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First draft, unedited (and long) essay on British TV, theatre and live-art – focused on the recent live broadcast Liv From Television Centre. Images and links to be added.
Brief introduction separate from main article: If you’re the kind of person who has had the life sucked out of them by watching soap operas, we probably won’t get along. Shame on you for sitting on your sofa for hours a week, year on year, doing nothing when there is a whole world of experiences out there, down your street, in the next town and in the world around you.
If you’re an EastEnders fan then I have as much in common with you as I have with a soldier from the Islamic State.
Give yourself a shake, free yourself from repetitious television and see what the world of arts and theatre has to offer. Of course, this advice comes with a health warning that you could find yourself intoxicated by your new experiences, everything from art and lectures to theatre and performance.
Here we go:
Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Whickers World, Seven Up! and David Attenborough’s Life On Earth. There was a time when television was genuinely creative, able to throw up genuinely original pioneering television and the occasional audacious surprises.
The irony, of course, is that these shows came at a time when there was far less choice for the viewer. Prior to having 1,000 channels at our fingertips – or indeed anything at our fingertips because you used to have to get up and walk over to the set to change the channel – there were just three stations in Britain and they didn’t broadcast during the day.
Much of the groundbreaking TV we have watched and taken to our hearts has come out of the bowls of the BBC, that much-loved, much-hated publically funded monolith of an organisation. For all its faults – and there are more than a few – it is the unique set-up of this most British of institutions which gives it licence to be creative, avant-garde and, when the mood takes, inspirational.
And so it was at the BBC’s former stomping ground of Television Centre, closed down in 2013 and sold for £200million, where the stars aligned for a truly groundbreaking two hours of experimental television aired on November 15, 2015. Of course, I don’t mean stars, as in famous ones, like Jeremy Clarkson, will.i.am or Mr Tumble. No, this is BBC 4 we’re talking about here, where it’s less about budgets and big names and more about creativity and nurturing, thank God.
Live from Television Centre consisted of four half hour slots of innovative independent theatre (a fifth was made available on iPlayer only), brought together by collaboration between the Arts Council, Battersea Arts Centre and the Beeb itself. Those involved should be applauded for their vision in broadcasting something truly unique in 2015 when there has long been a feeling that, in TV, everyone has been done before.
It is perhaps important to take time out – a non-commercial break, if you will – to contemplate what contemporary independent theatre is not. It is not amateur dramatics, lo-grade performance or part-time indulgence for wannabe artists. What it is, is this: cutting edge creative theatre, independent artists pushing the boundaries of art and theatre without the shackles big productions, exploring narrative techniques and cross-platform genres.
The biggest question is why the BBC has taken so long to come up with and produce an idea like this. It’s as if the corporation got itself too preoccupied with shows like the Clarkson-fronted Top Gear, where its worldwide success was frequently smeared by accusations of bullying (verbal and physical), homophobia and a general disposition of prejudice to other nations. Or, to put in another way, ladishness. Or maybe it is the obsession with producing copycat ITV shows, most notably The X Factor tribute show The Voice, which seats Black Eyed Peas star will.iam.
The Voice is a succinct example of what the BBC should not be doing with its resources. The corporation has far less pressure to broadcast mass audience entertainment television because it does not rely on advertising revenues to exist. This is precisely why The Voice was an unwarranted (and wholly unoriginal) commission – it gives viewers what they have already got from ITV.
That culture secretary John Whittingdale questioned whether the BBC, as a publically-funded broadcaster, should be bidding against ITV for the rights show The Voice, which it has recently lost. You could deliver a similar argument against EastEnders, a Cockney version of Coronation Street created by the BBC in the 1980s.
I was thinking soap opera during the first segment of Live At Television Centre, Gecko Theatre’s production which kicked off the show. The most conventional piece of the broadcast, The Time Of You Life is a play using the kind of stage sets familiar to TV viewers. But the constraints of production – particularly in editing – which live TV brings left the production feeling more like Crossroads than Breaking Bad. It was the wrong production for live TV. Gecko has huge respect within independent theatre and has developed some marvellous work but this live production, with the undoubted pressure and compromises it brought, made its actors look hammy.
