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Great Authors of the British Isles

As English spreads across the globe, becoming the language of the Internet, understanding the extraordinary body of British literature has become ever more vital in the 21st century. This eight part series, Great Authors of the British Isles, hosted by Jonathan Cake, addresses this need by bringing the audience from the dawn of England's literary tradition through Chaucer to Shakespeare to William Wordsworth to Jane Austen to Charles Dickens to T. S. Eliot to J. K. Rowling. The series focuses on over 60 major authors, their insights, themes and impact on history.
  • Title ID 78-GBA
  • English, English Literature, Shakespeare
  • 8 Programs
  • 13 Supplemental Files
  • 10th Grade through Post Secondary
  • Published by Ambrose Video Publishing Inc./Centre Communications
Included Programs
Supplemental Files

Included Programs

Beowulf to ShakespeareRunning time is 28 minutes

British literature has a long tradition stretching back to the Dark Ages. The first program examines how the English language itself transitions from Old English to Middle English and to the rich and brilliant words of William Shakespeare.

Chapter List
8th Century AD - Beowulf
The Anglo Saxon epic long poem Beowulf written in Old English tells of the defeat of the monster Grendel by the Norse hero Beowulf.
14th Century - Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the Arthurian legends which are part of England's history and mythology and includes names and places such as Camelot, King Arthur, Merlin, Morgan la Fey, Lady Guinevere, and the Knights of the Round Table - Lancelot, Percival, Galahad, Gareth, Gawain, and these legends have influenced many English authors, including Edmund Spenser, John Dryden, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Algernon Swinburne, T. S. Eliot.
1387-1400 - Geoffrey Chaucer Writes The Canterbury Tales
Writing in Middle English, Geoffrey Chaucer created the Canterbury Tales, which is about pilgrims, including the Nun, Physician, Knight, Merchant, Summoner, Miller and Cook, who made a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral in Medieval England.
1594 - Shakespeare Pens Romeo and Juliet
England's first pillar of English Literature is playwright William Shakespeare, affectionately known as the Bard, who was born in Stratford on Avon, and moved to London where he wrote comedies, problem comedies, romance comedies, histories and tragedies, such as Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Macbeth, for the Elizabethan theatre.

The Renaissance WritersRunning time is 26 minutes

After the arrival of the printing press, a Golden Age in English literature arrived. Program two showcases the Renaissance during the Elizabethan Age in English prose, drama, comedy and poetry.

Chapter List
1581 - Sir Francis Bacon, Renaissance Man
Renaissance man, Sir Francis Bacon was the father of modern science and lived during the English Renaissance in England's Golden Age, when Elizabeth I was queen.
1587 - Christopher Marlowe Writes Tamburlaine the Great
Playwright Christopher Marlowe was a contemporary of Shakespeare and wrote fantastic dramas for the Elizabethan theatre, including, Tamburlaine the Great and Doctor Faustus.
1590 - Edmund Spenser Publishes The Faerie Queene
Edmund Spenser created the Spenserian Stanza with his long poem The Faerie Queen, which helped introduce Elizabethan romantic poetry.
1592 - Sir Walter Ralegh's The Ocean to Cynthia
Sir Walter Ralegh, the epitome of the English Renaissance man, won the favor of Queen Elizabeth I, founded the Roanoke Colony, and wrote The Ocean to Cynthia.
1598 - Ben Jonson Establishes a New Kind of Comedy
Ben Jonson, a contemporary of William Shakespeare, wrote the first urban play, Every Man in his Humor, during England's Golden Age when there was Renaissance of literature under Queen Elizabeth I.
1631 - John Donne Delivers His Own Death Sermon
English Renaissance poet and clergyman, John Donne, wrote The Anniversaries, considered the greatest English long poem written between Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene and John Milton's Paradise Lost, and many sermons, during England's Golden Age.
1658 - John Milton Begins Paradise Lost
At the end of the English Renaissance period, John Milton, an apologist for the English Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, began his epic Paradise Lost, with its main characters Archangel Lucifer, God, Adam and Eve and taking place in Eden, and was completed during the restoration Monarchy of Charles II, when he also finished Paradise Regained.

Augustan and Romantic PoetsRunning time is 29 minutes

Following the English Renaissance a new kind of poet emerges. Program three examines the neo-classical poetry of the Augustan Age and the emergence of the Romantic poet hero who delves deeply into the power of nature and love for their literary inspirations.

