Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Three at Once: the Good and the Not-so-Good

Radio Arts Feature

Front Row/ Front Row Late/ The Review Show , Radio 4, BBC2 & Radio Wales , April 17, 2018
Radio Arts Feature by Front Row/ Front Row Late/ The Review Show On April 6th, over five hours, three different strands of the BBC presented by coincidence three discussion shows on the arts. The longest-standing, Front Row, had clocked up 20 years. The twentieth anniversary was marked with a kind of party- the drawback to these festive events is that the listener is conscious of not being there. The sheer cultural effusion meant that the memories of 20 years overwhelmed. Scotland got a mention but not Wales.

The quality of the criticism varied. Lionel Shriver was sharp while the advocate of the Sopranos mouthed cliches. But good discussion begets discussion. The Sopranos was the eventual choice for most significant arts event of the last two decades. A couple of hours on I was having to justify the reasons why Tony, Christopher and Paulie were more significant than Walt, Jesse and Saul.

Three hours later Front Row Late debuted. It was a start that foundered on several rocks. One was the lack of confidence of the producer in the reviewers. When it came to discussing theatre the genre was blurred. Introductory interviews with two actors lasted several minutes so it resembled a feature. When it came to criticism the language was inadequate. “So fantastic and incredible, an incredible play.” “I enjoyed it. It's very moving, very funny.” Much the same was displayed when it came to Damien Hirst at Houghton Hall. “It is all really accessible and it is all really fun. I enjoyed it” said a reviewer “the flying balls reminds me of the National Lottery.” This is not arts criticism.

The programme suffered from a structural error. It was themed around the “clash of the generations”, the artworks being searched for the collision of millennials and baby boomers. But criticism is deductive in nature. Thus, film footage of 1968 was shown as prelude to a dismally vacant discussion. The waffle count rose to “suddenly it was Manson, the three-day week”.

The presenter declared that the phrase “generation gap” was devised at the time. Not so. A researcher would have confirmed its use was first recorded in 1925. “Can you think of a movie or book about 1968?” asked the presenter and the panel of four kept their silence. Well, Bertolucci met Gilbert Adair with “the Dreamers” for a start. The problem is a categorical error, that anyone who has acted or written a book is a critic. They are not. The programme ended with a listener comment, tweeted in, of predicable emptiness.

Arts reviewing on screen reached its peak with Mark Lawson and the three “P's”, Paulin, Pearson and Parsons. The format worked because the three critics were so different but manifestly enjoyed one another's company. So to The Review Show which gets a Friday slot on Radio Wales once a month. The presenter sounded relaxed, the script was nicely composed, and it felt as if he were enjoying the company of critics Charles Williams and Carrie Smith. Three subjects were selected so that the format was unrushed.

The tone was critical without acerbity. “Plodding Manics-by-numbers tracks” thought Gary Raymond “don't really know where they belong.” The latest Manics' album is easier than a big Kyffin Williams retrospective, the painter having the status of national treasure. The critics got the essentials, the use of the palette knife and its impasto power, the colouring of browns and red and oranges. The Williams' light rejected the allure of convention. Even a sunset on show in Aberystwyth is rendered in a range of greens. Charles Williams got to applaud the portraits as well and managed to get in a small poke at the expense of the crachach.

On the Green Hollow the distinction between film and book was well made. Carrie Smith spoke of the tension at the heart of the piece between the fictional and the real. Charles Williams related it to Pink Mist. The discussion was guided to a higher level, an ethical question of how artists should respond, if at all, to events that appal. No-one mentioned Adorno, which did not matter. The issue was settled in a way that was full and satisfying. This first broadcast was a good and confident start.

The BBC's most successful discussion show has no interruption from interviews. In Our Time has the advantage that no interviews from Ptolemy or Paracelsus are to be had. Front Row Late was not helped by regular interpolations. James Dean Bradfield and Kyffin Williams in interview did not add greatly to the discussion. Trust the tale, not the teller. Audio is the secret weapon of the BBC. Pick the right speakers and then trust them.

The critics travel to Clwyd for the next programme. That is a good sign, the north in general being badly under-reported. There is a lot of art in Wales and a selection of three for a month is not a large number. The Corporation is a cultural producer as well as reporter. Quite naturally it uses its own outlets for promotion. It is not desirable that a space of three items a month be borrowed for television to promote itself. It is to be hoped the producer will defend her small territory.

Declaration: a media article like this would usually be hosted on Wales Arts Review and on this occasion for obvious reasons cannot be. By way of personal declaration I received this year a book for review in the post. The back cover carried a fulsome recommendation from one of the best-connected and patrician names of Wales. There in the text he appeared, the author declaring a friendship that went back to the last century. So it goes.

The producer and two guest critics are unknown to me. I met Gary Raymond, the presenter, at the time of the Raconteur and have met him 8-9 times since. I admire his breadth and entrepreneurial chutzpah, find the occasional foray into politics too Manichean, and enjoy the polemics, although they would be better with a dash of Vidal-like irony. This was still a good start.

The Review Show can be heard until 5th May at

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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