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Richard Jordan: Theatre needs a louder voice on radio and TV

Tom Sutcliffe. Photo: Abigail Zoe Martin Saturday Review host Tom Sutcliffe. Photo: Abigail Zoe Martin
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Last week, the BBC announced it had performed an abrupt U-turn on its decision to axe the weekly Saturday Review, one of Radio 4’s flagship arts shows.

It is good news for arts coverage in the UK that the BBC came to its senses and reprieved the show. Saturday Review will now continue broadcasting alongside Radio 4’s recently announced monthly show Opening Night, which is focused on UK regional theatre.

However, the question has to be asked: why was the decision made to pull this valuable, long-running and popular arts show from the schedules in the first place?

The National Theatre commissioned a comprehensive study in 2014 that revealed almost twice as many people attend a theatre performance in London every year than the whole premiere football league attendance put together.

If the arts are such an important and popular activity for so many people – not just in London but throughout the whole of the country – then why does its position on radio and television get continually cut or relegated?

Today there is a constant fight for theatre to get airtime on TV and radio. When it is afforded, there’s a perception that the theatre industry should be unduly grateful to the networks for such opportunities.

The coverage of the Olivier Awards is a perfect example. The once-live BBC broadcast was first replaced by a highlights show and then scrapped altogether.

Only this year did ITV finally give the UK theatre’s showpiece awards show a prime-time slot; although not as a live broadcast but shown two days later when the winners were already known.

Contrast that to almost any other award show; the BAFTAs, BRITS and even the British Soap Awards are all given greater air time and usually broadcast live or with a slight delay.

Based on the National report’s figures and popularity of theatre, I am puzzled that television and radio networks are not better at recognising the obvious public interest.

Film is the dominant art form that is covered on television, closely followed by music, as was seen in the large amount of airtime and number of crew recently sent to cover the Glastonbury Festival.

In news reporting both nationally (and locally in London), there are regular broadcasts from the red carpet in Leicester Square at the latest film premiere. But very rarely do we ever see that same coverage given to a West End opening night, even if the cast includes a film star (although if that same film star were opening in a movie, the TV cameras would be there for the premiere).

With the growth of 24-hour news and digital channels – all with a need for content – it is surprising that theatre is still not being given better coverage. On radio, there has been the recent arrival of Encore, which, as it builds content, could match the long-running Sirius radio in the US and become a key, mainstream arts broadcaster.

The fact that Saturday Review has been saved from the chop is great news, but it should never have been in jeopardy in the first place

Meanwhile, the UK’s Theatre Voice with its lively podcasts, continues to provide one of the best media platforms for theatre broadcast.

BBC One’s long-running Film… programme [currently Film 2017] shows how you can make a piece of television arts coverage that is insightful, entertaining and engaging, both for the movie-buff and the occasional cinemagoer. Part of its success is in the presenting format, but also the fact it neither dumbs-down nor patronises its audiences, while also still being populist.

The biggest factor is that it lacks any pretension both in its reporting and interviewing, while crucially its presenters seem equally at ease in offering the same genuine analysis towards the latest Hollywood blockbuster as the new foreign art house release. This makes the programme widely accessible to viewers, while also saying it’s okay if you like The Lego Movie, The Salesman, Manchester by Sea, or all of them.

In theatre, it feels like certain certain genres are easily dismissed: that’s not just in broadcasting, but at times from also within our industry itself. Musicals have often been given a rougher ride unless they are written by Stephen Sondheim. But you cannot generalise about any art form, or be close-minded when it is constantly evolving.

This is where a programme like Film 2017 has succeeded. Whether the presenters ultimately liked the work or not, it is treated equally, whether a blockbuster or foreign art house sleeper. It also scrutinises the actual craft of the production, which (for whatever the form or subject matter), is crucial to its success.

In theatre, there is just as much skill and craft needed in making a successful jukebox musical as there is to a successful play. No production will simply succeed on star or title alone; that may get bums on seats in the first place, but audiences soon see beyond that.

In broadcasting, where the network schedules its theatre programming matters. If you banish theatre to the late-night schedules, as has frequently been the case, or see it cut and tagged on to the end of another show, you diminish its profile and potential audiences.

Like any art form, the ongoing power of theatre is in the discussion. Theatre has a fight on its hands to improve its position on TV and radio. The fact that Saturday Review has been saved from the chop is great news, but it should never have been in jeopardy in the first place.

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