Andrzej Lukowski: Front Row presenters’ lack of expertise is not a problem. Seeing theatre as a chore is

Comments by Front Row presenters Nikki Bedi, Giles Coren and Amol Rajan have provoked ire in the theatre sector. Photo: BBC
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I wouldn’t say I blagged my way into professional theatre journalism. But looking back I understand why friends who thought of me as a music journalist were bemused when I was hired to the Time Out theatre team. I wasn’t unqualified per se, but I had a lot to learn, which was okay because I really, really wanted to do it.

What I didn’t do at my interview was declare that I didn’t go to the theatre very often because I worried the actors might forget their lines. I did not opine that modern theatre productions needed to work particularly hard to suspend audience disbelief. I did not grumpily concede that I’d probably have to see more theatre if I got the job. And I didn’t chip in with the sage observation that plays needed more intervals.

The reason I didn’t say any of those things is because it would have been cataclysmically stupid. Had I said even one of those statements, I wouldn’t have got the job and would probably now be tearily trying to flog the last of my self-respect to NME.

I am, of course, paraphrasing recent comments made about theatre by Giles Coren, Amol Rajan and Nikki Bedi, the new presenters of BBC’s televised Front Row (admittedly most of the comments come from Coren).

These have elicited outrage from an admittedly easy-to-anger theatre sector incensed at how little these people seem to know about the subject. Only Bedi – who presents The Arts Hour on the BBC World Service – seems to have an arts background at all.

I’m actually kind of forgiving on that score. Front Row is a general arts news and review programme that will have rotating guests; yes, there’s no theatre specialist, but there’s no film specialist or a visual art specialist either.

While that’s not a great recommendation, these people know how to present telly, and if they were honest about their weaknesses and excited about learning on the job, I think it would be something to look forward to.

They’re like jaded diplomats moving on to their next posting, grimly bracing themselves for the fact they might have to mingle with the natives in between G&Ts

But no: their comments in the Radio Times – as reported by the Telegraph – at best suggest they see theatre as a chore; at worst there’s a sort of calculated anti-intellectualism at play.

Coren’s comments read like somebody only dimly aware of what theatre is, fumbling for excuses over his ignorance as it dawns that it’s his job to see live performers for a living.

Bedi’s comments read like somebody who is well aware what theatre is and doesn’t really enjoy it. And while Rajan seems vaguely apologetic, it’s depressing to note that his warmest theatrical memory appears to be a jolly to New York to see School of Rock.

I don’t mind they’re not experts. I don’t even really mind that they (again, mostly Coren) seem to be insufferable – if they had hired somebody who knew a lot about theatre they’d almost certainly be insufferable too.

What’s infuriating is the way in which wealthy, well-educated TV presenters can be so totally gung-ho about their own privilege that they’re happy to grumble blithely about theatre as if it’s theatre’s fault that they’re not fans.

It’s the total lack of enthusiasm, or aspiration, or sense that they have been handed a role that might have any importance beyond their next pay cheque. Members of the professional presenter class famous for doing other things, they’re like jaded diplomats moving on to their next posting, grimly bracing themselves for the fact they might have to mingle with the natives in between G&Ts.

I have a horrible fear that once Coren finds out what theatre is, he might turn out to be quite good at talking about it. But this blithe wallowing in ignorance has to be considered a low starting point for the trio. There is an opportunity to do a good show here, if only the presenters can muster the minimum level of enthusiasm.