Sunday, 29 April 2012, 10:15PM – 11:15PM

“The Wind In the Willows is a classic not just of children’s literature but also of English literature and I want to find out how it came to be made. How it reflects the life of Kenneth Grahame and also his relationship with his son. It’s a fascinating story, and ultimately a sad one.” – Griff Rhys Jones on The Wind in The Willows. 

In this instalment of the Perspectives documentary strand, comedian and television presenter Griff Rhys Jones sets out to discover ‘a story about a story’, as he explores The Wind In The Willows, what inspired the writer Kenneth Grahame, and why his story has gripped the imagination of millions of readers. 

Sunday, 22 April 2012, 10:15PM – 11:15PM

David Walliams: The Genius of Dahl 

“As a comedian I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work out how to say things that if said in a serious way would be completely unacceptable, and I haven’t always gotten away with it. In Dahl’s world, a grandma can be poisoned by her grandson. Parents can be eaten by a rhinoceros. And yet somehow it’s acceptable. It takes a true genius to pull that off.” – David Walliams on Roald Dahl. 

It is perhaps not surprising that David Walliams is a huge fan of Roald Dahl, when some of his acting creations almost seem like Dahl characters – exaggerated and extreme, subversive and absurd, capable of cruelty, and challenging rules with dark humour. 

In the latest installment of the Perspectives documentary strand, comedian and children’s author David Walliams delves into the electrifying, fantastic and dark world of Roald Dahl. He explores what makes Dahl one of the great storytellers, why his stories are loved by millions of readers and whether after many decades, they still stand the test of time. 

Sunday, 8 April 2012, 10:15PM – 11:15PM

Sergeant on Spike: 

In this instalment of the Perspectives documentary strand, comedian and journalist John Sergeant embarks on an immersive personal journey into the influence of Spike Milligan on his life, and on the nation’s psyche. 

Marking the year of the tenth anniversary of the comic legend’s death, this 60-minute documentary shows John telling the story of how Spike not only created ‘alternative comedy’ in Britain but defined the modern British sense of humour using archive footage and interviews with stars of today. 

Along the way, John meets household names of entertainment and comedy in his search to find the ultimate impact of Spike on the comedy landscape of Britain today. 

Ultimately, he discovers that Spike’s surrealist comedic influence stretches from Monty Python to Eddie Izzard to Noel Fielding, and still has the power to entertain youngsters today. 

John starts by visiting his childhood home, a sleepy vicarage, in which he listened Spike’s Goon Show as a child in the 1950s, and it meant everything to him. Later it inspired him to take up comedy writing and performance when he was at Oxford University. 

“Spike Milligan means a lot to me, because my first job was as a comedian, not anything like as good as him, but as a comic actor with Alan Bennett. I can’t imagine a comedian in Britain who doesn’t acknowledge their debt to Spike Milligan. He inspired a generation.” 

He speaks with Spike’s brother Desmond, who tells him by phone from Australia that Spike may have gained some of his wit and humour from his father, an entertainer in the Forces. 

“He wasn’t as zany as Spike, Spike was unique. None of us was quite as mad as he was.” 

He sits down to listen to extracts from the Goon Show with Eddie Izzard, who once described Spike as ‘the godfather of alternative comedy’, and explained that his impact on the comedians who followed was profound. 

“Without Spike doing surreal, I wouldn’t have existed. I don’t think [Monty] Python would have existed.” 

After Spike’s family were forced to come to England from colonial India, John discovers he took up work as a trumpeter in London clubs. He muses that some of his talent must have come from being an outsider, a ‘million miles’ from the comedians of the 1930s. 

John visits the pub in Westminster, formerly the Grafton Arms, above which The Goon Show germinated and Spike lived with the landlord’s monkey, He speaks with the landlord’s children, who tell him Spike was a very funny man – until they grew older, which leads John to a revelation. 

“What is happening here is we are catching Spike in his 30s, relating to children, and of course that’s what he did at his best throughout his life as a comic.” 

As the Goon Show, also featuring Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe, grew to run for nine years, dominating the airwaves with more than 200 episodes, Spike’s fame grew., before he was cajoled into making a short film. 

