The Big Questions: I discuss Shakespeare and the Bible on TV

This Sunday I found myself on the outskirts of York, recording a TV show. This was a slightly unexpected situation for me, which began a few weeks earlier when I had an email from a producer looking to put together a panel to discuss Shakespeare and the Bible.  Since this year is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the BBC One show The Big Questions thought it’d be interesting to discuss the poet’s moral and cultural importance alongside that of the Bible.

A few phone calls back and forth resulted, as the producers sounded me out on various aspects of the topic and what I might respond to particular questions. Then a call to confirm they wanted me on the show, and an intricate logistical system kicked into operation.  There were train tickets in advance, a driver would be waiting for me, receipts for dinner were mentioned (it really is terribly easy to impress an academic, as you can hear.)  I managed not to mess up anyone’s schedule, and packed two sets of blue corduroy trousers, three black shirts (a friend once suggested my wardrobe must look like a really boring superhero’s), five books and a Kindle.  When travelling I’m always haunted by the fear that I’ll get somewhere and then have a real hankering for a particular book I’ve left behind.  And I never go anywhere without some emergency Dorothy L. Sayers.

I arrived the night before, to find the hotel lobby full of men in sombreros and false moustaches. I’d always thought of York as a quiet medieval city with tea shops and museums, but apparently it has quite a number of stag and hen parties as well.  Really quite a number: the institution of marriage is flourishing in York, if the streets on a Friday night are anything to go by.  Paradoxical, perhaps, that quite so many people soon to be embarking on marriage were dressed as nuns, but there’s probably a sociological explanation for it.  And it fitted with my previous impression of the city’s medieval qualities.

The recording wasn’t until the early afternoon, so the next morning I had time in hand and nerves in stomach, so after breakfast I wandered up to the Minster, stopping to pray at a small church on the way. I managed to turn up at the Minster as a service was in full vestmented progress, and just as the sermon was starting, so one of the stewards directed me to a small side-chapel where I could listen whilst being out of the way.  I heard an erudite account of how social theology might affect our reflections on the EU referendum, and marvelled at the architecture.  I really will have to go back to York and see it properly.

But no time for that now, and I was taken to the recording, where I met the other guests and signed a waiver to legally allow them to broadcast what I would say. The former was great fun: I already knew Alison Milbank of UoN’s own theology department and it was great to have an excuse to talk to her again, but I had only seen Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson from the back of lecture halls as a postgraduate, and only heard Akala on his singles, so was very cheered to actually meet them.  There were plenty of sandwiches, to which we failed to do justice (in my case because of the nerves and a hotel cooked breakfast.)  There were also plenty of people with the word “producer” somewhere in their job title, who sorted everything which anyone happened to mention.

The waiver was impressively ambitious: I genuinely signed over them the rights to transmit my contribution to the show via any technology which currently exists or may be invented in the future, and in any place anywhere in the universe. Well, if we going to talk about whether Shakespeare and the Bible were universal and timeless I suppose it made sense to think on that scale.  As a friend later remarked dramatically, think of you talking in space.  On reflection, me talking in space would presumably involve me gabbling futilely into a yawning and unheeding void, before running out of air and perishing.  But luckily that only occurred to me afterwards.

The show was quite enjoyable, and the hour was up before I thought we were even halfway through. It was oddly like a seminar in our department, with everyone adding their particular angle on the question (though admittedly we don’t usually have interjections or applause from an audience.)  I learned an awful lot from my fellow panellists in that hour, about the different ways Shakespeare and the Bible can be questioned and appreciated.  Not to mention the version of Romeo and Juliet written in emoticons.

I also learned something about myself, though it was less profound: catching sight of myself on one of the monitor screens I realized that to the unbiased observer I am about 60%-70% beard. Oh, to see ourselves as others see us.  I suppose that’s what iPlayer is for…

The Big Questions: Shakespeare and the Bible is available on the BBC iPlayer here, and for anyone outside Britain, there is a copy on Youtube:

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