Andrzej Lukowski: Theatre on TV is being lost in translation

The cast of BBC2's broadcast of King Charles III. Photo: Robert Viglasky
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While I’m not one of those dreadful people who don’t watch TV, I am enough of a theatre wanker to moan constantly about the conservatism of contemporary telly drama, in which almost everything, regardless of genre, is filmed according to the same quasi-cinematic, quasi-realist set of rules and conventions.

It’s not a universally bad thing (with the exception of the knuckle-draggingly backward approach to the diverse casting of period dramas). But the mandatory need to encrust every story in establishing shots, location shots, extras, filters, mood music, special effects and ‘realistic’ casting to create a highly artificial sense of authenticity has led to a bottom-line homogeneity in televisual drama that theatre is blessedly free from. To put it another way: you do a TV show set in a wood, you now pretty much have to film it in a wood. You do a play set in a wood, you can do whatever you like.

It was not always this way: 40 years ago, shows were filmed in studios for about a tenner a go, and it allowed auteurs such as Dennis Potter and Alan Clarke to do whatever the heck they wanted (on a budget). It is presumably no coincidence that Play for Today died out when TV production values started to converge with cinema’s.

Last week an actual contemporary play – Mike Bartlett’s genius ‘future history’ King Charles III – had a telly version made for BBC2.

Reviews were mixed. “This was rank, obnoxious swill that bubbled up in the back of the throat and burned the mouth,” gurgled the man from the Daily Mail; “Majestic, unmissable drama,” drooled the chap from the Telegraph.

Unexpectedly, the one I agreed with the most – in spirit, anyway – came from the Daily Express. You might assume the Diana-fixated rag’s critique of Bartlett’s drama imagining Prince Charles’s ascent to the to throne simply to consist of directing a flaming torch-wielding mob to the author’s house. Instead, writer Matt Baylis praised it as being “outstandingly good as a study of characters”, but complained that, “adapted for TV, the speaking in verse bits didn’t seem or sound ‘bold’ so much as… different for the sheer sake of being different… distancing the audience”.

On stage, King Charles III is overwhelmingly defined by Bartlett’s audacious decision to write in Shakespearean blank verse. This was obviously heightened by seeing it in an actual theatre, but a huge factor of Rupert Goold’s original production was Tom Scutt’s elegant, uncluttered set, allowing the play to be almost nothing but language and performance.

On TV, Goold’s direction felt shackled to all manner of usual conventions: filmed on location, with hordes of extras and establishing shots, characters endlessly catching up on the news on their iPads or phones, it was realist telly, except for some reason everybody was speaking blank verse. The language remained extraordinary clever, but it also felt oddly extraneous – it was now only a single element of the show, no longer its main characteristic.

I’m not sure what other option Goold might have had, and whatever the case, God bless him and the Beeb for having the guts to make what was, by any standards, a very bold show that was still pretty good. But what King Charles III lost in translation seems to point to exactly why so little contemporary theatre does get adapted: from Jerusalem to Enron to Pomona, works that are transcendent on stage never make it to screen because, for starters, they’d surely wilt under all the humdrum realist baggage that would be imposed on them. Perhaps that’s as it should be: plays and TV shows are two very different things (a theatre version of Line of Duty would be at least as daft as a telly version of Enron). But there’s that nagging sense that theatre and television were once both as formally brave as each other, yet TV drama – for all its advances in other respects – has now been left far behind, shackled to big budgets and realist convention.