Why does The Guardian have such a condescending attitude to televised theatre?

TV  As predicted last night broadcast of Richard II, the first part of The Hollow Crown sequence on BBC Two was magnificent, certainly the best production I’ve seen of the play and demonstrating that everything is in the text, if we have difficultly following it, it’s because the interpretation isn’t communicating it to us properly. So much for that. For I have a question, one which always bubbles up on the rare occasions theatre and probably more specifically Shakespeare is produced for television and I’m directing it at the paper I read because frankly I’m embarrassed.

Why does The Guardian have such a condescending attitude to televised theatre?

Perhaps condescending isn’t the right word, but we’ll stick with it for now. I’m a big fan of the review section in the main paper. Michael Billington, Lyn Gardner and the rest writing about theatre productions I’ll never see, but capturing the atmosphere of the work with such intelligence that while it can never be a substitute, I do at least have a sense of what I’m missing and more importantly because they have such a deep experience, they’re able to notice innovation and how it fits within theatrical history. Billington is able to authoritatively state that a new production is the best he’s ever seen.

But my heart sinks whenever a new production like last night’s Richard II appears on television because I know we’ll never find out what he or any of the other theatre critics thought of it, at least not in long form and not bringing with them the experience of seeing all of the previous actors who’ve played the role. My heart sinks because since it was on television it’s going to be written about in G2 on the television pages and will be treated with the same flippancy of some new crime drama, sitcom or documentary series, which is also unfair, but we’ll talk about that in a minute.

Let’s pick on some people now. The Guardian’s review of Richard II is by Tim Dowling. To be fair to Tim, he does what he’s been asked to do, write about the play in the context of the television review section, so he’s flippant, takes the piss a bit and describes the context within which he watched the programme from his preview dvds. Unfortunately for him, or rather unfortunately for Tim, at time of writing he also spends the whole thing calling the lead actor Ben Wishart and misappropriates the St. Sebastian parallels in the production with Christ, but that’s by-the-by, the point is this isn’t a slot which is designed for much in the way of analysis.

Earlier in the week, The Guardian did publish a Mark Lawson piece by way of a preview but that’s more of a comparison with the complete BBC Shakespeare from the 70s and although it notes a few modern tricks it’s a not a review in the strictest sense. The paper does this a lot, writing pieces around a television series, they even asked both directors to write about these productions,  but there’s still that thudding sense when the thing’s been broadcast and in the television pages we’re presented with what amounts to a jokey synopsis.  Incidentally, neither piece is tagged with theatre or stage so don't appear on those pages on the website even though they're clearly of tangential interest.

There were similar games afoot last week in Sam Wollaston's review the RSC’s Julius Caesar which is more about his experience of attempting to watch Shakespeare than a comprehensive, contextual review of the production. There is some analysis of staging in there and it’s not an entirely offensive approach; because theatre is so rarely produced for television there will be some people viewing it in much the same way. But again, the rest of us viewers who’re quite happy with Shakespeare’s work are ignored.

Which is a shame because these are productions seen by audiences well in excess of the work which usually appears in the theatre pages and plenty of us will have watched last night within context of other theatre, and as the opening paragraph of this post suggests, comparing it to the other work we’ve seen. And the reason to do so isn’t that different now. Because these things hang around on iPlayers and PVRs for at least a week after broadcast, like real world theatre goers, a positive review could lead us to seek it out within its short availability, rather like a theatrical run.

So what can The Guardian do about this?

Simply put, treat television like a venue. This is BBC Two or BBC Four, like the Old Vic, putting on a production of Richard II or Julius Caesar. Deal with it in that context and publish the review in the theatre pages. Which isn’t to say it shouldn’t be dealt with also in the television pages and in that style, but for those of us who want something written with a different flavour do that too. This is not about creating demarcation wars. Theatre appears so rarely on television anyway that doesn’t seem too likely, I’d hope.

