Raise a glass to the mechanics of the Bard

5th October 2007 at 01:00
Coronation Street fans have been enjoying a minor plot-line about Shakespeare in education. Ignoring juicier strands like "What do you do when your transsexual auntie turns out to be your dead father?", I have been riveted to the matter of Sally Webster and Henry V.

For newcomers, a quick resume. Sally, a discontented machinist in her forties, decides to improve her mind and hires a local teacher to coach her for English GCSE. She struggles with the Shakespeare ("Yarely, what does that mean?") and he suggests they go to see Henry V at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. When the teacher's girlfriend insists on coming too, he suggests that Sally's husband, Kevin the mechanic, joins them to make four. "Yeah, OK, as long as it ends before the pubs shut", he says cheerfully.

Sally is mortified; she regards any encounter with the Bard as something to be approached reverentially and fears that the grease-monkey Kev will show her up.

It was beautifully engineered and you could see the punch-line coming. Afterwards, Sally tries to talk essay-language to the teacher in the pub, while Kevin happily slurps his pint and says it was great and that Henry V reminds him of Tony Soprano on the telly. Sally is even more embarrassed "Oh, really, Kevin!" as if he'd burped at a Duchess' tea party. But the teacher, of course, says he's bang on target. Blokey high fives all round.

It was a brilliant illustration of changing education and attitudes to Shakespeare.

Sally is stuck in a reverential mindset: her studying is designed to "improve" herself in a social sense. She wants to enter what she sees as an exclusive club of well-spoken refined people, who go to theatres in smart clothes and say clever things afterwards. Kevin, on the other hand, just shucks off his overalls, sits back with his Maltesers and lets the vigour of the plot carry him along, deploying a native intelligence honed in the backstreet garage trade. He isn't scared of Shakespeare, nor ashamed of watching telly; he just likes a good story, good acting and vigorous and engaging language. If there are a few opaque speeches, he doesn't fret about it. And the teacher, of course, is on his side. And so he should be.

In recent years, Shakespeare has been brought more intimately and entertainingly close to modern audiences than at any time in my life. We have had the Globe, the Complete Works festival, innumerable larky productions and films, books like Ackroyd and Bill Bryson's, and teachers' conferences like the Royal Shakespeare Company's marvellous session last autumn.

Some children are probably still bored by bad teaching, or confined to one or two scenes for the sake of exams. Some, no doubt, are scared off by the Sally generation who go all posh and la-di-da about the passionate young man from Stratford who sought his fortune among the rogues and show-offs of the South Bank. But that moment in the Rover's Return when the young teacher sides with Kevin was a brief, delightful acknowledgement that times have changed.

Libby Purves

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is a novelist and broadcaster. She presents 'The Learning Curve' on BBC Radio 4

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