Something rare happened this summer. A revival of a 408-year-old play became hot news. No prizes for guessing why. The idea of the current Doctor Who, David Tennant, playing Hamlet at Stratford-upon-Avon provoked a media frenzy. Newspaper front pages showed a woolly-hatted Tennant addressing Yorick’s skull. The BBC’s Ten o’Clock News featured a live report from the Courtyard Theatre. I also found myself taking part in a discussion with Simon Russell Beale on Radio 4’s Today programme that one paper rightly judged “inane” – not, I hope, entirely our fault.
In one way the Hamlet hype was encouraging. It showed theatre had the capacity to capture the popular imagination. It drew attention not just to a striking performance but also to a first-rate production. And it meant that young people packed into the Courtyard as they doubtless will into the Novello when Gregory Doran’s production transfers. Some people get sniffy about all the stress on Tennant’s Time Lord credentials. But the reality is that audiences relish seeing stars. And all the Doctor Who-haa about Tennant reminds us that, in the modern world, theatre must in some way to be an “event”.
Still, much as I welcome all of this, I’d like to resurrect an issue raised by Kevin Spacey earlier this year: the dismal lack of attention TV normally pays to theatre. Weeks and months go by when the only reference to what’s on is on BBC2’s Late Review. I may not be the best person to comment on this since my reflex reaction when the programme comes up is to reach for the “off” switch. But on the rare occasions when I’ve stayed the course I’ve been appalled by the way the guests offer noisily expressed opinion, without circumstantial evidence, in a way that would not be countenanced by any newspaper.
It wasn’t always thus. I’m old enough to remember a time when TV took theatre seriously. BBC’s Monitor, in its heyday, did some fantastic programmes – I recall a revealing John Schlesinger documentary that took cameras inside a drama class at Central drama school. ITV’s Aquarius, not least when Peter Hall was fronting it, also offered intelligent analysis of theatre. And Channel 4, in pre-Big Brother days, produced a famous series hosted by John Barton, Talking Shakespeare, that had a huge global influence on the way Shakespeare is acted and spoken.
What are we left with today? The opinionated Late Review. The BBC’s Culture Show which barely acknowledges theatre’s existence. And those endless reality TV casting shows. The argument used to justify the last is that they get people into theatres. I wonder, however, how much long-term good they do to the participants. Connie Fisher, having triumphed in The Sound of Music, didn’t exactly add to her laurels in the Menier’s They’re Playing Our Song. But, aside from Arena’s occasional in-depth profiles, TV today does little to reflect the turbulent excitement of our theatre.
Can anything be done? For me a potent symbol of TV’s low regard came with the death of Paul Scofield. The passing of a truly great actor was overshadowed on BBC news by the simultaneous death of a popular sitcom actor, Brian Wilde. In a way, that says it all. Yet surely there must be scope for a weekly 45-minute programme that examines what’s opening in London and the regions, that offers in-depth interviews and that explores current controversies? Theatre is one of the things Britain does best. But at the moment it gets less coverage on TV than rowing, cycling or steeplechasing. The Olivier Awards were last televised in 2003.
I hope that the interest in Tennant’s Hamlet acts as a wake-up call to the TV panjandrums, and a reminder that theatre is a year-round activity and not an occasional sensation.