On theatre, television and theatre on television

12th March 2013

Today’s lesson (which I reflect upon across the jump) comes in the shape of a substantial quote from a Times interview by Libby Purves (£) last week with the director of the National Theatre Nick Hytner.

Talking of the BBC, I wonder what he feels about its arts coverage: does it do all it should? ‘Plainly it doesn’t. I’ll be surprised if that doesn’t change under Tony [Hall, incoming Director-General]. To the extent that a DG can involve himself in nuts and bolts, he’ll surely look at it.’ I was referring to the sidelining of the Review Show from BBC Two to BBC Four, but he brushes that aside. ‘That’s just journalism! I’m interested in performance.’

‘I don’t see why there couldn’t be a close 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. NT Live is for the big screen, but there are ways to bring terrific performances to television. Look what marvellous work Greg Doran did with Julius Caesar. The conventional wisdom is that the two worlds are separate, and that needs challenging… Look, they’ve really got to detach themselves from this Downton ratings mentality.’

Even leaving aside the kind words about Greg Doran’s television adaptation with us of the RSC’s Julius Caesar, there is much to cherish in this quote. Dismissing the Review Show as ‘just journalism’ is spot-on, but Nick Hytner’s more substantive point about the possibilities of theatre and BBC television working together is also worth taking very seriously. Which is what I want to do here, although with the recognition that my comments are informed by the engaged position that we have in this debate – in addition to Julius Caesar, Illuminations has made several major television versions of stage productions and we very much hope to make more.

Theatre was an essential element of television from the very beginning. A version of a current theatre production of the comedy Marigold was BBC Television’s first drama in November 1936. J B Priestley’s When We Are Married was broadcast from London’s St Martin’s Theatre in November 1938. Productions from the theatre, whether from the Old Vic or from Brain Rix’s Whitehall Theatre, were central to the schedules in the 1950s, as were television’s original productions of theatre plays of all kinds. With the arrival of Sydney Newman as Head of Drama at the BBC in the early 1960s, the focus shifted towards plays written especially for the medium, and theatre on television came to be restricted largely to prestigious-but-ever-so-slightly- dull Play of the Month strand.

Nonetheless the BBC continued to present exciting and innovative television productions of theatre plays right through the 1980s and ’90s. The director Alan Clarke was responsible for a number of these, including a production of Brecht’s Baal with David Bowie in 1982 and a powerful 1987 adaptation of Jim Cartwright’s contemporary drama Road.

The last time that the BBC tried going to the theatre with any conviction was more than decade ago at the start of BBC Four when several auditorium recordings were made, including A Day in the Death of Joe Egg and Three Sisters. This Chekhov production was the last full-length play by the writer to be seen on British television (although Sky Arts deserves credit for presenting his short comedies in 2010). There has been no production of an Ibsen drama since Deborah Warner’s Hedda Gabler in 1993. Twenty years ago.

We last saw a Shaw in 1991, when Mrs Warren’s Profession was broadcast. Priestley? You have to go back to 1994, when an adaptation of the minor A Summer Day’s Dream was produced. And this is despite a flowering of often ferociously intelligent and gripping productions of the classics on stage from Katie Mitchell, Lucy Bailey, Benedict Andrews and many other directors.

As for the luminaries of British theatre writing today, like Mark Ravenhill and Simon Stephens and Tanika Gupta and Richard Bean and Martin Crimp and Lucy Prebble… … That double ellipsis is me scratching my head and trying to recall any television version of a stage play by any of these or their distinguished peers. And that’s not to mention the performance work being done with all kinds of different texts (and sometimes none) by Kneehigh, Punchdrunk, Improbable, National Theatre Wales, Cheek by Jowl, Complicité, Propeller… … (more head scratching).

So why is this the case? Why do we never – never – see performances by these classic authors and contemporary writers and dazzling directors and dynamic companies on television? Part of the answer is that the BBC’s Head of Drama Ben Stephenson feels that theatre doesn’t ‘work’ for contemporary television audiences (for more on this, see the January 2010 feeling listless post and my September 2009 post here). Then there is  a structural problem, because responsibility for theatre on television is split between Drama and the department of Arts and Performance, which nestles among the entirely separate BBC Knowledge.

