Off By Heart
Voiceover: Miranda Richardson (Off By Heart Shakespeare)
Silver River for BBC Two, 22 May 2009
as Off By Heart: Shakespeare 19 May 2012
As part of the BBC's poetry season in 2009, the corporation ran a competition. Primary school children were invited to learn short poems, and to recite them in a public performance.
The competition began with teachers encouraging their pupils (aged 7-11) to remember a poem, and to deliver it in class, or in the school assembly. The best pupil from each school was entered into a local heat, from where the cream were selected for the national final. The one-off programme was a documentary, cutting between preparations and performances in the final, and the twelve contenders filmed at their home or in their school.
The programme was more than a straightforward record of the competition: it allowed the competitors to explain how they had changed. The winner recounted how he had expanded his vocabulary, and gained confidence, and the exercise of learning poetry had helped him to remember other things. The producers had set themselves a high target, to "reinvigorate the lost art of poetry recital" in schools.
The winner, Yazdan Isfahani, was a refugee from Iran, and spoke English as a second language. A second finalist also had Farsi as her first language, and another finalist was a native Welsh speaker. Commentators in the press mused that this may be an advantage, that the poetry became more vivid in a novel tongue.
Enter the Bard
This theory was tested in 2012, when Off By Heart returned, taking Shakespeare as its subject. The language of the bard was always florid, and often inaccessible to students aged 13-15. Again, the contest followed the path of a selection in schools, then sending some competitors to regional finals, from where nine would tread the boards in Stratford.
All of the performers delivered their soliloquies: some of them flubbed their lines a little, others gesticulated wildly, as if their hands were windmills about to fall off. Many seemed more assured and confident in rehearsal than on the big stage. But the quality was high, often on a par with more experienced actors.
The judging criteria were subtle: it was not sufficient to remember and recite Shakespeare as though it were a shopping list or bus timetable. No, the contenders needed to bring out the emotions, to understand Juliet's vulnerability, or Henry VI's patriotic appeal. Some of the best performances challenged the viewers - throwing Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" line out as though it were an Ask the Audience question.
Both contests were captured and condensed into documentaries. These films followed the broad narrative conventions of talent shows (here's a contender, here's their life, their rehearsals, the best bits of their performance, and the judges' critique), while challenging these norms in the details. The contestants were introduced gradually, as one would in conversation. Backstage scenes were far more languid and calm than the standard show. One shot in Off By Heart: Shakespeare, of a contender and a coach slowing down the performance, was held for 32 seconds - The X Factor would have cut to at least five angles during that time.
Prizes were small - a plastic trophy for the winner, some book tokens for their school - emphasising the honour of achievement, rather than the glory of competition.
Off By Heart: Yazdan Isfahani
Off By Heart Shakespeare: Nuha Bazeer
Adrian Corker (Off By Heart)
Malcolm Lindsay (Off By Heart Shakespeare)
The judges in 2009 were Philip Pullman (author), Benjamin Zephaniah (poet), and Dawn Postans (head of examinations for drama school LAMDA). The final was filmed at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford.
For 2012, the judging panel was Imogen Stubbs (actor), Simon Schama (historian), and Samuel West (actor). The final was filmed at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Off By Heart won the Children's BAFTA for Primary Learning in 2009.