John meets Esther Rantzen, who used to watch the show being recorded at a theatre in Camden. He also meets with John Antrobus, a playwright with whom Spike wrote, who describes the comic as a ‘genius’. 

He also visits comedian Noel Fielding, who praises the freeform surrealism of Spike’s work and his ability to simply write comedy. 

“Milligan was writing it, and that is the most impressive thing to me, to be able to wrote a lot, didn’t he. He was a bit mad, I mean that’s what happens, you start looking for everything to be a joke in every situation and you sort of force your brain, when you are writing, to look for this humour or these abstract thoughts and sometimes you can’t turn that off.” 

John visits Spike’s former secretary Norma Farnes, who holds a treasure trove of Milligan minutiae. She describes him as a man who was prone to dark moods, which might last for days. She lets him see some home movies from his three weddings, and speculates as to what it might have been like to be married to Spike. 

“I would think impossible, can imagine being married to Spike Milligan? Must have been a nightmare.” 

Spike’s career in television was by the 1970s being hampered by the comedians he had influenced in the 1950s, John discovers. One such comedian was Michael Palin of Monty Python, who paid tribute to Spike’s influence. 

“He did feel there was a bit of plagiarism going on. There was a slight bit of a difficult atmosphere. Spike could be one thing one day and say you were wonderful, and then the other ‘all my best jokes, it’s me, I did all this ago’. Which is of course true but I think we were flattering him in a way.” 

John then visits a school to see if Spike’s comedy had the same impact now as it did on him. After a few minutes of hearing the Goon Show, laughter is abundant in the classroom, which leads John to a conclusion. 

“So, after my voyage around the moon with members of Spike Milligan’s fan club of all shapes and sizes what is my conclusion? It is simply that directly or indirectly he has affected us all, or as he might put it, ‘infected’ us all.”

Sunday, 1 April 2012, 10:15PM – 11:15PM

Lenny Henry: Finding Shakespeare: 

As a working-class kid growing up in Dudley in the West Midlands, Lenny found William Shakespeare’s plays boring, irrelevant and inaccessible. But by the age of 50 and with a burning ambition to try his hand at serious acting, Lenny decided it was time he faced his fears and finally tried to get to grips with the Bard. 

In this film, he sets himself the ultimate challenge for a Shakespearean actor – starring in a global telecast of Comedy of Errors at National Theatre in London. After 35 years on stage this will be the biggest show Lenny has ever done – it is about to be beamed live around the world to 700 cinemas in 22 countries. 

Lenny retraces his steps, from listening to plays in his car to starring as Othello for regional theatre and now in “Comedy of Errors” for the National Theatre. 

Along the way, he meets a rapper, an Oxford don, his old mentor who prepared him to play Othello, actor Dominic West who played Iago, and Adrian Lester, his pal from Hustle, who tries with Lenny to show a class of London schoolkids how they too can “get” Shakespeare. He reflects upon his education, his experiences as a younger man and his changing attitude toward the Bard, and ultimately hopes that he’s arrived at “finding Shakespeare” by finding Lenny. 

Lenny admits to having had a mental block on Shakespeare as a younger man and being apprehensive about his role in the Comedy of Errors. 

“It’s incredible that I’m doing this play because for most of my life I’d kept well away from Shakespeare. Like many of us, I thought I wasn’t clever enough to understand it. But where does this mental block about Shakespeare come from – and what are we missing out on if we don’t get past it?” 

Lenny’s mother was a major influence on his life, and her death inspired him into education. 

“My mum passed away in 1998 and it turned my world upside down really. She always wanted me to continue my education and I also always wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t thick, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do something. So for six years while I was doing the Lenny Henry show I was actually studying for a BA in English literature.” 

Despite being a professional comedian, Lenny says he was frightened by the scope of Shakespeare and found the bard’s work forbidding. 

“I was very, very frightened. Because it was like a big closed door, Shakespeare and theatre to me. It was like a big closed door with a boulder up against the other end and me mum standing there like this.” 

The moment everything changed was when he met director Barrie Rutter. Barrie gave Lenny his first chance to act in a Shakespeare play, in Othello in 2009. 

“I made a radio show for radio 4 called Lenny and Will, and in that show I met Barrie Rutter who absolutely rocked my world. I met Barrie at Broadcasting House. We did the last 14 lines of Othello which begins ‘soft you, a word or two before you go…’ and we rehearsed it for 4 hours.” 

