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Reviewed: The Audience; Trelawny of the Wells

A cartoon of cameos.

The Audience; Trelawny of the Wells
The Gielgud, London W1;
Donmar Warehouse, London WC2

Beyond the performances, beyond the jokes, the greatest thing about The Queen, the Peter Morgan film in which Helen Mirren first impersonated Elizabeth II, was that you believed it. The week of Diana’s death must have gone roughly like that for Balmoral and Downing Street. The problem with The Audience, in which Mirren returns to her Oscarwinning gig, is that you don’t.

Mirren, required to change wigs and dresses as her age waxes and wanes through the fractured narrative, is everything you have read about her. She can be warm and cold, embody wit and humourlessness, authority and vulnerability. She even carries off conversations with her younger self, which, in less sure hands, could have looked like a barmy dialogue with her inner child.

Morgan seems to have no problem imagining himself into the Queen’s mind – or rather we, knowing little of it, believe he has. The play is composed of scenes taken from the weekly audience Her Majesty has had with her prime ministers: 12, in reality, but just seven dramatised here, with a walk-on for Jim Callaghan. Her first, Churchill, tells her that it will be her duty to conceal her feelings from her subjects, and the tension, such as there is, is generated by the possibility that one of her premiers will irritate her so much that her veneer of disinterest will crack before her subjects’ elected leader.

The best scene is not, however, an invented 1992 sketch in which, overcome by a cold and a hot toddy, she snaps at John Major, but her row with Margaret Thatcher (the too tall Haydn Gwynne). Here, Elizabeth oversteps her constitutional mark and pleads with her contemporary to impose sanctions on South Africa in order to save her true love, the Commonwealth. It is a good moment because we believe the Queen’s motivations. They are backed up by a footnote in which her younger self recites her early broadcast in which she spoke of her determination to be of service to our “great imperial family” (although Morgan cheats by including a line about “this ancient commonwealth which we all love so dearly” – a phrase not actually about the commonwealth of nations at all).

But mostly the play proceeds by, and gets it laughs from, libelling prime ministers. The profligacies with the truth start in 1995 with Major in a fit of confessional breakdown before his monarch, an encounter embroidered with the little-known fact that it was the Queen who advised him to stand for re-election as party leader. Then Churchill makes her cry by refusing to let her take her husband’s surname. Harold Wilson (played by the one great lookalike of the evening, Richard Mc- Cabe) is a pleb who brings a Polaroid camera into his first audience. Gordon Brown confesses to her – as he never did to us – that he had been “given stuff to take” for his moods (they make him put on weight – sounds like antidepressants to me). It was she, apparently, who urged him to go for a snap election in 2007. Cameron, meanwhile, is such a gasbag that he sends her to sleep. There are pleasures to be had from these cameos but they are the pleasures offered by a cartoon.

The Audience is a theatrical confection and a sticky one, a work of consolation that attempts to persuade us that the greatest miracle of British democracy is its least democratic institution. In the Queen’s final dialogue with her younger self, PMs are described as either “mad people” or “over-complicated”, in need of measuring themselves up against something “unchanging, permanent, simple”. I would hesitate even to call The Audience a play, although had Morgan not so overegged Wilson’s debut encounter, there might have been something with longer and more poignant potential in the Harold-Elizabeth relationship. Morgan wrote his great Windsor- PM drama with The Queen, and Blair’s absence from The Audience (presumably he was beginning to bore himself on the subject) just reminds you of that much better work.

The director Joe Wright and writer Patrick Marber’s “respectful additions and ornamentation” to Trelawny of the Wells may have, for all I know, traduced Arthur Pinero’s original comedy. Certainly there is a grinding gearshift towards the end when we are meant to be moved by Rose Trelawny (the winsome Amy Morgan), an impossibly shallow actress who loses her stardom but finds true love. It seems we are also supposed to be cheering on Tom Wrench, a bright young playwright (underplayed by Daniel Kaluuya) who pioneers a new theatrical naturalism. But for most of the night, this is a glorious send-up of luvvies: their pretentions, egos, compulsive insincerity, but also their innocence.

The genius of the piece is, in act two, to remove Rose to the home of her well-off betrothed. If upper-middle-class Victorian households were as frigid and formal as the Gowers, no wonder the music hall caught on. The house is ruled by the dictator Sir William, who imposes rules of etiquette that almost make breathing a faux pas. Sir William is a triumph for Ron Cook who also plays a theatrical landlady in the first act. After a while it is hard not to giggle at the pompous ass’s mere entry on stage.

For all that, the funniest moment of a funny night is when Peter Wright, as a wellcured old ham, protests to his wife that he has been asked to play an “old stagey out-ofwork actor” in Wrench’s new play. “Will you be able to get near it?” asks Maggie Steed as his loyal spouse.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.