New Times,
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  1. Long reads
5 February 1999

A codpiece and LSD experience

Michael McMahonfears that films are giving children the wrong idea about Shakespeare

By Michael McMahon

Poor old Shakespeare. His creative urge has deserted him. He’s got to write a love story and he’s forgotten what love is like. He hasn’t dipped his quill in weeks. He is suffering – you guessed it – from that most distressing of conditions: writer’s cock.

The idea on which the exhilarating Shakespeare in Love is predicated may not be good history, but it is a pretty good metaphor for the cultural condition of contemporary Britain, which is labouring under a double dose of literary impotence. Too many of our children won’t read and can’t write – and too few do either for pleasure. But they do watch films. So the appearance of one about Shakespeare, however fanciful, has been seized on by the organisers of our National Year of Reading as an opportunity to inject their drive for literacy with a shot of – well, sexiness.

For all the fuss that has been made, you would think that encouraging an interest in literature through films – and “sexy” ones, at that – was something new. In fact, for years now, virtually every 15 year old in the land has been shown the “Playboy production” of Macbeth, produced by Hugh Hefner and disturbingly directed by Roman Polanski.

The film is perverse, bloody and violent enough to capture the attention of even the most savage of our adolescents. What they remember, though, is not the all-important soliloquies (“Can we fast-forward this bit, sir?”), but the gratuitous violence (“Go on, sir, rewind it to the bit where he gets the arrow in his head!”). And, of course, the nudity. The witches get their kit off for Act IV, scene i, and Francesca Annis walks naked in her sleep.

Flesh is also exposed, and to a younger age group, in what was until recently the de facto schools version of Romeo and Juliet: a topless Olivia Hussey and a view, a tergo, of the unclothed Leonard Whiting. Romeo and Juliet might be only one of the three choices for the tests that children take at 13, but it has been the most popular – largely because of the availability of the heavily codpieced Zeffirelli film.

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Until last year, that is. Then, the brilliant, glitzy, drug-culture-futuristic, US-set version came on the scene. No nudity, but the first glimpse of the sultry-sweet Leonardo di Caprio sets the girls’ hormones racing as surely as a dropped match will ignite spilt petrol – which is precisely what happens in the “exploding gas-station scene” which begins the film, thus assuring the boys’ attention, too. Now there’s “sexiness” for you. And in their tests, the less gifted kids write things like “Mercutio wears ladies’ underwear, and gives Romeo some LSD before the Capulets’ party” and “Juliet is very sad when she wakes up to find Romeo dead, so she shoots herself.” Which, in the film, they do. “Confusion,” as Macduff might say if he were to mark their scripts, “now hath made his masterpiece.”

Even a confused appreciation of a masterpiece is better than no appreciation, though, and these films do at least sugar the pill of literature for unletterly children. But when the government last week funded free showings for schools of Shakespeare in Love it was handing out a pill which is, educationally, sugar much of the way through. Yes, it’s brilliant, witty, comic and affecting by turns; and at its heart lies an exultant love of language. As for sex, it knocks Polanski’s Macbeth and both versions of Romeo and Juliet into a writer’s cocked hat. There are unambiguous couplings aplenty, seen from (and practised at) all angles. It will be interesting to see how the less gifted kids express their memories of the film.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be too cynical. After all, a good film is worth watching for its own sake. A few years ago, I showed one to some of my least able pupils. A colleague’s description of a child’s behaviour as “feral” had put me in mind of Francois Truffaut’s L’Enfant Sauvage. It is the true story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron, found abandoned in the forest and experimented on by experts who wanted to see if they could make him read and write – and, indeed, speak.

My own experiment had interesting results. After some initial resistance, in which the cries of “Oh, sir, it’s in black and white!” were quickly drowned by complaints that it was “in foreign”, they were captivated. They watched it – an old, monochrome film in French, with subtitles and a relentless Vivaldi score – for the whole hour. There wasn’t an interruption or a murmur – except for one of outrage when it is revealed that the boy’s throat had been cut before he had been left for dead in the forest. They were hooked. When the bell rang, they complained that they would have to wait until the following week before seeing the end of it. “Does he learn to speak, sir? Does he get normal?”

I wondered why they had been so rapt. Perhaps it wasn’t so strange. Some of their lives weren’t so very different from the Wild Boy’s. They all had difficulties with language, and several of them, from time to time, had lived rough. And when the Wild Boy threw down the wooden letters that he couldn’t make into the words that he didn’t understand, they knew what he was feeling. They were watching a free spirit being forced to fail at tasks in which he could see no purpose. They know how that feels.

The chances of my experiment being repeated on a national scale are not great. L’Enfant Sauvage might be, in a way, the film about literacy, but it is just not “sexy” enough for our image-conscious government. More to the point, when it touchingly invites us to question whether education is the most important thing in life, it suggests an answer that our political masters would not want to hear.

The writer teaches in a secondary school

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