There is not enough live theatre on TV these days. Well, there's no live theatre on TV to speak of. Okay so episodes of The Bill and Coronation Street went out live but these were just novelty items. It was still the same ol' same ol' just a bit rougher. Not since the golden age (so called) of TV drama when we were treated to commercial television’s Armchair Theatre (1956-74) and the BBC's The Wednesday Play (1964-70) and Play for Today (1970-84) have we had a steady diet of the stuff. People still mourn their passing. And quite rightly so.
During this time, these series premiered plays by the likes of Dennis Potter, Alan Bleasdale, David Mercer, Ken Loach, Nigel Kneale, Mike Leigh, Jack Rosenthal, Willy Russell, Alan Bennett, Malcolm Bradbury and Stephen Poliakoff along with classics by Sartre, Turgenev, Ibsen and others. And then, God alone knows why, it all stopped.
Granted some of these have been repeated since: Abigail’s Party, Cathy Come Home, and most of Potter’s work – praise the Lord! – but showings are rare. I would love to see these plays again because I was simply too young to fully appreciate them at the time of initial broadcast. I can easily pick up a copy of any book I didn’t quite get when I first had a go at it, but, when it comes to television drama, I’m wholly dependent on the powers that be deciding that there’s a market and that annoys me.
In March 2006 the BBC indicated that there was going to be a revival of the single play format for BBC1 and there have been a few more of these popping up in the schedules but nothing to get really excited over apart from Stephen Poliakoff's work (I highly recommend Shooting the Past). But none of it was live. I think part of the problem is the imagined need, because it's television, to present something that's polished. Look at Coronation Street! It's a real street nowadays with bricks and mortar houses. Who needs all that? I certainly don't.
And then Sky Arts comes to our salvation.
If it takes off.
We'll have to see.
On 12th July at 9pm a live play was transmitted. And there are going to be five more, one a week for the next five weeks at the same time and repeated on Sunday. It's a bold move. Here's some of the blurb from their site:
Sky Arts Theatre Live! will see six highly successful authors make their debuts as playwrights collaborating with lauded directors and high-profile actors to create original plays, performed to a live audience in the purpose built Sky Arts Theatre Live! studio. The Sky Arts Theatre Live! company is led by artistic director Sandi Toksvig, and includes author Kate Mosse, actress Pauline Collins and director John Alderton.
Rehearsals for Sky Arts Theatre Live! will begin at The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond in June, giving the creative team just three weeks to not only mount a brand new theatre production, but to stage a live television programme. The programme, hosted by Sandi Toksvig, will be introduced with unparalleled, behind the scenes access to the ‘making of’ each production, charting the highs and lows of producing for stage and screen simultaneously.
In an interview in the Telegraph, Toksvig had this to say:
There's been a big attempt over the past five years to find new writing talent for television but the one place they never looked was literary festivals. I thought, 'Why don't we go to people who already know about words?' So the novelists have been put with solid directors such as Pip Broughton, Fiona Laird, Sue Tully and Patrick Sandford to do the dramaturgy work.
We had the first one act play transmitted on Wednesday. And I saw it. Well, a recording of it, so not live per se. Anyway it wasn't bad. What I liked about the programme was the way it began. We were treated (through the miracle that is stop-motion cinematography) to a short segment that showed the set being constructed from scratch and which underlined the fact that it was a play we were going to see, not a film. An empty studio became a theatre before our very eyes.
Sky Arts Theatre Live! is the flagship programme of Sky Arts’ theatre season for summer 2009, which will see the channel expand on its theatre offering with commissions such as Theatreland and documentaries including In The Company of Actors.
Yes, all well and good but was the play any good? Yes . . . and no. Well, it depends what you mean by 'good'. It's all about expectations I suppose. The aim of the production team was very simple:
Once in production, the performance will not stop for any reason (line fluffing, set issues, technical difficulties, actor illness) exactly as would occur in a live theatre. In the event of a problem, a solution will be devised according to the circumstances but the show will go on.
Now, I didn't notice anyone fluffing their lines, although I felt they were still a bit nervous at the very start, and no one fell over the couch. Apparently the snow machine didn't function quite up to expectations but it worked well enough to get the idea across; I didn't feel short-changed in any way. The set was adequate but it was clearly a set. And all of that was good. Never for a moment did I forget that I was watching a live play. Oh and no one died. Apparently in 1958 one unfortunate actor, Gareth Jones, passed away on air during the Armchair Theatre production of Underground, though not all viewers at home noticed. Peter Bowles recalled seeing him fall as he approached the set. “The actors, including me, started making up lines: ‘I am sure if So-and-so were here he would say . . .’ ”
As for the not-so-good bits, well, the play was written by a poet with the assistance of her son and it felt like a play by a first timer; Chekov it was not. But it had its moments and they were charming. It was called Mind Away and it was by Jackie Kay, as I've said, a poet. The theme was dementia and we're faced with a mother and her daughter making the best of it. Siobhan Redmond played the daughter and Sheila Reid the mother. Both put their all into the parts and much of the success of the play derives from how effectively they presented their relationship. You can see a wee clip of them rehearsing here and the whole introductory segment here.
Mind Away was not a straightforward meat and two veg kind of a play, the kind where we get reality served to us on a plate and that's it. The twist was that there are two other characters, a doctor and his receptionist, who only exist in the imagination of the daughter (a writer going though a dry patch) and the audience gets to see him act out what they're thinking (and more importantly say what the old woman is thinking). Later in the play they actually get to meet the man in the flesh and there is where the walls of reality crumble around the characters which I suppose is what going through dementia feels like. All very poetic. Kay once wrote: "A poem is a little moment of belief." That would not be a bad description of her play.
Its length meant that some aspects of the story couldn't be developed, for example, twice the mother mentions an old flame that the daughter knows nothing about and yet the matter is not pursued. I thought that was a bit of a shame, nevertheless, nothing felt rushed.
All in all then not-so-bad, quite good really, and the fact both actresses were Scottish didn't hurt it a bit.
As for the concept as a whole. Well, we'll know at the end of the six week run if it's been a success. I hope it is. I hope more follow. I know I'm not alone. The population contains more older people than it ever did and I honestly believe that it's more than satisfying some nostalgic urge that's at play here. I want to see plays. I want someone to stick a camera in front of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen and record them doing Godot. Because much as I would love to see them there is no way in hell I'm going all the way to Edinburgh to watch a play. Seriously, how much would that cost them? They recorded Peter O'Toole in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell and it was wonderful. Please let the BBC sit up and take notice. Now we have BBC4 there's no excuse.
So, all of you out there who can access Sky Arts make a point to tune in on Wednesdays at 9pm. I'm sure no matter what they put on it'll be better than a) watching a bunch of Z-List wannabes lying around the Big Brother house or b) some bugger freezing their arse off atop a plinth in the middle of London for an hour.