long while on radio drama, particularly Radio Shakespeare. And I think actually on stage it did too. There was a kind of perception that that's how Shakespeare should be delivered for a long while, longer than it should have been. So I think yeah, accents on radio, much later, people started to go, well, hold on a minute, accent can be a way of determining different characters. If you've got lots of different accents, it's really easy to tell who's speaking. I think it is changing now. It has changed and you do get a much broader variety of voices. You also get sometimes some interesting things done. So there's a Coriolanus from the early 2000s. So you got a pitting there, the Romans against the Volscians, which the other group as a war. And the Romans all have English accents and the Volscians all have Irish accents. So immediately you know which camp you're in. When you're hearing people talk, you immediately know whose side they're on. It's all about being creative with it.

Varsha:

I'm really interested in your idea that actually people realized that accents could help them make their drama better because all the time I hear what Shakespeare can do for diversity, but this is a very good example of what diversity can do for Shakespeare, actually make your production much more understandable. So I think this is fantastic to hear, but I want to talk about something you said earlier. And so far we have been talking about women as performers of Shakespeare, but what about women producers and directors. Are women well represented in those roles now?

Andrea:

Now they are. And actually at the start of the BBC, they were. This is the thing that I have no idea what happened in that middle period. But so right at the very beginning, the very first play, Twelfth Night, 1923, female producer. Female adaptor, female producer, Kathleen Nesbitt. Amazing woman, actress. Worked in States, did all sorts of stuff. I don't think really she's known about now at all. She's kind of drifted off people's radar, but was absolutely really important in getting Shakespeare on BBC. And so adapted the first play. She played both Viola and Sebastian in Twelfth Night. She did several other adaptations. Really, in those very early days, she was key to it. So she's an extraordinary important person. And following on from her, there's a woman called Barbara Burnham who did dozens of productions in the 1930s and 1940s. Mary Hope Allen in the 1940s.

Andrea:

So there's a really strong sense of women being involved in producing Shakespeare on radio for quite some time. And then suddenly in the post-war period, certainly from sort of 1950s onwards, it becomes very male. It's all male until you get to the 1970s and there's a producer called Jane Morgan who pops up and does a couple in 1970s and 1980s. And then slowly it changes. And now it's almost entirely female. The producers of Radio Shakespeare are almost entirely female. I mean, Sally Avens, I'm a huge fan of and has done quite a few productions. Emma Harding has done a couple in recent years and who's a relatively new producer at Shakespeare on radio, but I no doubt will do some more. And there's been quite a few recently. So we absolutely have a lot of women making it now and really using technology.

Andrea:

And the other thing that's happening actually with Shakespeare on radio, and it's something I've only been aware of female producers doing. So apologies if there are male producers out there you want to correct me is actually taking a play and changing the time of when it's set. So you're very used to on stage seeing modern dress productions, or perhaps a different period in history productions rather than setting it in the 16th, 17th century. And a couple of years ago, there was a production of Merchant of Venice that was set at the time of the financial crash in 2008. Now that's quite an ambitious thing to do on radio because you haven't got the visual cues that you have in theater. And that was a female producer. And this is also the era in which I started listening to Radio Shakespeare, which is probably what got me into it in the first place. But when you look back at the history of it, yes, there is a massive chunk of the middle of where women really weren't terribly involved at all and I have no idea why that was.

Varsha:

Well, it sounds like they've come back with a vengeance and doing ambitious things with it.

Andrea:

Absolutely.

Varsha:

That is cheery to here. But we have been talking about Radio Shakespeare in English so far, but of course you mentioned the tradition of Radio Shakespeare in Cardiff and then in Welsh. And I'm interested to know, do people listen to Shakespeare in a language that they don't understand? And I asked this purely because I work on Bollywood Shakespeare. And if people are watching and they don't understand the language, then they can read the subtitles or look at actions and gestures, but obviously this is not possible on radio. Do you know if audiences listen to Shakespeare in a language that they don't understand?

Andrea:

Well, yes they did. I mean, I don't know how many, but certainly you go back to the 1940s, there was a production of King Lear that was done entirely in Welsh. The translation was done by a poet and scholar, very well-respected at the time, Griffith. It broadcast from, I think the Cardiff station. It broadcast anyway just to BBC Wales. It wasn't available across the country, but it was really revered as an amazing production. Amazing, both in terms of the script and what had been done with that, but also the production of it. Sadly, there's only just like I think it's four minutes that exists of this production, but I have heard it and you absolutely don't need to be told what scene it is. You know which scene it is. From the delivery and from the sound effects, you know it's, blow, winds, and crack your cheeks.

Andrea:

It is that. It is the storm scene from Lear. And it does have an electricity and a real kind of, it does catch you. What's interesting, the reviews at the time say people listened to it who didn't speak Welsh. People listened to it to hear it, to hear the sound of Shakespeare rather than the words of Shakespeare if you see what I mean. There was a definitely a feeling that people not only did listen, but should listen, could listen and that more people would listen if they were given half a chance. But you're right. I mean, how do you follow that when you haven't got words? In the English language productions, people did follow along the text while they were listening in the early days. So were there people who didn't speak Welsh follow their copy of Lear to know what was going on? I don't know. But certainly yeah, people did listen even though it was in a language they couldn't understand.

