a shocking case of double standards

Theatre Usually I'm very quick in commenting on something I think has gone wrong with the universe, at least I am before my internal censor kicks in and I decide not write about it. But sometimes I like to cogitate on something before I make a pronouncement. On the 18th September, John Wyver of Illuminations, producers of the new Hamlet film with David Tennant, reported on a Q&A he attended at the BFI on the subject of translating theatre to television. In attendance were Sir Richard Eyre and BBC Drama Controller Drama Ben Stephenson and the discussion was chaired by Mark Lawson.

Wyver brought up the fact that in the past decade, televised classical drama has been thin on the ground. As he notes: "No Ibsen, no Wilde, no Chekhov, no Restoration drama and nothing by the great Jacobean dramatists. Not to mention Victorian melodramas or medieval mysteries." The only exceptions have been broadcasts of film adaptations. Shakespeare has been thin on the ground and even then only BBC Four. When the main channels led a Shakespeare season it was with contemporary adaptations of the plays. The few theatre productions which have turned up have been of contemporary plays and only then if they have a star actor or hook -- The Day In The Death of Joe Egg showcasing Eddie Izzard for example.

Those of us hoping for a changing in policy will have been chilled by Stephenson's response. Wyer reported: "Throughout the discussion, he spoke about the importance of putting original drama and the best contemporary writing on the screen. Indeed he said that the BBC had a duty to give space to the best of today's writers. But not those from the the past. Great plays for him can be fantastic in the theatre, but are probably not for television. 'I just worry that they are not going to be that stimulating on screen.'" You can read the rest in Wyver's post, but have a good wall handy for you to bang your head against when Stephenson suggest that the only way to produce these things is with significant cuts.

I've written extensively on this subject before, in 2007, at about the time of the last significant television theatre adaptation, of Harold Pinter's Celebration, which turned up oddly on More4 in the wake of the playwright's death. That was rather excellent if a bit obscure and demonstrated that theatre can work on television so long as the writing is good, the directing is top notch and your actors are on form, all of which were the case then. And that would be true of any play as Wyver explains:
"I am convinced, however, that classic drama, offered without compromise or radical cuts, can be thrilling and involving for contemporary audiences. To make it so is a far-from-easy challenge for directors and actors and DOPs and producers and the rest. Moreover, because this kind of work has been neglected in recent years, the forms for this in the twenty-first century need to be explored and experimented with and developed over time."
And to boil down my argument from my own essay, the theatre industry could and should be able to advantage of the medium to sell its wares rather than having to go into cinemas or online. Clearly there's an appetite for these things, but BBC Drama Controller Drama Ben Stephenson is blind to that so interested is he in new iterations of genre television. Granted he commissioned Being Human and presumably agreed to throwing Torchwood across a week which I'm very grateful for, but they should be part of a cocktail of drama that is able to speak to a range of audiences and that doesn't mean those of us who like soaps and those of us who don't.

The reason I've been cogitating on this (other than calming down enough that I don't throw colourful language around) is that I've been trying to think of an analogy and then, reflecting on my original essay, I found it in this paragraph:
"It simply doesn’t seem fair that classical music fans get a month of Mozart and the BBC Proms every year, devotees of classic literature are able to watch countless book adaptations (should they want them or not) and even opera and ballet followers can see whole productions on a regular basis (and not just clustered around holiday seasons or bank holidays). Us theatre-lovers can see little or none of the drama they admire on screen – even on BBC4, the last bastion of the minority audience."
Let's transfer Ben Stephenson's position over to the BBC's various controllers of music. Imagine if they took the same stance on music, if he said, well what we need to do is just concentrate on contemporary music, because I'm worried that classical music isn't going to be that stimulating on screen. That's the Proms out of the window for a start, and since there aren't even documentaries about theatre, Charles Hazlewood's rather wonderful "The Genius of ..." series wouldn't be on either or the Sacred Music series with Simon Russell Beale. Doesn't work does it? And thank goodness because it would be a tragedy if music before the turn of the last century was relegated to radio and there would be a public outcry and questions in parliament.

But it seems a shocking case of double standards that drama, specifically classical theatre drama is treated in just that way, on a whim. So whereas there is an archive of tv productions from the 60s, 70s and 80s (and earlier) in which the best actors of the time have been recorded in some of drama history's greatest roles (some of which have been released on dvd), from the late 90s onwards there's a huge gap where the only way to see these performers is in genre television or "contemporary" drama and the odd bit of costume (umpteen adaptations of classic novels also apparently being acceptable). We're lucky enough to have David Tennant's Hamlet coming, but why shouldn't we see, in productions made specifically for television, Mary Ann Duff opposite Brendan Gleeson in A Doll's House (for example) or Peter Capaldi as Tamburlaine?

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