Monday, March 31, 2014

The strange case of the BBC's decision to abandon "The Review Show" - a murder mystery

I remember "Late Night Line Up". It was probably the first of the regular "Talking Heads" programmes on The Arts on British television. It was eclectic, often slightly eccentric but always worth watching. It ran for just under ten years in the 1960s and early 1970s. Such programming was low cost but of high perceived value. Intelligent people talking engagingly about The Arts and entertainment. Nothing really quite replaced it until in the 1990s "The Review Show" came along. It's a simple format going back to the earliest days of broadcasting with wireless programmes like "The Brains Trust" . Put three or four articulate, knowledgeable people together on a panel - preferably people with a mix of opinions - and ask them to talk about something. The "something"  for "The Review Show" was The Arts.

Under the chairmanship of first Mark Lawson and later Martha Kearney and Kirsty Wark panels would discuss television, film, exhibitions, the theatre and the rest for half an hour or so, sometimes with filmed extracts of what they had seen, or read or visited. There was nothing distracting about the programme - this format has stood the test of time. The quality of the programme came from the skilled and informed chairmanship of the panel but above all from the quality of the particants. My favourites in recent times have been Sarah Churchwell, Bonnie Greer, Natalie Haynes, Paul Morley and James Delingpole (the latter, a bit of a right wing ranter in his day job, turned out to be engaging and interesting when talking about The Arts!).

The programme started as a once-a-week follow on from Newsnight - it shared Newsnight's brand and followed on without a break. Then it was cut adrift from the current affairs programme and developed its own identity, albeit in the same late night Friday slot on BBC2. A year ago it was removed from BBC2 and transferred to BBC4 and worse it went from being once-a-week to once-a-month. That was the kiss of death. Someone in the Beeb obviously had it in for the programme! 

Quite what was wrong with "The Review Show" escapes me. It can't have cost much to produce - modest fees for the participants and a bit of studio time. In its BBC2 day it got decent audiences  - I would imagine its cost per viewer rating was good. Particularly if you take account of the special nature of the arts-loving audience. And that's the key point. BBC DG Tony Hall has underlined his personal commitment to The Arts in the BBC's output. The Review Show reached exactly the people that this output is aimed at. And in its role as a public service broadcaster surely the BBC can feel proud that The Review Show generated interest in a wide variety of arts events some of which we viewers might have otherwise missed. I bought books, went to movies, visited exhibitions etc. because I had seen them reviewed on "The Review Show" - the wider arts world will surely miss it.

I wasn't consulted about the decisions first to marginalise the programme and then to stop it completely. Nobody asked me or any other viewer. Why was it done? And why would Lord Hall, who presided with such skill over the Royal Opera House, see fit to remove a programme aimed at a similiar arts-loving audience. Mystifying. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

"Invincible" at the "Orange Tree Theatre", Richmond. Relationships are difficult!

Torben Betts dark comedy "Invincible" at the Orange Tree  Theatre Richmond is in the fine tradition of modern British theatre in its use of High Comedy and a claustrophobic setting to explore some heavy contemporary issues. We are confined to the living room of a house somewhere in the North  of England in the present day. Here Oliver and Emily have moved from the South to try and live more cheaply after getting into financial difficulties. She is a strident Socialist Workers Party type who slips effortlessly into "Rant" mode and who is forcing a rather austere lifestyle on her wooly liberal partner - a lifestyle which to his distress has moved beyond alcohol and sex! Their neighbours are Alan and Dawn, a solidly working class couple who live still in the same road where they grew up as children. Alan is a lager-swilling, fat England football fan. Dawn a well-preserved if somewhat "tarty" 30 something. Cue a portrayal of social differences - of class, region, education, art appreciation, politics, attitudes and lifestyle.

Emily is a painter - of bright but rather disturbing abstracts. She thinks that she is good and has plans to found an artists cooperative. Alan is a painter as well - of naive and not awfully good portraits of his cat Vince. There is an excruciating scene where Emily offers her honest and very derogatory opinions on Alan's "Art" - here the paintings are a metaphor for the class and all the other differences. Emily is unkind because she believes that she must always be truthful. The gauche and proletarian Alan and Dawn would have better manners than to do this!