Varsha:

Well, it's fascinating. I mean, people do listen to songs and music and so on in languages they don't understand. Maybe there's something to learn about sound of Shakespeare from just listening in a different language. I'm certainly going to give it a go and see how far I get. Changing the topic entirely because you're teaching as well and you mentioned that when you started, the Open University gave you a lot of audio Shakespeare and Radio Shakespeare to listen to. And I'm interested in audio Shakespeare as pedagogical tools. And whereas video clips are very routine in our classrooms, at least as far as I'm aware people don't use audio recordings of Shakespeare to that extent, whether it's radio or CD or audio books or podcasts as teaching tools. Why do you think that audio Shakespeare hasn't gained that much traction considering it's been around for longer than, say DVD film or YouTube and things like that?

Andrea:

No. I mean, talking to quite a lot of academics, I don't think that many of them are aware of what's out there and what's available actually. Or maybe they don't realize quite how useful it can be. I mean, I'll say I particularly found it useful. And I think a lot of students when they start with Shakespeare find the language can be a bit of a problem. And certainly even when I first started going to watch Shakespeare on stage, I would give myself 10 or 15 minutes before the language starts to make sense to me. And the advantage of radio, particularly if you're studying it, you can always listen and read. And the combination of those two things means you grasp what's going on.

Varsha:

I agree with you. I mean, I think technology and what is available has played a huge part in what we use. But talking about using more audio Shakespeare, for our listeners or teachers who might be Radio Shakespeare nerds or complete kind of beginners, what are your personal recommendations in Radio Shakespeare? So either programs that they should tune into regularly or particular archival recordings that are absolutely unmissable.

Andrea:

Archive recording wise, it sort of depends on what you're looking for. So if you're looking for a full-text production, so for example, you're looking for a full-text production of Hamlet done in the, let's say traditional style, which is probably completely wrong, but the 1948 Gielgud Hamlet is a really good, simple, straightforward reading of the text. If you just want to hear it read out loud by actors who really know what they're doing. And obviously John Gielgud really knew what he was doing. That's a brilliant version that's commercially available. You can get that and listen to that. If you want to listen to something a bit more contemporary and perhaps a little bit more easy to digest Radio Four did a version of Hamlet in, I think it was 2014, in five parts with Jamie Parker in the lead. And that's quite a nice way.

Andrea:

You don't have to try and sit down and give yourself three and a half, four hours to listen to it. You can do 40 minutes at a time. That's much more manageable. If you're looking for something for fun, just for sheer, "I enjoy listening to Shakespeare, where can I find a nice play to listen to?" I would recommend, there's a version of A Midsummer Night's Dream from 2011. Roger Allam is Bottom. I love Roger Allam. I love him as Bottom. He breaks my heart when he wakes up and he talks about his dream. It's got a real star studded cast. That is available free on BBC Shakespeare Sessions. So you can download that and listen to that straight after this podcast. There's also a very nice version of As You Like It from 2016 with Pippa Nixon as Rosalind, which I very much enjoy. It his lovely music by Johnny Flynn, who is possibly now better known as an actor.

Andrea:

He's done various TV dramas, but he's also a musician. And if anyone is aware of the TV show, Detectorists, he did the theme music for that. So it's quite folky and that's a lovely... I do like the comedies; I have to say personally. I enjoy studying them all, but if I want to listen to something for sheer pleasure, I will listen to a comedy. But there are lots of different versions out there. Lots of interesting things, but yeah, I mean, I would instinctively go for the comedies, would be As You Like It from 2016. Oh, I do really like Pericles. If you can get hold of Pericles in 2017, it's Paapa Essiedu as Pericles and Willard White as Gower, who has the most amazing voice. I mean, I know Willard White has an amazing voice, but he's just magical as Gower. It was just one of those moments you go, oh. I think that is the point at which you went "Pericles is my favorite play".

Andrea:

It's just a fantastic production. So yeah, if anybody really wants more recommendations, you can find me on Twitter and I can give you umpteen different recommendations and where you can find various different things. There's about 150 extant productions and a good proportion of them, probably about 100 of them, are available to academics and students. And then there's probably another 20 or 30 available either as CDs or as podcasts. So there's quite a lot that if you are interested that you can get your hands on.

Varsha:

Fantastic. And we are going to put your Twitter handle, so you will be inundated. I think that's fantastic. Thank you so much. That was great. And I love talking to you about this.

Andrea:

As you can tell, I'm a massive advocate for Radio Shakespeare and I'm a massive advocate for radio dramas full-stop.

Varsha:

That was Andrea Smith talking about Radio Shakespeare, women producers and performers, accents and the availability of resources. Tweet at her for further suggestions of Radio Shakespeare. Her Twitter handle is in the show notes. Next month, we will be welcoming the absolutely wonderful Nadia Nadarajah, who has been a pioneer in adding sign language to the languages in which Shakespeare is performed. She has made audiences rethink every Shakespeare role that she has performed from Titania, to the Princess of France, to Celia, to Guildenstern. So dear listeners, adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember to tune in to 'Women& Shakespeare' streaming at Apple Podcasts and Spotify. If you want to listen to the podcast with full transcripts, head over to our website, www.womenandshakespeare.com. Until then keep smashing the patriarchy.