I used to think that writing a regular column was not so different from doing a one-woman show. That was when I began contributing pieces like this to The Stage and before I knew better. So while it’s been a pleasure to be cast as the television expert, inserted somewhat incongruously into a weekly dedicated to theatre, it’s also been an education.
Much time as a media writer is spent on TV-drama sets and at never-ending previews. The same actors and writers often flit between the stage, television and film. But my respect has blossomed over the years for those who perform live, night after night. This demands huge reserves of resilience and verve.
But what if you write the words too? The highlight from my 24-year association with The Stage was in 2013, when this modest, basement slot was all too briefly shared with Phoebe Waller-Bridge, snapped up as a columnist after her Fleabag debut in Edinburgh. Over the few months before the fame machine snatched her away, she wrote of the stress of performing her one-woman show with stiletto-sharp directness. It changed the way I watched. This was scary stuff.
Then came the Christmas edition and contributors were asked to write of their stand-out moment of the year. For me, it was walking into an auditorium with David Attenborough as the entire audience rose as one in silent homage. The oxygen felt like it was sucked out of the arena, and I totally fluffed my memorised introduction… the challenge of doing it live.
I was excited to see what Waller-Bridge had picked as her moment of the year. She wrote simply of falling in love and marrying a man who had seen her show. It was emotional and honest. I thought of it during the second series of Fleabag. Now the producers of James Bond have brought her on board, what will she do to that franchise?
More broadly, there has been much positive change across all branches of theatre and television over the past decade; in the treatment of older women and ethnic minorities, colour-blind casting, representation of disability, the calling out of sexual exploitation, unease at the lack of social and regional diversity. I’m not saying things are perfect, but the creative industries are in a far better place.
Second, a golden age of television drama is still unfolding and I again link it back, not so much to Game of Thrones, but to the extension of tax credits, in 2013, to UK-made TV drama, costing more than £1million an hour. This has boosted production and ambition, brought in US studios and internationalised British talent. It is the one area of television in which budgets are rising and dovetails with the impact of streamers led by Netflix and, soon, Disney.
I depart by throwing down a challenge. Theatregoing is urban. West End tickets are expensive. How about the West End thinking outside London by offering more live plays direct to homes? So, parting is such sweet sorrow. But The Stage must go on!
Maggie Brown’s history, Inside Channel 4, from Big Brother to the Great British Bake Off, is published by Bloomsbury in autumn