Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Missing the Mark

Television Arts Feature

BBC: Television's Theatre Season , BBC , December-29-15
Television Arts Feature by BBC: Television's Theatre Season The relationship between television and the arts has three intrinsic difficulties. Two relate to the nature of the medium and the third to the nature of the audience. Television itself is both maker and distributor of art. At times it has been creator of art whose impression has lasted decades. “The Year of the Sex Olympics” was bold stuff for this once teenage viewer. “The War Game” appeared to tell it as it was. If I were pressed to make a top hundred list of the art events of my lifetime “Borgen” and “Breaking Bad” would be there. Their content is drama of pure Aristotelian principle.

But television, an octopus, is also a reporter of the arts. But the camera is a lesser substitute for direct perception by human eye and ear. No matter how complex the sensor of the artificial lens the colours of a Cėzanne or Matisse cannot be reproduced in a digital simulacrum. Analysis of a Cėzanne snip of paint reveals his final colour to be often composed of five pigments in precise relationship. A reproduction is a information item, not the thing itself.

Similarly the art of film is the edit, the use of discontinuity in space. The art of live dance, theatre and opera is continuity of action within fixed space. The camera can show it but cannot represent it fully. Television is also located within a small physical space. Fifty inches of diameter is modest compared with a stage when it is used to its full extent. The eye with peripheral vision can reach one hundred and eighty degrees. My viewing of “Waste” at London’s Olivier demanded that I move my head physically to follow the action. No screen is that large.

Television in the last season of 2015 had a run of programmes on theatre. Ironically the programmes that were most enlightening were the ones that never left the studio. Language when properly marshalled informs. In Europe the main national channels indulge the human voice. In France and Germany panels of voices of authority are assembled to discuss issues of importance, programmes that will run to sixty minutes. The best of the BBC 24-hour service occurs when human intelligence, as in “the Papers”, takes the place of the pursuit of pictures.

In this theatre season venerable voices were allowed to speak. Two knights, Eyre and Harwood, spoke together for an hour. They are not exactly theatre’s cutting-edge but together they were richly articulate and informative. Harwood started with a remarkably good impression of Sir John Gielgud, theatre’s most famous acting voice of the twentieth century. He was riveting on Polanski and the way in which one key scene in “the Pianist” emerged. The programme worked because it was dialogue, and that requires knowledge and depth in the interviewer. Such has Mark Lawson and he interviewed another knight. The most touching aspect of an hour in the company of David Hare was the vulnerability of the writer, undimmed by decades of success and honours.

London is the media goliath that dominates. Theatre websites still refer to Edinburgh and Cardiff as “regions.” The BBC chose Battersea Arts Centre to host a quartet of new pieces- Stan’s Café in Birmingham or a host of other candidates would be so far to travel. But half-hour documentaries were commissioned from the Liverpool Everyman, Coventry Belgrade, York Theatre Royal, Theatre by the Lake, Soho Theatre, the Curve, the Citizens, Frinton-on-Sea, Margate, Oxford, Exeter and Bristol Old Vic. Wales and Ulster were excluded. The documentaries were broadcast on regional services, a sensible decision no doubt in terms of ratings but they were also transmitted simultaneously. That entailed choice before any catch-up watching after first transmission. My own first choice was Bristol, fresh in the memory from Owen Sheers’ “Pink Mist”. The programme was dull stuff and I tried Soho. New writing, after all, is theatre’s lifeblood. Dull too and I switched to Kendal and even there I did not last the half-hour.

Lyn Gardner in indomitable character watched the whole lot and gave it an unenthusiastic write-up. The production had been outsourced. To give the makers their due there was probably a mismatch between the commissioning brief and what a viewer, and theatre enthusiast, might expect. As documentaries they looked economically budgeted. No arts journalists were on camera to give any bite and flavour. The editing looked to action to fill the time. A contributor to the Guardian’s discussion was succinct: “The series spoke volumes about the cultural disconnect of commissioning at the BBC”.

For Lyn Gardner, and all her responders, “the whole on-stage season seemed to miss the mark. Some nice programmes for sure but it could have been a chance to look at the training systems, development of new writing systems.” “ A well-meaning but significantly more backwards look at British theatre. The series places an emphasis on nostalgia, with star names bemoaning the disappearance of the rep system as a training ground (which it was but for a very different kind of theatre), and plucky theatres clinging on by their fingertips despite austerity cuts.”

Lyn Gardner homed in on a deceiving piece of faked drama. A community project for young people was dramatised. It would live or die according to whether or not a teenager remembered her lines. “That decision is going to be made in the theatre boardroom” wrote the truthful critic “whether she remembers her lines or not, and in setting up a false sense of drama the programme only makes the theatre look heartless, short-sighted and self-serving. Taken as a group, however, it’s clear that those who commissioned the programmes and those who made them have little grasp of what is really going on in regional theatre.”

That is not a good verdict from a critic who matters.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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