Chapter List
1681 - The Age of Dryden Begins
Augustan Era poet, John Dryden, who began his career as a writer during the Commonwealth and continued through Restoration England under Charles II, gave his name to the period, called the Age of Dryden.
1712 - Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock
Augustan Era poet, Alexander Pope, influenced by the classics as well as Chaucer and Shakespeare, wrote The Rape of the Lock.
1755 - Dr Johnson Completes A Dictionary of the English Language
Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote A Dictionary of the English Language, which was the definitive reference until The Oxford English Dictionary, 150 years later.
1786 - Robert Burns' Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect
Robert Burns, Scotland's National Poet, broke free of the neo-classicist poets like Dryden and Pope and wrote lyrical poems such as found in his breakthrough book - Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect.
1819 - Lord Byron Pens Don Juan
George Gordon, Lord Byron, was a Romantic poet of the Romantic Era known for Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Don Juan.
1790-1830 - The Four Romantic Poets
William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley were poets of England's Romantic Era, writing lyrical poetry, such as Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, and insightful commentaries such as Shelley's A Defense of Poetry.
1850 - Wordsworth's Spiritual Autobiography Ends
With his magnum opus, The Prelude, William Wordsworth became one of the greatest English Romantic poets.
1850 - Alfred Lord Tennyson is Made Poet Laureate of England
Alfred Lord Tennyson, who wrote the Charge of the Light Brigade, succeeded Wordsworth as England's Poet Laureate and bridged the chasm between the Romantic Era and the Victorian Age.
1864 - The Brownings
Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning were Victorian poets who bridged the chasm between Romanticism and modern British literature.

Early NovelistsRunning time is 29 minutes

In the early 18th century, British literary observers noticed the gradual rise to prominence of a new kind of lengthy prose narrative. Program four shows the development of the novel, showcasing the great novelists of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Chapter List
1679 - John Bunyan, Father of the English Novel
John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim's Progress, a Christian allegory often considered to be the first novel.
1749 - Henry Fielding Writes Tom Jones
Novelist Henry Fielding is considered the father of the modern novel because of books like Tom Jones which introduced the omnipotent narrator.
1813 - Pride and Prejudice, a Novel by Jane Austen
Romantic Era novelist Jane Austen wrote the novels Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma and Persuasion among others, which in the 21st century have generated fans calling themselves the Austenites.
1819 - Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe
Novelist Sir Walter Scott wrote the Waverly novels and The Lay of the Last Minstrel as well as introducing a new kind of historical novel with Ivanhoe.
1837 - Charles Dickens Begins Oliver Twist
Victorian novelist Charles Dickens introduced the Bildungsroman novel with David Copperfield and also wrote The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations.
1847 - The Bronte Sisters
The Bronte sisters, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, and Anne Bronte, introduced realism and reform novels as well as wrote romantic novels with their books, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey.
1886 - Robert Louis Stevenson Introduces Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, Kidnapped, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Treasure Island with its charismatic, one legged villain Long John Silver.

Children's LiteratureRunning time is 28 minutes

In the 18th century a new genre was born. Program five shows how a group of eclectic British authors, familiar to us from our childhoods, brought forth this new genre - children's books.

Chapter List
1719 - Daniel Defoe Pens Robinson Crusoe
Daniel Defoe's landmark children's book Robinson Crusoe introduced the independent hero and the first black character, Friday.
1865 - Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll, the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson wrote Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, which introduced the nonsense tradition in Britain's children's literature through such memorable characters as the March Hare and the Cheshire Cat.
1901 - Beatrix Potter Publishes The Tale of Peter Rabbit
Influenced by children's book author Lewis Carroll, Beatrix Potter introduced the anthropomorphic character Peter Rabbit in The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
1926 - A.A. Milne Creates Winnie the Pooh
A.A. Milne used his son Christopher Robin as well as his son's toy animals to create the stories about Winnie the Pooh.
1937 - J.R.R. Tolkien Writes The Hobbit
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Silmarillion which introduced Bilbo Baggins, Frodo Baggins, The Fellowship of the Ring and Middle Earth to children's literature.
1961 - James and the Giant Peach, a Title by Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, introduced the character of James Henry Trotter in the children's book James and the Giant Peach.
1997 - J.K. Rowling Introduces Harry Potter
In the company of other children's literature writers, including Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Roald Dahl, J.K. Rowling, in seven books, of which Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is one, created the magical world of Harry Potter, a young wizard who learns his craft at the magical school of Hogwarts.

The Genre InnovatorsRunning time is 29 minutes

Program six examines how British authors pioneered new and evocative genres of literature by producing the first horror stories, science fiction novels, cautionary tales, detective books and spy thrillers.

Chapter List
1818 - Mary Shelley Gives Rise to Frankenstein
The wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, introduced the gothic horror novel with her novel, Frankenstein, which was written as a result of a contest with Lord Byron.
1887 - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Introduces Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the archetypical detective, Sherlock Holmes, and his sidekick, Dr. Watson, in the detective fiction mystery A Study in Scarlet.
1895 - H.G. Wells, The Time Machine
H.G. Wells, the father of science fiction, warned about the dangers of technology in The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Invisible Man.
1932 -1948 - Huxley and Orwell Pen Dystopian Novels
Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, aka Eric Arthur Blair, wrote the dystopian novels, or cautionary tales Brave New World, 1984, and Animal Farm.
1934 - Agatha Christie, First Woman of Detective Fiction
Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime, created the intellectual whodunit in such famous mysteries as Murder on the Orient Express and The Mysterious Affair at Styles with Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and the detective fiction The Thirteen Problems, introducing sleuth Miss Jane Marple.
1953 - Ian Fleming Writes the First Bond Spy Thriller
Ian Fleming created the spy thriller genre with his cold war secret agent, 007 James Bond, and set the standard followed by others such as John Le Carr'e, American Robert Ludlum, and Welsh thriller master, Ken Follett.