Both couples have tensions. For Oliver and Emily these are based on political differences, for Alan and Dawn it is more frustration - of all sorts. Dawn regrets her lack of education, Alan is trying to show he has hidden talents by painting and going to art classes. The root cause of Oliver and Emily's sadness, seriousness and lack of fun in their lives turns out to be the loss of a child in a cot death many years earlier. Alan and Dawn have a son serving in Afghanistan in the Army - something that combines pride and fear for them. The horrors of war are explored clearly with Emily ranting about the awfulness of Tony Blair's wars being challenged by a conventional, but understandable, "All Soldiers are heroes" polemic from Alan. The gap between speaking from the gut (an ample one in Alan's case) and speaking from intellect (Emily) is shown here.

The comedy is strong at times and the audience responds. The "Orange Tree" is a tiny theatre and you are drawn tightly into the action. This also means that you engage with each of the characters and feel you know them. As the evening progresses there are changes in the relationships and circumstances of each character and the balance of power that existed at the beginning is altered by the end. In this respect there is an Alan Ayckbourn feel to the play - all is never quite what it seems and the message gradually emerges from events and how they respond to them. This is not an improvised play but there are also echoes of Mike Leigh where, in Abigail's Party especially, he explored similiar themes. My conclusion was that the differences apparent from the start are both unbridgeable but paradoxically  not that great. Relationships are difficult and where there is a reasonable balance of power  in them (Alan and Dawn) there is less need for coping than when one of the partners is dominant (Emily). You will need to watch the play to see which of the two couples is more together at the end, and why it happened! It's very thought provoking! The cast is outstanding, the direction tight and the setting and staging original and clever. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Pity of War



Within the last few days I have coincidentally seen two plays which show in stark relief the “Pity of War”. At the Theatre Royal Stratford the revival of Joan Littlewood’s “Oh What a Lovely War” has played to packed houses and at Richmond Theatre the no less extraordinary “The Two Worlds of Charlie F” was rapturously received on its opening night.

The two wars depicted in the two plays are separated by nearly a Century but the themes are strikingly similar. I was reminded of General Sherman’s stark remark made (mainly) about the American Civil War

“There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all Hell”

Joan Littlewood, back in 1963, was making a pacifist statement in what she and Charles Chilton called a “Musical entertainment”. It was also a political statement and whether you relate to the politics of the Theatre Workshop or not “Oh What a Lovely War” remains a legitimate, if partial, commentary on the “War to end all Wars”. There was no overt political slant to “Charlie F” which was all about the consequences of the political decision to go to war in Afghanistan, not about the rationale for the war in the first place. In “Lovely War” the rationale is touched upon and although I don't recall the phrase being used the premise is that the Great War was a “Bosses War”   - and a capitalist one at that. The War profiteers get hammered and the main theme is how the Lions in the Army were let down by the Donkeys among the Generals and, implicitly if not explicitly, by the political class back home. “Charlie F” does not concern itself with the rights and wrongs of the War in Afghanistan but with how going to war means not glory but unimaginable hardship along with the death and destruction. The Tommy in the trenches of the Somme and the Squaddie in the heat of Helmand are kindred spirits - both vulnerable and both potential and actual casualties of conflict.

The Education Secretary Michael Gove said this about the First World War:

“The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as “Oh What a Lovely War”… as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths…the First World War may have been a uniquely horrific war, but it was also plainly a just war

Its regrettable that Gove decided it was smart to play politics with history in this way. In fact “Lovely War” is more concerned with the impact of war on ordinary people - something it shares with “Charlie F”. This is the heart of the matter and something that Gove chooses not to understand. The scale of the Great War may have been “uniquely horrific” and this is recorded as the casualty figures are scrolled across the stage in neon lights.  But it is also at Paramount-oh-what-a-lovely-war-x405

the micro level that the pity of war is portrayed - the impact on the individual soldier and his family. “Charlie F” does the same  brilliantly, without sentiment but in graphic detail. The potential effects of an  IED (Improvised Explosive Device)  explosion are coolly talked through by a doctor using a soldier as his living dummy. And in “Lovely War” the effects of shrapnel or mustard gas are no less graphically described.  

