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Maggie Brown: Box offices could learn from the comfort and ease of Netflix

Channel 4 has commissioned a drama based on Lucy Kirkwood's Chimerica (pictured). Photo: Tristram Kenton
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I’ve been keeping an eye on the Financial Times after its revelations about the sleazy, and now defunct, Presidents Club. That was how I spotted a letter that had me reaching for a comb, apple and the remote control.

Under the headline “classical conditioning and the Netflix viewer”, a reader from Phoenix, Arizona wrote: “At the grocery store it’s clear who the Netflix watchers are: matted hair, rumpled clothes and baskets of foods that make Warren Buffett seem like a diet guru.”

It was hard to believe, he added, that a company “whose actual product is transforming people into less ideal versions of the human form (by encouraging all-round bingeing) can be worth $100 billion” – and has 117 million subscribers and growing.

Our correspondent from Phoenix couldn’t imagine Marcus Aurelius or Einstein sitting in ice cream-stained joggers, with chips and soda, tucking into 12 hours of junk. The sign-off line? “Pavlov would be right at home”, with his observations on how to train dogs.

With this in mind, and a family birthday coming up, it was clear we needed to get our cultural fix out of the house, and I spent Saturday morning trying to book theatre seats.

First choice was Girl from the North Country, a production I knew my husband would enjoy. But the DMT website was having none of it. Every time I tried to book four tickets in the same row, it blocked the sale because it left one seat unsold. I could feel the lure of streamed content on one shoulder, and the Phoenix correspondent on the other.

Advised to ring the helpline, I was cut off once, then left unanswered twice. So I switched to another safe choice, Amadeus at the National Theatre, which kindly allocates you a choice of seats in the pay band you select. The whole process made me feel a little better about my embrace of always-handy Netflix.

The foreign correspondent Christina Lamb was on Desert Island Discs the same weekend. She made the point that her unpredictable lifestyle meant she bought tickets that often go unused. How many listeners smiled ruefully?

This made me reflect on the times a box office has refused to take a return, as it is not sold out. And about how to treat the customer better (in an age where streaming is the competition), perhaps by allowing an unused ticket to be credited for a future production?

While live performance is wonderful and advance booking to be encouraged, it doesn’t mesh well with messy lives. And rather than shell out large sums for something you may not be able to use, the hours of high-quality drama may prove an appealing alternative.

On the other hand, theatre feeds TV series. Jez Butterworth’s Britannia is on Sky Atlantic, while one of the first decisions of the new Channel 4 regime is commissioning a four-part drama based on Lucy Kirkwood’s 2013 Olivier award-winning play Chimerica.

Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica to be four-part Channel 4 drama

This creative system has wide benefits. But booking tickets is a weak link that could keep putative theatregoers on the sofa.

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