In Shakespeare's Footsteps: Andrew Billen on a Search for the Bard That Fails to Convey Any Insights into His Work. (Television)
Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)
The presenter Michael Wood, pursuing the Bard to Lancashire, takes his first, well-overdue deep breath in the second instalment of In Search of Shakespeare (BBC2, 9.20pm, Saturdays). "It's easy to get carried away looking for Shakespeare, isn't it?" he asks. Well, you should know, old chum. Appropriately, perhaps, for an account of an actor and playwright, Wood's prologue to the opening programme (broadcast the previous week) was the hammiest I've ever seen.
During the opening sequence, Wood, who to his credit has hardly modified his unkempt hairstyle since the days when it was de rigueur, was a figure in perpetual motion, always walking: past Tower Bridge and a misty Canary Wharf, through forests and fields and up a hill, where an urchin asked: "Are you walking all the way there?" You bet he was. Summer turned to autumn. Autumn became snowy winter. Wood strode on, a man for all seasons.
Yet for a few moments, as he took off on his trek, I feared that this over-seasoned traveller, who has pursued Troy, the conquistadors and Alexander the Great to their dens, was losing his nerve. "Can the life of a writer ever be as interesting or as exciting as that of an inventor, a conqueror or an explorer, a Napoleon, a Columbus or an Alexander the Great?" he asked.
"Well, yes," he answered, italics all over the place. "Yes, it can. More so because the writer and the poets are the explorers of the human heart and, long after the conquerors are forgotten, their legacy will be the most valuable to us, and Shakespeare is the greatest writer who ever lived. Who wouldn't want to know what made him tick?" If this is how Wood addresses serious-minded BBC2 viewers on a summers night, I want to be a fly on a wall when he pitches his next programme to Sky.
There is no question that we are curious about Shakespeare's life. The problem is that most of us accepted long ago that so little is known of it that we are best off reading the plays and the poems and hiring Shakespeare in Love when our attention flags. In terms of historical facts, Wood, however, is doing a good job of persuading us that there is more straw with which to make bricks than we thought. Whenever the producer Rebecca Dobbs can manage it, Wood is shown poring over documents and archives, in fact anything containing a variation of the name Shakespeare. "Elizabethan England was a police state. Its spies recorded everything," insists Wood.
The dark secret of the Shakespeare family, he argued, was that it was Catholic, caught on the wrong side of the sectarian divide when the music stopped, after a dozen years in which England's official faith changed three times. …