Funding, as ever, is also a factor, as we found last year when we had extensively developed a television version of Lucy Bailey’s glorious production of Uncle Vanya from The Print Room only to see it fall just before a formal commission because of budget cuts at BBC Four. Mostly, however, the absence of theatre on the BBC is a matter of will – or rather the lack of it. There is simply no deep and passionate belief that theatre on the screen can be exciting and challenging and rewarding and delightful and – and here’s the rub – have any appeal to a significant audience. That’s the ‘Downton ratings mentality’ that Nick Hytner mentions.

The BBC’s attitudes and the corporation’s avoidance of theatre fail in fundamental ways to recognise changes across the past ten years. Certain of these changes are to do with technology. High definition cameras and related improvements in audio simply allow broadcast television to make far more dynamic and involving (and cost effective) versions of theatre plays and productions than ever before.

Translating theatre to the screen is no longer a matter either of marshalling the lumbering multiple cameras of a traditional studio or of sticking three cameras in the back of the auditorium and hoping for the best. I trust that occasional productions like our RSC Hamlet have shown that alternatives exist to the former, and for a lesson in how to make in-theatre shooting work brilliantly look at the vividly imaginative NT Live broadcast to cinema recently of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

Theatre has changed a great deal in the past decade too, and not least in the rapidly developing relationships between traditional forms and moving images. You could argue that the integration of sophisticated digital technologies is making theatre much more appropriate for translation to the screen. And there are changes too in the concerns and attitudes of many creatives, their agents and their union representatives, who in the past might have been suspicious of television or seen it primarily as a cash cow. Theatre today in many contexts is far more collaborative than ever before, even if that collaboration fails to reach as far as television.

Of course, as the spectacular success of The Curious Incident… and other productions indicates, the theatres are doing screen stuff for themselves. NT Live is an undoubted success, both creatively and commercially. In a different way, Pilot Theatre have developed distinctive ways of bringing screen and stage together, including for the York Mystery Plays 2012 which were shown with six parallel feeds on the Arts Council/BBC website The Space. New audiences are being engaged, access is being extended, and interesting creative approaches are being explored.

Television, on the other hand, and the BBC especially, still has privileged access to two key elements of the arts ecology in Britain: funding and audiences. Next-to-none of the corporation’s public funding is being engaged to reveal the amazing world of theatre from right across Britain today. Nor are broadcast audiences being introduced to aspects of the theatre at a time when the artform is probably in the rudest and most robust health ever.

The operation of the BBC is governed by the Royal Charter and Agreement, which is the constitutional basis of the BBC as presented to Parliament. At the heart of this relationship are six so-called ‘public purposes’, which are taken to define the BBC’s public service remit. The third of these public purposes is “stimulating creativity and cultural excellence’, which the BBC Trust defines in this way:

You can expect the BBC to offer the best examples of creative work that engage and delight them and break new ground. The BBC will encourage interest, engagement and participation in cultural, creative and sporting activities.

Do we really think that in 2013 the BBC is fulfilling this fundamental obligation in regard to the wonders of contemporary British theatre? Nick Hytner most certainly does not. Neither do I.

Image: auditorium at Tobacco Factory Theatre in Bristol, from the slideshow at Theatre Bristol.


  1. Paul says:

    The BBC’s dismissal of theatre is a disgrace. One of the greatest of attractions to people coming to these shores, exported to nations worldwide, yet not right for television.

    If they can make sports that are difficult to get across on television work for the screen then they can do the same with theatre.

  2. Helene says:

    It’s hard for me to comment on BBC programming because I’m here in America. But if the British audience is anything like the American one, viewers (sadly) no longer have an appreciation for televised theater. In the US, reality television (double-sadly) appears to reign.

  3. An excellent polemic, John. Sound analysis of why we are where we are, and why we needn’t be. Of course, NT Live, Digital Theatre and the like may be a strong argument for TV not needing to engage with live theatre any more, because an alternative (better?) solution has been found.

    I guess it may all hinge on whether one sees TV’s previous fondness for theatre being evidence of a medium responsive to the cultural riches of the nation, or evidence of a medium unsure of itself which needed the prop of theatre to give itself cultural and political clout.

    TV doesn’t need theatre any more – but what TV needs is not the issue. It’s what audiences need, and you make a strong argument for their being a state of cultural deprivation. TV should try again with theatre, to re-imagine what it is able to do. It has a duty to do so. It might just surprise itself – and delight us.

  1. […] On television, theatre and theatre on television: my blog post for Illuminations about the neglect of theatre plays and performances by the BBC and […]

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