Both of these dramas are unconventional in their staging with clever use of music, song and dance. And both have plenty of crudity and gallows humour – the soldiers’ way of coping with horror is often to laugh at it. In “Charlie F” real soldiers play real soldiers – and lack nothing in their acting skills compared with the professionals. Of the cast of 15 eight are ex-Military and all of them have some permanent mental or physical disabilities from the Afghan War. The missing limbs focus the mind but it is important to stress that there is not an ounce of sentimentality or self-pity on show. But the effects on the lives of the maimed are not ducked either – rehabilitation was, and is, no cakewalk and returning to “normal life” no easy thing to do either. We understand shock better today than in 1914-1918 and are rather more sympathetic to it. And when the bomb goes off today's soldier may have a better chance of survival with modern medicine that was the case in the trenches. But if “the whiz-bang” has really got your name on it the effect is the same.

Historians argue about whether a war is “Just” but such arguments, now stirred up by politicians like Gove, are rather remote from the fallen and the injured and their families. In September 2001  Tony Benn wrote this about the first American assault on Afghanistan:

“The Americans have sent troops into Afghanistan, and it's being presented as if it was a huge military triumph. Here's this pitifully poor country being savaged by the richest country in the world, which then speaks as if this was a tremendous military achievement!”

Well twelve years (that's the length of three Great Wars”) and 3,427 coalition deaths (448 British) later the war goes on – you can see why the authors of “The Two Worlds of Charlie F” kept away from the politics. The last thing this brilliant play tries to do is defend the indefensible. More than four years ago Max Hastings said this about the Afghan War:

“Britain is engaged in a bloody war in Afghanistan. We are losing this for a variety of reasons, many of them related to the intractable nature of the place and its problems. But I do not know one of our soldiers, of any rank, who fails to attribute a host of difficulties since 2001, and a significant proportion of casualties, to mismanagement by government and Whitehall.”

We are back in “Lions led by Donkeys” territory here. But in “Charlie F” discussion of this is avoided – apart from a clever “briefing” given at the beginning which shows that every war fought in Afghanistan by a foreign invader has resulted in defeat – including three in the nineteenth century by Britain. The unspoken conclusion is “Why on earth did we fall into the same old trap again back in 2001?” Good question!

Armies don't have the time or the inclination to challenge why they are doing what they are asked to do. And soldiers, as both “Charlie F” and “Lovely War” show do amazing things under fire. As General Patton in his famous speech put it:

“Some of you men are wondering whether or not you'll chicken out under fire. Don't worry about it. I can assure you that you'll all do your duty. War is a bloody business, a killing business.”

But there always has to be closure in the end. In “Oh What a Lovely War” the soldiers sang:

“When this lousy war is over no more soldiering for me,
When I get my civvy clothes on, oh how happy I shall be.
No more church parades on Sunday, no more begging for a pass.
You can tell the sergeant-major to stick his passes up his arse.”

“The two worlds of Charlie F” shows how difficult such closure can be. The loss of a leg or two, the loss of friends, the loss at times of your mind. For the participants in the Drama the play is clearly an act of catharsis – they are brave to do it. For us the non- combatant, riddled as we are by  cynicism and disgust and all too aware of the foolish incompetence of the political class’s  decision to go to war in Afghanistan, it is cathartic as well. I cannot recall the word “Hero” being used once in either “Oh what a Lovely War” or in “The two worlds of Charlie F”.  And at no point in either drama is there descent to patriotism or sentiment. These men who didn't chicken out under fire might be seen as heroes by the rest of us. They might be patronised by badly-suited city dealers in a girly bar (a brilliantly constructed scene). They might be greeted with embarrassment by those for whom the sight of a missing limb is sickening. But for the audience who stood to acclaim them at the end of the show I’m pretty sure that they were simply seen as the “Best of British” – and I suspect that they might settle for that. As did my two Grandfathers and the thousands like them who survived the trenches to build their post-war lives.