Don't expect live theatre on BBC television any time soon.

Theatre Red rag to the bull time. National Theatre's artistic director Sir Nicholas Hytner's given an interview to a Murdoch paper about the BBC's lack of initiative when it comes to live theatre. It's excerpted in The Guardian here with some extra reporting which includes some intelligence insulting comments from the BBC. Hytner says quite rightly:
"So if a performance got a million on TV... look, they've really got to detach themselves from this Downton ratings mentality."

Hytner said he was not concerned by the switch, announced last month, of BBC2's The Review Show to BBC4, which he said was "just journalism".

"I'm interested in performance," said Hytner. I don't see why there couldn't be a closer relationship between the BBC and this vast performance network – us, the Crucible, the Royal Exchange, Opera North, Broadsides, Live Theatre, the Royal Ballet, everyone!

"Fifty-two weeks, more than 52 companies, offering something. It's low-hanging fruit, there for the taking."
Well exactly. Radio 3 broadcasts nightly concerts live with documentaries every Friday night on BBC Four as well as performances. Arguably the BBC's current offerings are somewhat similar, theatre of a sort on the radio, documentaries on television (see below).  But theatre the theatre we do get is studio based, often produced especially for that venue.  Even in radio, microphones are absent from the interior of the the Crucible, the Royal Exchange, let alone television.
"BBC insiders were puzzled by Hynter's outburst, pointing out that the corporation recently entered a partnership with the National Theatre, the fruits of which will include a BBC2 programme from the Olivier Theatre celebrating the 50th anniversary of the NT's first performance at the Old Vic. BBC4 will broadcast two, one hour specials featuring interviews with National Theatre alumni including Alan Bennett, Judi Dench and Ian McKellen."
But not an actual performance, no licensing of the NT Live recordings for showing on BBC Four which used to sporadically show theatre back in the day (back in the day in this case being about seven or eight years ago).  More documentaries, more teasing clips of old performances the rest of which are being walled off from seeing.  The puzzled BBC insiders can't apparently see the difference.

The Guardian rightly notes that Jerry Springer: The Opera was broadcast but given that it was a bit of a genre crossover, it could be just as rightly listed within the endless hours of music broadcast across the stations. The rest of the article is quotes from BBC4 controller Richard Klein who always comes across as an intelligent bloke. But hold on:
"It's very expensive in terms of performance costs and coverage costs – it requires outside broadcasting and that's expensive - and it is true to say that performance, with the possible exception of classical music, finds it very hard to get even a small audience to come to any channel," he said.

"I have to question the value to the licence fee payer of putting on whatever it happened to be at a cost of a quarter of a million pounds and getting an audience of 85,000, let's say. Those are ballpark figures."

Klein said BBC4 did do such projects and would be broadcasting George Benjamin's new opera, Written on Skin, from the Royal Opera House.

"I don't think it will do huge business personally; it's a fantastic new piece. We will be playing it because it is the right thing to do. But that is a relatively rare thing because it is expensive and I have to judge value to the licence fee and how much it costs."
Oh ok. So you'll be showing opera because it's opera and it's "the right thing to do" but something less elitist (and yes, sorry but opera is elitist in this context) like the kinds of theatre which packs houses on a nightly basis is to be ignored. What does the BBC's arts commissioning editor Mark Bell have to say about this?
"(he) said it was the BBC's job to "think about new ways of making performance work as a television experience" rather than "just pointing a camera at a stage".

"NT Live works really well because people go to the cinema and it feels like an event because it is live and they are in the cinema. If it's on in the corner of the room it feels like less of a draw. You have to give people a sense of excitement."
Which didn't seem to be a problem up until some time in the middle of the last decade when you simply stopped showing it. Also, and again I ask this, how is pointing a camera at an opera visually all that different to pointing a camera at a play other than more budget spent on costumes and sets sometimes?  Plus as we've also already discussed, NT Live stuff is already recorded.  Helen Mirren in Phiedre is already on tape/hard disc somewhere.  There's no need for the BBC's broadcast unit to go anywhere.  We continue:
"Bell also pointed to the BBC's digital collaboration with the Arts Council, The Space, as a way of bringing the arts to a wider audience."
But only for people who can afford unlimited broadband and or have access to a smart tv box. The reason to show theatre on television like much else is to serve a public which can't get out to see these things and can't afford to get out and see these things. We can't afford opera either, but the audience for theatre in generally seems to be much larger. There is a case for classical music, I agree, but again, suggesting theatre shouldn't be shown because it's less visually exciting, less of an event, is really, well, really a bit mad. Finally:
He added: "We feel it's important to do more than just lots and lots of performances reflected straight on the screen. We need to do more than that, we need to think more creatively."
Yes, but in order to do "more than that" you have to be doing that to begin with. On Saturday, Radio 4 is broadcasting a radio version of last year's Old Vic production of Hedda Gabler starring Sheridan Smith but due to the limited imagination of BBC heads and producers at the moment we won't be able to see the performance.

Why is it important the BBC do this?  Because no one else in the Freeview landscape can be bothered either.  ITV has well given up the pretence of being anything but populist and I still think the last time Channel 4 broadcast any theatre was a studio recording of Harold Pinter's Celebration which went out on More4.  In 2007.  Even that would be fine at this point.  Has Channel 5 ever done anything like this?

As I discovered in my epoch making conversation with Ben Stephenson, BBC Drama is cash strapped.  It's even poorer now thanks to the license fee settlement and they're having to make decisions based on audience size, the constituency of license fee payers.  Now it seems the other corners of the BBC within which theatre could have a home have decided to promote the usual instead too.  For goodness sake.

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