Diary - Richard Eyre

Has there ever been a more solipsistic cry from the postwar years than that of Jimmy Porter in <em>L

My alarm clock wakes me with the matey babble of John and Jim and Ed and Sarah and Carolyn and Gary: the Today programme. It's like a stream passing over pebbles, which changes pitch only when it meets a rocky obstacle - John Reid, say - then makes a noisy spray of bombast and self-righteousness. The long continuo remains mostly undisturbed, until a change of rhythm and key and timbre tells us that we've passed into dead water: Thought for the Day. Conversation and debate are stilled, as an unctuous exhortation steers today's issue into propaganda for scriptural truths. "The [fill in appropriate holy book] got it right," say the thinkers, and I find myself goaded into anger by the assumption that utterly commonplace homilies can be transformed into profundities merely by invoking "faith", or even - though the Today programme is far too ecumenical for this - the comic oxymoron "true faith".

When I was a governor of the BBC, there were several representations from the British Humanist Association to demand equal airtime with the "faith" squad. The head of radio would implore us not to poke the hornets' nest; so TFTD endures, like the monarchy and the House of Lords, not because of its inherent virtues or popular support, but because it's more trouble than it's worth to change or abolish it.

Considering that the global mission-control of the Catholic Church is situated in Italy, it's always a pleasant surprise to find that religion sits lightly on the lives of Italians. Last Sunday in Venice, it seemed as if the main business of its hundred or so churches was as museums, galleries and concert halls, with worship offered only as a sideline for the dutiful few. Instead of being woken on a Sunday morning by clashing peals of bells, it was like being in a city under snow, hushed as if it had stopped breathing.

You're conscious of sound in Venice, not just the lapping of water and the putter of boats, but the absence of the insistent gargle of traffic. A few years ago, at night in the Arsenale district, I heard the beautiful sound of a singer performing a Gluck aria to a piano accompaniment. As I headed towards the source of the sound, anticipating a decorous classical concert, the singer was applauded and replaced by a comedian - a few jokes, gales of laughter. As we arrived in the packed square, overlooked by windows stuffed with people, a rock band began to play. The fruit of an enlightened and demotic government arts policy? No. A cabaret organised by the Communist Party.

Italy has lived for years with generous civic and state subsidy for the arts, but under Berlusconi they diminished. On the front of Venice's newly restored opera house, the eponymous Fenice, there's a banner asking for support for Italian theatres threatened with cuts. "It's like the 1950s," said a friend.

It was out of Fifties Britain - when only a third of families had exclusive use of bath, lavatory and cooker, nearly half had no bath at all and subsidies to the arts were as exotic a luxury as central heating - that John Osborne's Look Back in Anger emerged in 1956, detonating a theatrical revolution.

"Formal, rather old-fashioned," said Osborne of his play. It's an extraordinary comment on the state of the theatre at the time - and of British society - that, for all its abrasive, excoriating, maudlin, self-pitying and sometimes surprisingly tender rhetoric, it seems to look back to the past with regret rather than anger. Has there been a more solipsistic cry from the postwar years than that of Jimmy Porter: "There aren't any good, brave causes left"?

And this was in the face of the government's botched attempts to hold on to the remnants of the British empire in Malaya and Kenya and Cyprus, the Russians stamping into Hungary, and the enlargement of the cold war by introducing H-bomb tests and preparing the population for nuclear attack. But a feeling of impotence in the face of these events underscores the whole play: "I want to make people feel, to give them lessons in feeling. They can think afterwards," said Osborne. Anger was his fuel: he hated authority, but he was a conservative in everything but sex, which was the real subject of his play.

While we're marking the 50th anniversary of the first performance of Osborne's play, we should remember that in October it will also be the 50th anniversary of that great British débâcle, the Suez invasion. There doesn't seem much doubt that in 50 years' time, when our descendants look back on our present Middle Eastern adventure, it won't be with regret, it'll be with anger.

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