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Children learning Shakespeare

Reality television, featuring children learning Shakespeare, offers an example to help us understand how such shows can entertain and educate.

The video above focuses solely on examples from the BBC. However, a traditional hallmark of public service broadcasting is impartiality. Here, we acknowledge that other examples of children learning Shakespeare are available.

Channel 4’s Jamie’s Dream School unintentionally offers a rarely foregrounded insight into the ways in which both Shakespeare and the British actor Simon Callow — one of Shakespeare’s “greatest” interpreters — lack iconicity for some young people. Screened over seven weeks in March and April 2011, Jamie’s Dream School is a pedagogical experiment devised by the chef, restaurateur and TV personality Jamie Oliver to see whether using celebrity “expert” teachers and giving them both more freedom and greater resources than many schools can afford could re-engage students at risk of dropping out of education or training. The school is made up of twenty sixteen to eighteen-year olds with a handful of GCSEs between them (qualifications traditionally marking the end of formal education for those in Britain leaving school at sixteen), and a long list of difficult educational and personal circumstances.

Callow’s drama classes on Romeo and Juliet at the school involve fraught exertions to deliver the background of the play and to interest students in Shakespeare’s biography, historical context, and theatricality more generally by taking them to see his one-man-show, Shakespeare — the Man from Stratford; to teach them Shakespeare’s craftsmanship by declaiming passages at them; and to read repeatedly through scenes from Romeo and Juliet involving the warring factions (such writing is blithely assumed to be relevant to these students, despite the series presenting little evidence of gang violence in their daily lives, past or present).

Callow’s pedagogic approach, which combines the techniques that directors might use to induct professional, experienced actors into rehearsing a show (such as a whole cast read-through), with archaic teaching practices (such as reading around the class while seated), largely fails to attract, let alone to hold, the students’ attention — although he fares better when he gets them on their feet and takes them to the Globe for stage fighting classes. He also tries hard, initially, to forge personalized connections to Shakespeare for the students, asking them for their heroes, who range from Bill Gates to Katie Price, aka Jordan, the glamor model and reality television celebrity, and matching them with Shakespearean protagonists (the heavy editing, sadly, does not reveal his suggested likenesses for Gates and Price).

Despite Callow being lauded by Jamie Oliver in the programme as a “genius drama teacher”, and a few students being inspired to explore acting careers, a more skeptical reading of the series suggests that it depicts an overwhelming mismatch between Callow’s vision for his methodology and his students’ reception and experience of it.

You can read an article on the programme from the perspective of an experienced teacher of Shakespeare in UK schools, Rob Smith, in the British Shakespeare Association’s Teaching Shakespeare magazine.

You can read more about Jamie’s Dream School, as well as three other, more adult-oriented, television programmes featuring Shakespeare in an article by Sarah Olive in Borrowers and Lenders, a journal focused on Shakespeare in modern popular culture and arts.

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