Lenny visits the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle under Lyme where Barrie is rehearsing Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost with his company Northern Broadsides. Twenty years ago, when Barrie’s company, Northern Broadsides, began performing Shakespeare in regional accents it was revolutionary. And it was that down-to-earth approach that made Lenny feel comfortable with Shakespeare for the first time. Working with a director like Barrie finally freed Lenny from the idea he’d held onto since his schooldays that Shakespeare was completely beyond his reach. 

“I always had this attitude with Shakespeare that it wasn’t for working class people. Nobody spoke like that. Or Loike thees. Everybody was posh. It’s a real barrier when you’re a kid. So to hear Shakespeare done with Hull accents, Manchester accents, Welsh accents, it’s wonderful, because it makes it more accessible.” 

Lenny also meets actor Dominic West, who is most famous for his role in the hit US cop show The Wire but is also an accomplished Shakespearean actor who recently played Iago in a highly acclaimed production of Othello. They talk about the Bard and his influence on shows like The Wire, as well as his lasting impact on Dominic’s acting career. 

“I’ve always tried to keep doing Shakespeare, I find it’s more rewarding than anything else, just in terms of how much it stretches your ability to empathise with humanity, and to understand why people do what they do. And the amazing thing about it is, whatever part you play, whether it’s the nastiest guy or… like Iago, you have to take your tiny self and make it big to match him, don’t you?” 

Lenny’s view of Shakespeare as something for people who went to grammar school or university is tested by Professor Jonathan Bate, Provost of Worcester College and leading Shakespeare scholar. He reveals that while the Bard went to grammar school, he did not attend university – making him a rarity among playwrights of the time. His Warwickshire accent also made him stand out in London, says Jonathan. 

“I think the fact of not getting a very high level of education kept Shakespeare grounded, it kept him in touch with the voice of the ordinary person. In Shakespeare’s time the plays weren’t just for posh people – they were for everybody. He gave a voice to the common man.” 

But Lenny believes it is Shakespeare’s 400-year-old language that provides the ultimate barrier to accessibility. He visits South London and MOBO Award winning rapper Akala, who helps kids understand Shakespeare by presenting it to them in a form they can understand – hip-hop. He picks out lines from artists like the Wu Tang Clan and Eminem so Lenny can compare them and explains the similarities with Shakespeare. 

“People misunderstand both Shakespeare and hip-hop. And misunderstanding these human stories or these vehicles for human stories, they’re missing out on, I suppose, self-expression. The moment it’s kind of humanised … we find there’s a certain confidence, like ‘If I can get Shakespeare, and I’m told he’s the most unattainable guy in the world, then I can get anything.’” 

Lenny also meets Hustle actor Adrian Lester, who is giving a Shakespeare workshop at a school. The idea, says Adrian, is to take Shakespeare off the page and to make it real for the students. 

“We don’t want to say to them forget all your references as a young person living in Britain today – no. Use all your references, keep those observations, and keep all your emotional life, keep all this issues you have, because they’re relevant to approaching Shakespeare.” 

This leads Lenny to an insight into how accessible Shakespeare’s work can be. 

“What I’ve gleaned so far is that Shakespeare is about performance. It’s no good reading it out, you’ve got to get up and get it in the body. It’s story telling in the body.” 

And if there’s one place to get to grips with how Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be performed, it’s the Globe Theatre. Its artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole, is passionate about debunking the snobbery of Shakespear. 

“It’s about breaking down the divide between the stage and the audience so that you can come there and somebody in the front row will be like that and have their arms there. They’ll grab your foot.” 

And waiting for his curtain call in front of a global audience, Lenny comes to a conclusion that he has been heading towards throughout the film. 

“Meeting all these people has just confirmed to me how universal Shakespeare’s appeal is. It’s sort of made me think I could have done it before, I could have done it earlier. 

“It would be stupid to say that I’m in love with Shakespeare, because I’m not. I find it very, very difficult and hard to learn. But I do feel like I’ve climbed a mountain as it were, there are many more mountains to go, I’m in the foothills as it were, of trying to figure it out. I’m richer for the experience certainly.” 

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