The night’s other out-and-out acting piece, Common Wealth’s No Guts No Heart No Glory (co-produced by Contact), fared much better. Set in a boxing gym, the story of a group of young Pakistani Muslim girls who voice their feelings and frustrations of family and life was captivating and dramatic. The boxing-ring setting is as surprising as the subject matter itself but the delivery was superb, showing how theatre can be as inspirational as it can be exciting.
That the actors came through an arts project delivered by the producers and had no previous performance experience only added to its impressiveness. It was powerful, stuff and made you wonder why more theatre has not been shown on television, though I guess that was the point of this entire exercise.
But contemporary theatre is so much more than narrative plays in the conventional sense and when a slightly scruffy-looking bloke called Richard DeDomenici was introduced by host Kirsty Wark, that feeling of thrill which only live theatre can bring exploded from my TV set. Dedomenici’s geeky idea for his Redux Project began some years ago when he began recreating famous scenes from movies in a lo-fi, highly ironic way. For Live At Television Centre he crammed ten iconic moments from the BBC’s history, some of which occurred in the very studio he was performing in.
DeDomenici may be an unfamiliar face to almost everybody watching – okay, an unfamiliar face to everybody – and his delivery was far less polished than a weather presenter during their first week on local radio. But this was less about anodyne presenting skills and more about the excitement of live experiment and DeDomenici delivered by the bucket load. He slowly won the audience over and it was as refreshing to see this happen, television creating a new star at the cutting edge of its creativity, as it was to witness the humour and slightly shambolic slickness of DeDomenici’s re-enactments, which included Blue Peter’s out of control elephant incident, Alan Partridge driving a car and Bucks Fizz in their Eurovision skirt-pulling pomp. It was television like we have never seen before. And television was all the better for it.
Contemporary theatre is at its best when it has something to say, when it is thought provoking and empowering. Enter Jess Thom and her show Broadcast From Biscuit Land by Touretteshero which encompassed all of the above – and more. Part comedy, part confessional, Thom’s hugely entertaining piece focused on her life with Tourette’s.
That her relationship with the condition sees her repeatedly shout the word ‘biscuit’ while thumping her chest is painfully annoying is exactly the point. Thom offered a rare insight into the frustrations of her own life, while wrapping it up into a piece of performance of humour and empathy that made it impossible not to warm to her. Laughing at the plight of a wheelchair-bound woman who involuntary says ‘biscuit’ 16,000 times a day who could have a seizure-like fit at any time during the performance is as excruciating as entertainment gets. It’s how contemporary performance excels and Thom’s 30 minute slot, performed with Jess Mabel Jones, is packed full of satire, heartfelt emotion, a brilliant Keith Chegwin tale with the ironic twist of having the man himself in the audience, and a romping musical finale. It’s variety but not as we know it – yet we are left wanting more.
The event – for that’s what it was, it was not a TV show – was part of the BBC’s On Stage season, celebrating Britain’s theatrical talent. I don’t know if the On Stage programme was on your radar, it wasn’t on mine. It took something brash, colourful, unusual and momentous to reach me through all the noise – and that was Live At BBC Television Centre. Or rather it was the contemporary performance element, coupled with the prospect of a live show where anything can happen, including embarrassing catastrophes which created the buzz. And let’s be honest, imminent disaster is one of the reason why we’re so eagerly lured to live event TV. But this is slightly different, where the tension is more often related to those you are watching, willing them to succeed, or at least not trip up, during their big moment. There was nothing negative about this TV show.
Stage performance on television is hardly a new phenomenon. Sunday Night At The Palladium first aired in the mid-50s brought what was then termed ‘variety’ to British TV screens. In the last decade talent shows (Pop Idol, Dancing On Ice, Strictly Come Dancing, Britain’s Got Talent) but these have come at a price – the dumbing down of live performance on the box to the point where, if an artist is not willing to compete in front of four judges and repeatedly state that ‘this means everything to me’ they won’t get anywhere near a TV camera. And I use the term ‘artist’ in the loosest sense here. Artists whose art has got something to say are much more powerful. And that is why Live From Television Centre was such an important event. It was iconic only because it was a rare moment for contemporary art on television. We need the project to be repeated so that it becomes less iconic and more commonplace. That way art and the audience will both be winners.
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