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Andrzej Lukowski: BBC’s Debut scheme offers a cautionary tale for celebs playing at playwriting

Jessica Clark and Rob Auton in Frank Skinner's Nina's Got News. Photo: Rob McDougall Jessica Clark and Rob Auton in Frank Skinner's Nina's Got News. Photo: Rob McDougall
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I would defend the BBC from pretty much anything. If they doubled my licence fee, I’d just spend less on food. John Humphrys can be hard to stomach, but then I look at a picture of David Attenborough and everything’s okay. I truly, honestly don’t care about Cliff Richard’s privacy.

And right up until this year’s Edinburgh Fringe started, I was prepared to be open-minded about Debut, the Beeb’s co-venture with comedy management company Avalon.

Debut is, and I quote, “a unique new initiative enabling four professional creatives who have never written for the stage before to create their debut play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2018”.

This doesn’t sound like something the world had particularly been crying out for. And it irritated an impressive number of people from the off, when said professionals were revealed to be successful stand-up Frank Skinner, successful actor Katherine Parkinson, successful journalist Bim Adewunmi and successful director Beryl Richards.

Why give these people a leg-up? Why not a quartet of talented unknowns who couldn’t afford to come to Edinburgh otherwise?

Well, a few reasons. Firstly, there was a genuine expectation of good work. If Skinner turned out to be the new Pinter, it would shut the haters right up. Secondly, Skinner and Parkinson are liable to be commercial draws, which is presumably some consideration. And thirdly, it’s not as if celebrity-led programming is something the BBC shuns with TV shows, so why would it be different with theatre?

Anyway, long story short, my open mind didn’t last long, because Debut turns out to have been the absolute worst idea of the 2018 fringe.

Following a slightly hysterical PR push that culminated in a London breakfast launch that was abruptly cancelled an hour or so beforehand, the first real alarm bell was the sudden pulling of Adewunmi’s show, Hoard, apparently on August 2, the day it was due to have its first Edinburgh preview (though it had run some previews at the Bush Theatre in July).

This is a remarkable occurrence, not least because no explanation was given. Debut’s PR has issued a bland statement unhelpfully noting that “Hoard isn’t going to be performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August as previously anticipated”.

Nonetheless, it became apparent that Debut was a full-blooded catastrophe only when press finally saw the first of the plays, Skinner’s Nina’s Got News. An impressively dreadful comedy, it features dialogue strongly suggesting that the author has never heard people speak before, and a demented central plot twist that somehow came across as incredibly boring.

Though slightly better, Parkinson and Richards’ shows were, at the same time, actively bad. The overall impression is of a group of writers who’d effectively tried to write telly pilots – all of them lacked real theatricality.

So what sort of dramaturgical support did Debut provide? Clearly, the main victims in this are the audiences, but I genuinely feel a bit sorry for the participants. Their work has been panned, but were they actually provided with the resources to make the best show they could? Were they promised it would be easy? Were they able to make the same time commitments a regular playwright would have? Did actual experienced theatre people help them? Did nobody notice the plays weren’t very good earlier in the process? And seriously, what did happen to Hoard?

Ultimately, it’s perhaps distracting to dwell too much on the BBC and instead wonder why the scheme was co-run by Avalon, and not a theatre producer. There is a long and wearying history of comedians who probably don’t go to the theatre a lot ‘having a go’ at writing a play for the fringe, and usually they’re not very good. This feels like that writ large. Debut’s catastrophic debut has been a waste of everybody’s time.

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