20th Century Poets and PlaywrightsRunning time is 28 minutes

The dawn of the 20th century in Britain saw Victorian certainty replaced by dizzying change. Program seven explores how a new artistic movement - Modernism - arose to challenge all the old values.

Chapter List
1907 - Rudyard Kipling Wins Nobel Prize
Rudyard Kipling was a supporter of the British Empire who won the Nobel Prize for his poetry and short stories, including Gunga Din and the Jungle Book, which introduced the characters of Mowgli, and Baloo.
1920 - John Galsworthy's The Skin Game is Performed
Playwright, novelist, and Nobel Prize winner John Galsworthy was encouraged to write by Joseph Conrad and wrote The Forsyte Chronicles, the plays The Skin Game, The Silver Box, Strife, and The Eldest Son.
1922 - T.S. Eliot, Intellectual Giant
Encouraged by Ezra Pound, Nobel Prize winning poet T.S. Eliot became a poet of the modernism school and wrote such works as The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Wasteland, The Hollow Men, and Four Quartets, and later he encouraged poets W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Ted Hughes.
1937 - The '30s Poets
W.H. Auden and Steven Spender were post modernist poets who founded the Auden Group at Oxford and were part of the 30s poets, which also included Christopher Isherwood, Cecil Day Lewis and Louis MacNeice.
1953 - Dylan Thomas, Larger-Than-Life Poet, Dies
Welsh poet Dylan Thomas is known for his lyrical poetry and dramatic works, including Under Milk Wood, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, and A Child's Christmas in Wales.
2005 - Harold Pinter Wins the Nobel Prize
Playwright Harold Pinter's stark plays won him the Nobel Prize for dramatic works such as The Homecoming.

20th Century NovelistsRunning time is 29 minutes

The abandonment of Victorian complacency in Britain resulted in an outpouring of artistic genius throughout the 20th century. Program eight investigates how the end of the Victorian Age led to the rise of the modern British novel.

Chapter List
1902 - Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Encouraged to write by John Galsworthy, Joseph Conrad replaced Victorian realism with the modernist novel in books such as Heart of Darkness, which introduced the characters Charley Marlow and Kurtz.
1922 - Virginia Woolf's Bloomsbury Group
The Bloomsbury Group, which included John Maynard Keynes, T.S. Eliot, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, G. E. More, Katherine Mansfield, Cecil Day-Lewis, Robert Graves, Christopher Isherwood, H. G. Wells and E. M. Forster, was led by Virginia Woolf, who, influenced by William Makepeace Thackeray, Henry James, George Henry Lewes and her honorary Godfather, James Russell Lowell, wrote Jacob's Room, Mrs. Dalloway, and In a Room of One's Own.
1924 - E. M. Forster Writes A Passage to India
Influenced by brilliant philosopher G.E. Moore, E.M. Forster wrote Howard's End and A Passage to India, a tale of the British Empire and the conflict of the British Raj and India, told through the characters of the Englishwoman Adela Quested and the Indian Dr. Aziz.
1928 - D.H. Lawrence Shocks the World
D.H. Lawrence introduced sex and love into the modernist novel with his novels Lady Chatterley's Lover, Women in Love, Sons and Lovers, and The Plumed Serpent.
1944 - W. Somerset Maugham's Prophetic The Razor's Edge
W.Somerset Maugham, who wrote Of Human Bondage, introduced eastern mysticism to western readers with The Razor's Edge.
1954 - William Golding Writes Lord of the Flies
William Golding created the genre of magic realism with his Nobel Prize winning books Lord of the Flies and Pincher Martin.
1969 - John Fowles, The Existentialist
Existentialist writer John Fowles, in the tradition of John-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Franz Kafka, employed existentialism in writing his greatest novels - The French Lieutenant's Woman, The Collector, The Aristos, and The Magus.
2007 - Doris Lessing, Nobel Prize Winner
Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for her novels, including Children of Violence, The Grass is Singing, The Four-Gated City, and The Prisons We Choose to Live Inside.

Supplemental Files

British Authors - Educator's Guide
British Authors - Reading List
British Authors - References
British Authors - Timeline
MARC Records for GBA
MARC records for the series Great Authors of the British Isles
Transcription for Beowulf to Shakespeare
Transcription for The Renaissance Writers
Transcription for Augustan and Romantic Poets
Transcription for Early Novelists
Transcription for Children's Literature
Transcription for The Genre Innovators
Transcription for 20th Century Poets and Playwrights
Transcription for 20th Century Novelists


Moving chronologically from Beowulf to Harry Potter, this eight-part instructional relies on location footage, reenactments, and dramatic monologues to survey the history of English literature. Key authors and eras are captioned onscreen, and host Jonathan Cake bridges the short segments with historical notes and other commentary. Beowulf to Shakespeare, sampled from the series, demonstrates how English language progressed from Old to Middle English. Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Canterbury Tales are discussed, with the authors and works set in historical context. The segment concludes with a look at William Shakespeare's life and brief coverage of his plays. Brief scenes from Shakespeare's works are intercut with narrative to give viewers a flavor of the language.