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Ladies' night (2005)

2005-11-14 New Statesman.jpg

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In an updated Shakespeare, the girls get all the best lines

Much Ado About Nothing (BBC1)

I have been thinking about Billie Piper, and not in that way either. Five years ago, she was an ex-teenybopper, most famous for being the one attractive symptom of Chris Evans's post-adolescence crisis. But against expectations, credibility began to consolidate around her. When the BBC began its series of Canterbury Tales updates, it led off with The Miller's Tale, in which Piper brilliantly played the Miller's wife. When it regenerated Dr Who, its star turned out to be not the here-today-and-regenerated-tomorrow Christopher Ecclestone, but his earthly, earthy sidekick, Rose. Now Piper has become the star turn in the first instalment of the BBC's new Shakespeare project, the one that takes the Bard's plots, plants them in "contemporary" Britain and leaves his words to a hyperlink on www.bbc.co.uk/drama/shakespeare. No wonder (or small wonder) that Ian McMillan wrote an ode to her in Saturday's Daily Telegraph. The flimsy 23-year-old with the big lips and gorblimey vowels is the new badge of public-service quality television, the Glenda Jackson de nos jours.

This is not to say that she is the only good thing in the agreeable Much Ado About Nothing (7 November, 8.30pm). In this take on the Bard's sparky romantic comedy, Sicily becomes Bournemouth and Leonato's court the TV studios of Wessex Tonight. Piper plays Hero, daughter of Leonard (Martin Jarvis), the show's producer, who has nepotistically appointed her as weather girl. Hero may not be the brightest isobar on the chart, but she has a heart quite big enough to be trampled on. Piper plays her with fetching non-virginal innocence and then, having been given a rather stronger fifth act than the one Shakespeare gave his boy-actresses, turns on her two suitors. This Hero is a truly modern heroine, whose happy ending is to refuse to go up the aisle with anyone.

Elsewhere in the Wessex Tonight offices, the main plot is taking rather longer to warm up. Beatrice, played by Sarah Parish, the BBC's answer to Sarah Lancashire, is the show's co-presenter. Faced with the return of her former beau Benedick as her co-host, she gives him hell. "Can I speak honestly?" he asks. "I don't know. Can you?" she replies. "Don't you dare walk away when I am shouting at you." And on, and on. Sadly, the BBC Benedick is much more of a dick than Shakespeare's Benedick, and hardly lands any punches back. Damian Lewis, who can normally do anything, is not helped by being given a ridiculous ginger beard and a persona that would make Alan Partridge cringe. Fortunately, however, as the drama darkens, his melancholy grows. He cuts off his beard and a real human being emerges, one with whom it might be worth falling in love. Nevertheless, there is a problem here: the play equates a falling off in Benedick's wit and fluency with a growth in his sincerity — but Lewis's Benedick is neither very witty nor fluent in the first place.

There will be several ways to judge the success of these four modern Shakespeares. One will be to ask whether they help or hinder the credibility of the Bard. On balance, Much Ado aids it. It brings home, for instance, what extraordinary female parts he wrote. It contains also a nicely handled educational interlude in which Benedick, having decided to read the 116th Sonnet ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds") at Hero's wedding, gets Beatrice to explain it to him line by line. Shuffled into the mix, too, is my favourite line of Benedick's, his resigned "The world it must be peopled". On the debit side, this Much Ado features an unfunny Dogberry and Verges, transformed into jobsworth security guards, but then Dogberry and Verges are always unfunny, aren't they?

It also, for all the transpositions, exposes the artificiality of Shakespeare's plot. Here lies the true jeopardy to the Bard's reputation. On stage, we make allowances for Shakespeare because the language reminds us that, whatever modern dress the actors are wearing, this is an old text, speaking to and from a different age. Employed to bring things up to date, the BBC's writers cannot but draw our attention to the fact that much of what is happening is simply not explicable in terms of modern behaviour, even when played as farce. Turning the malevolent Don John into a stalker worked, but having Claude (Claudio) denounce Hero at the altar still looks silly. And if the dramatist David Nicholls had problems with Much Ado, wait till you see the twist Sally Wainwright gets into with The Taming of the Shrew. The inescapable conclusion is that, in his more minor works at least, we value Shakespeare for his language, not his (usually borrowed) plots.

The other way to judge the series is more simple. Is it good TV? Nicholls clearly referenced screwball comedies with this Much Ado and took as much from Howard Hawks's His Girl Friday as from the RSC. If Nicholls is no Shakespeare, he is no Ben Hecht or Charles MacArthur (who co-wrote The Front Page, on which HGF was based) either. Yet who does not love a wise-cracking romantic comedy? I laughed quite a bit. My eyes moistened embarrassingly as the end neared. And for all that I thank Nicholls — although it will be Billie, not Shakespeare, whose career he has advanced.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times

Caption: Family affair: Hero (Piper) and Leonard (Jarvis)

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  • APA 6th ed.: Billen, Andrew (2005-11-14). Ladies' night. New Statesman p. 47.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Billen, Andrew. "Ladies' night." New Statesman [add city] 2005-11-14, 47. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Billen, Andrew. "Ladies' night." New Statesman, edition, sec., 2005-11-14
  • Turabian: Billen, Andrew. "Ladies' night." New Statesman, 2005-11-14, section, 47 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Ladies' night | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Ladies%27_night | work=New Statesman | pages=47 | date=2005-11-14 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=18 November 2017 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Ladies' night | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Ladies%27_night | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=18 November 2017}}</ref>