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BBC launches Off By Heart Shakespeare – a national contest for secondary school students on BBC Two


They say: “All the world’s a stage,” and today BBC Learning is launching a national recitation and performance contest for secondary schools as part of the BBC’s Shakespeare Season in 2012. Students are invited to learn and perform a famous speech from one of Shakespeare’s plays. They will take on classic speeches and monologues from his greatest works such as Macbeth, Romeo And Juliet, Hamlet and As You Like It.

Off By Heart Shakespeare follows the success of the BBC Two BAFTA award-winning programme Off By Heart, in which children from around the UK impressed judges by reciting their way through regional heats to a grand final hosted by Jeremy Paxman. The exciting poetry recital competition was captured by a documentary team for BBC Two.

The winner, 12-year-old Yazdan Qafouri from Yorkshire, has gone on to develop his love of the arts and literature auditioning for films and West End shows and winning a grammar school scholarship.

Executive producer for Silver River, Daisy Goodwin, says: “Shakespeare is arguably the greatest playwright there has ever been. Every student in the UK studies him in the curriculum, but the best way to get to know and love Shakespeare is by performing his words. This contest is a chance for the nation’s youth to engage with the enormous contribution he has made to our culture and also to furnish their minds with some of the greatest words ever written.”

The contest is designed to get students up on their feet performing and enjoying Shakespearean language. It is also hoped that it will encourage an appreciation of the relevance of his work and its lessons in human nature through exploring the characters.

Adrian Lester, award-winning stage and screen actor and star of BBC series Hustle, has played both Hamlet and Henry V and more recently was a mentor in BBC Two’s When Romeo Met Juliet. Says Adrian: “It takes a lot of courage to stand up in front of people and tell them a story. Even more to act it out. To do that with Shakespeare’s words will test you, but it will be an experience you will never forget.”

The Off By Heart website includes resources created by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) to get students up on their feet, actively exploring performance choices and language. It also offers online resources to enable schools to select the student who will best represent their school in the competition. Performances of the set texts from the BBC archives will also be available online as well as specially filmed modern day interpretations by popular actors including Larry Lamb, Michelle Ryan, Omid Djalili and Katy Brand.

Schools are invited to register their interest now at In June 2011 schools will be invited to nominate a pupil to represent their school.

Those students nominated will attend a regional heat and a workshop, delivered in collaboration with the Shakespeare Schools Festival, with skilled teachers and professional actors.

Penelope Middelboe, Executive Director of Shakespeare Schools Festival says: “We are delighted to have this opportunity to work with the BBC to give young people a taste of Shakespeare’s dramatic language. They will learn to breathe it, feel it, vocalise it and finally, to make it their own. Being confident with Shakespeare’s language unlocks doors to articulation and from there to confidence and ambition.”

Contestants will be expected to know their one chosen speech for the initial stage of the competition off by heart and will be judged on their delivery and articulation, comprehension, physical expression used to enhance meaning and their potential for further development.

The panel of judges (to be announced) will select nine finalists to compete in a televised Grand Final hosted by the RSC in the newly reopened Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in January 2012 which will be shown as part of the BBC’s Shakespeare Season.

Respected and highly acclaimed film and TV actor David Harewood, trained as a Shakespearean actor and has played many of the great Shakespearean protagonists on stage, including Romeo, the charismatic rebel Hotspur in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Anthony to Vanessa Redgrave’s Cleopatra, among many others.

Says David: “Shakespeare was my first passion and this contest is a great way for young people to experience for themselves the work and language of Shakespeare and just how exciting it can be to perform. I’m sure everyone taking part will have a wonderful time discovering new and creative ways to ‘realise’ the language and bring Shakespeare alive!”

The RSC’s Director of Education Jacqui O’Hanlon says: “We are looking forward to celebrating the achievements of young people from across the country through hosting the Off By Heart final. We want to encourage young people to get up on their feet and actively engage with Shakespeare’s language which is why we’ve created a special set of resources for teachers and students as part of the project. We hope these resources give students the confidence to play with the text and enjoy finding their own unique interpretations of some of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies and speeches.”
Notes to Editors

* For further information; details and copies of the text of the speeches students must choose from; terms and conditions and to register your school go to or to the teachers section at
* All schools in the UK are invited to nominate one student to attend a heat. The contest is open to students who will be aged 13-15 on 1 September, 2011. Up to 1,700 children will be invited to attend regional heats which include a half-day workshop in October/November 2011. These will be run in collaboration with the Shakespeare Schools Festival and will take place in venues across the UK. As part of the workshops students will perform a speech they have learnt to a small judging panel. The nine heat winners will go through to the Final.
* Eight runners-up will receive a certificate and a £100 book token for their school. The overall winner will be awarded the Off By Heart Shakespeare Cup and will receive £500 in book tokens for their school.
* Off By Heart Shakespeare is a Silver River Production for BBC Two.
* The Shakespeare Schools Festival ( is the largest youth drama festival in the UK. For the last 10 years the charity has worked with teachers to challenge the preconception that studying Shakespeare is difficult, dry or dull through a combination of teacher training, workshops and student performance in a local professional theatre. They have enabled over 90,000 young people to appreciate the genius of Shakespeare through a creative, hands-on approach to the texts. Their aim is to bridge “the attainment gap” by complementing the curriculum, boosting articulacy and confidence and imparting key employability skills such as teamwork, peer leadership and self-discipline – as well as giving an appreciation of Shakespeare’s language, themes and characters. All schools are welcome.
* Central to the RSC is its manifesto for Shakespeare in schools – Stand up For Shakespeare. The manifesto states that children and young people can experience Shakespeare’s plays in ways that excite, engage and inspire them. The RSC believes that young people get the most out of Shakespeare when they: “Do it on their feet” – explore the plays practically as actors do, “See it live” – participate as members of a live audience, and “Start it earlier” – work on the plays from a younger age. For more information about the Royal Shakespeare Company visit
* BBC Learning plays a central part in meeting the BBC’s purpose of promoting education and learning. Utilising the power of the BBC’s big brands and key talent, the department puts learning right at the heart of the BBC and provides a variety of resources and learning opportunities for children, teachers, parents and adult learners. Working with partners and in local communities, BBC Learning aims to stimulate interests and encourage engagement through a variety of campaigns across all BBC genres and platforms.
* BBC’s Shakespeare Season will take place in 2012 and includes four interpretations of the writer’s most acclaimed plays and documentaries about his life, with more programmes to be announced.
* The BBC creates partnerships with the arts sector that go beyond broadcast, from sharing expertise to widening public engagement in UK arts.


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