Mark Shenton: It’s lazy of Giles Coren and co to sneer at theatre

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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It is so easy to sneer at the theatre: “When I go I just worry about the poor bastards forgetting their lines. Particularly if I go and see my actor friends in a play… But it has to be such a good production – in this modern age used to such high production values – for everyone to suspend their disbelief that these are just some kids trying to remember their lines and not get fired.” Or: “I resent going to the theatre and not having an interval for two hours and 45 minutes. I want more intervals.”

No, these are not average men or women on the street, where such ignorant comments may be more easily excused, but two of the people who will presenting the BBC’s new flagship arts TV show, Front Row: Giles Coren and Nikki Bedi.

Coren, who also admitted he’d not been to theatre much in the last six or seven years, added: “I’ve always found the theatre stressful. I’ve not been because you’ve got to get there by half-past seven and I have to bath my kids and put them to sleep before I can go out.”

As I told the Daily Telegraph when they asked for my reaction to this: “It’s more than a little dispiriting that cultural commentators, as these presenters are being appointed to be, can be so casually dismissive of theatre – hiding behind spurious reasons like anxiety over actors remembering their lines (they’re professionals – that’s what they’re paid to do, and mostly succeed at!), the discomfort of the seats and the lack of intervals.

“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 irritations.”

The Stage’s editor Alistair Smith added: “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’. Theatre is one of the art forms that we really excel at in the UK. It deserves engaging, lively and expert commentary – let’s hope the show itself will deliver on that.”

Hear, hear.

But as a follower on Twitter replied to my posting of this news: “Can you imagine it happening on sports shows? ‘Although the new presenters haven’t seen a football match for years, they are looking forward to reacquainting themselves with the game during Match of the Day.’ Why are they so afraid of the arts?”

Another succinctly summarised the situation thus: “Disdain for Shakespeare? Run a theatre. Disdain for theatre? Review it. Disdain for people? Be a politician.”

On Facebook, a critical colleague simply wrote: “It left me speechless. How pathetic. Do they also get backache looking at paintings? Are the books a bit long to read? Really. Pathetic.”

As we saw with the Brexit campaign and Michael Gove’s (in)famous cry that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, ignorance is apparently bliss. And look where that got us: out of Europe and electing Donald Trump as the president of the US.

Now the BBC’s new flagship arts programme looks set to continue this trend, allowing theatre – one of our best and biggest arts exports – to be presided over by a panel that hate going to the theatre because the seats are uncomfortable, there aren’t enough loos and the actors may forget their lines.

And before they try to use the excuse that they need to look beyond metropolitan London – where so much great theatre takes place – there’s also a lot of regional theatre that deserves attention, too. Between this and next week, I am going to Manchester twice as well as Leicester and Chichester.

No doubt the BBC presenters will complain about the inconvenience of the trains and trying to get there. In fact, it’s just a combination of pure and simple laziness, contempt and ignorance.