Hands up! Let me see how many of you have been – or still are – involved in amateur dramatics? I was, when I was younger. And I loved it.
Which is why I am looking forward to Sky Arts’ new series Nation’s Best Am Dram, which begins next week and will result in one amateur dramatics company winning the chance to perform a play at the Lyric, on Shaftesbury Avenue.
Eight groups from around the country feature in the series, and over the course of six episodes, the show will see judges Bill Kenwright, Quentin Letts and Miriam Margolyes whittle these down to one.
Sound good? It does to me, but it has already been criticised in The Telegraph by Rupert Christiansen, who complained that the show uses a “clichéd talent format”, made up of “the standard quota of nice cop, nasty cop judges, primadonna strops and meltdowns, tears before bedtime and whoops of joy”.
He makes it sound like The X Factor. And let me tell you, having seen some of it, it’s not really anything like that.
Unlike some talent shows, the Nation’s Best Am Dram isn’t there to make a mockery of those who have put themselves forward to take part, or to have an arena full of people point and laugh at their efforts.
From what I can see, the companies taking part are genuinely passionate about what they do, and why they do it.
It isn’t about fame or glory or sob stories from people who are taking part after losing a loved one a few weeks ago. It’s about people who like to be at the heart of their communities, who enjoy the arts, the creativity involved in staging a show, the social side of being involved and the sense of achievement that comes from being part of such groups.
Then there are the judges – people who really know and understand theatre. The series includes scenes where the three sit and discuss the performances they have seen in detail and provide a fascinating insight into what experts consider makes a good performance. They don’t always agree.
Not only that, but each theatre company in the series is assigned a mentor to help them whip their productions into shape. These mentors include Harriet Walter, Richard Wilson and Paterson Joseph. They aren’t names to be sniffed at. These are people who know the business and their craft. And you can’t really imagine actors like this taking part in something that had set out to belittle contestants.
The show is a refreshing reminder, to my mind, that theatre is not just represented by the West End. It’s all around us, taking place in places like Galloway, where the Crossmichael Drama Club rehearse in a tiny tin hut, or in Bingley, where the Bingley Little Theatre the company has the brilliant idea, for its audition tape, of making the three witches in Macbeth gay men. This prompts the judges to claim that this idea is some professional directors would be proud of.
Yes, there are “tears before bedtime and whoops of joy” but, come on, if you were part of an amateur company in this series, wouldn’t you get a tiny bit emotional about it?
Christiansen also argues that the term “am-dram” today means more than just “self-managing, largely middle-class adult groups performing extant plays or musicals in the village hall”.
He goes on to claim that “am dram” should include fringe theatre, since everyone there does so for love, not money.
I can see how, with its use of unpaid performers, the fringe could be classified as amateur of sorts, but there is a big difference between the fringe and what most of us consider am-dram.
The actors on the fringe tend to see it as a stepping-stone to better things and I don’t believe that is true for the majority of the people who are involved in amateur companies around the UK.
For some of these it is possibly the closest they will ever get to realising childhood dreams of being an actor. The beauty of amateur companies is that, usually, it’s a more than ample way for them to satisfy that itch. Others, meanwhile, won’t have had any urge to consider acting professionally and take part for the fun of it, or the social aspects, or the many other reasons I could list.
I believe James Hunt, channel director of Sky Arts, when he says the series’ focus was on “excellence of acting which can be found in the most unexpected of places”.
It certainly surprised me. And when you live in a West End bubble for much of the year, that’s a very nice surprise to get.
Nation’s Best Am Dram begins on November 14 ay 9pm on Sky Arts.