When I heard last month that BBC Radio 4’s Front Row will be expanded to a TV slot on BBC Two, I was a bit unsure about its presenters. The restaurant grouch Giles Coren and the BBC’s Media Editor Amol Rajan – both respected commentators but on completely different subjects – didn’t feel the same as the radio version’s current hosts (though The Arts Hour and Loose Ends radio journalist Nikki Bedi made more sense).
Now, all three presenters have given an interview to the Radio Times, picked up by the Telegraph, in which they lay into theatre as an art form.
Coren revealed he hadn’t been to the theatre much in the past seven years, due to parenting duties – and also his stress over the idea that the actors would forget their lines. He believes it “has to be such a good production” for modern audiences to suspend their disbelief, and also complained about the seats:
“In the theatre they’re all so uncomfortable and old, and it feels like they’re trying to throw you out. I’d also like easier access to the loo.”
His co-presenters also didn’t seem particularly enthused. Bedi admitted, “I resent going to the theatre and not having an interval for two hours and 45 minutes. I want more intervals”, adding that she prefers film, and “tight, fast-paced, creative theatre that moves away from tradition”.
Rajan also mentioned that being a father makes it difficult to go (he has a young baby), but he saw the musical Dreamgirls last week and the School of Rock musical two years ago. He added that his favourite place is the Globe, which only seemed to rile the theatre world more.
The Telegraph’s theatre critic Dominic Cavendish seethed:
“What is the BBC doing, given the world-envied pre-eminence of our theatre culture, handing over the invaluable job of informing the TV-viewing public about what’s on stage, what’s good, what’s not and why, to a Come Dine With Me melange of lightweights who between them seem to have quite liked going to Shakespeare’s Globe and School of Rock IN NEW YORK!”
The playwright Dan Rebellato tweeted:
“Imagine if BBC’s art critics said novels were ‘too long’ or poetry ’too difficult’ or classical music ‘too boring’. Fucking OUTRAGEOUS.”
The editor of The Stage Alistair Smith added:
“It’s great the BBC is putting arts and theatre coverage front and centre, but I’m sure the industry will be hoping it will include some slightly more incisive criticism than ‘the seats are uncomfortable and there aren’t enough loos’.”
But many theatre fans (including this one) won’t feel outraged by the presenters’ comments. Even the theatre critic and associate editor of The Stage Mark Shenton admitted that, “yes, these matters sometimes vex professional theatregoers too – I routinely go to the theatre six or seven times a week – but the rewards far outweigh the inconveniences and irritation.”
The first layer of outrage was at the presenters’ focus on practicality: Coren’s comments about the uncomfortable seats and sparse loos, and Bedi’s complaint about duration and lack of intervals. Yes, it might seem banal, but it’s true.
In those old Victorian theatres, try being above average height, below average height, having a disability, elderly, or with children. And for any production, try being someone who works early morning shifts or night shifts. Most mainstream theatre is pretty impractical – both timewise and seating-wise – and that makes it pretty inaccessible to lots of people. Maybe not to BBC presenters, but the programme is for the public, not just for their fellow journos who get press tickets and seats in the stalls.
Then the second, far worse, layer of outrage focused on Rajan’s comments. “The Globe!” The theatre world giggled. “Musicals!” It corpsed some more. This is nothing but snobbery. As if Shakespeare’s Globe is too obvious and musicals are too low-brow to be critiqued on, uh, an entertainment show. But then they can’t stomach Bedi’s enthusiasm for more avant-garde pieces. So which is it?
If the presenters’ comments give away a little too much about their attitude to the arts, the theatre world’s response says far worse about its own.