You could argue of course at least in relation to Julius Caesar that it has been reviewed in the theatre pages.  Except it hasn't.  The Observer reviewed it here, but I notice now it's not been done in The Guardian's theatre pages.  But even if it had, The Guardian's not averse to re-reviewing work when it shifts venues.  I think they covered a recent RSC production of Romeo & Juliet three times as it shifted about and compared the ways in which that shifting context and cast changes effected the production.

You might also ask why this is important, especially if we're essentially reading a review of something which we've all already seen.  It's because most of us are amateurs who've seen, as I've said, a fraction of the productions that Billington, Gardner et al have.  How does this measure up to Spacey's approach, or Jacobi, or even Rylance?  Although Whishaw seemed perfectly amazing to me, I would like to know if his was a convincing portrayal of the text which teases out all of the nuances.

And not just theatre. Why do comedy reviewers so rarely cover comedy on television unless they’re moonlighting on the television column? Why didn’t Fiona Maddocks review the recent Puccini triptych on BBC Four (presumably because she reviewed it on its original appearance at the Royal Opera House but there was little reminder of that when it turned up for a mass audience, no television tagging). There is more of a crossover with popular music, Alexis Petridis covered the Jubilee Concert, but I’d love to know what Kitty Empire thinks of Later with Jools Holland, the only regular live popular music show on the BBC now.

Why is most of television treated with the jokey synopsis approach anyway? Actually, that’s not quite fair, Lucy Mangan’s column the other day covering Line of Duty, Imagine: Theatre of War and Gordon Behind Bars is an excellent piece of writing and does that thing which the best Billington pieces “do”, placing the work within a context so perhaps I’m just pissed that theatre and especially Shakespeare’s been given such short shrift in these other two narrow examples. But it's often the same at The Observer too.  Surely something’s gone wrong when Macbeth’s wedged between Dirk Gentley and The X-Factor? Am I a snob for thinking that?

I am aware that all of this ignores radio drama which as Miranda Sawyer admitted today in The Observer gets short shrift from her, which left the recent three Sunday night Shapespeare adaptations adrift and opens up interesting questions about film.  But Simon Pulver's piece about Ralph Fiennes's Coriolanus is just the kind of clever, curious overview which theatre is denied on the television pages.  They're not perfect, Peter Bradshaw dedicates a paragraph to Julie Taymor's The Tempest, but the tone's fine.  Perhaps that's part of it.  The tone. 

In short, this is a plea for my favourite newspaper to offer more expert analysis of the one arts venue we all have access to. Tom Sutcliffe was previous The Indie’s arts editor and now he’s bringing his depth of knowledge to their television reviews (although his misunderstanding of the chronology of production of Caesar gets him into trouble) and Sarah Compton, the Telegraph’s Arts Editor in Chief reviews Richard II and provides just the sort of thing I’m looking for from The Guardian (even if the comments beneath remind me of why I rarely visit their website).

This was rather more text than I expected to write then when I started and presumably the point was made many paragraphs ago and I know that as the penultimate paragraph suggests other websites are available.  But I'm the sort of person who tends to be fiercely loyal to brands, especially media brands, and I don't want to have to read a paper whose world view I otherwise fundamentally disagree with.  I just wish I didn't disagree with The Guardian, a paper which has done so much to shape my world view in so many other respects, on this relatively minor issue.

09/07/2012  Week Two of The Hollow Crown and once again The Guardian's covering it in the television section, which of course it would, in four paragraph after a jokey, if analytical synopsis of Wallander, one of which is really about the Preface with Jeremy Irons.

15/07/2012  As if to help prove my point, the paper's posted this old review of Cymbeline from the BBC Shakespeare in 1983, which does a weird thing with Helen Mirren and Pooh Corner.

20/07/2012  The Guardian failed to review Henry IV.2 in the television column but have sent Michael Billington to review Staging the World at the British Museum.  If they're happy for him to review an exhibition, why not television?

28/07/2012  Billington reviews some televised Shakespeare or rather Caliban's speech during the Olympic Opening Ceremony.

07/05/2016  Billinton review The Hollow Crown: The War of the Roses.  Not in the paper but online.  Nevertheless....

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