David Lister: Shakespeare got the new BBC chief his job – let's hope he repays him

The week in arts

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Hollow Crown, the current series of Shakespeare history plays brilliantly adapted for television, has been rightly praised.

And it appears that the adaptations may unintentionally have made broadcasting history. For in a small but highly significant story after the appointment of George Entwistle as the new BBC director-general, the chairman of the BBC Trust Lord Patten revealed that it was The Hollow Crown that may have helped get him the job.

Entwistle as head of BBC TV, or BBC Vision as the corporation pompously calls it, was responsible for commissioning and scheduling the series. The first of the series, Richard II starring Ben Whishaw, was on the weekend before Entwistle's final interview by the Trust. Lord Patten went on the record to state, "As reviewers have said, it was probably the best televised Shakespeare there has ever been," adding that this was a real positive for Entwistle, outweighing his own negative reviews for the Jubilee coverage, which he also masterminded.

All of which gives cause for a certain amount of reflection. First, it is wonderful, if true, that a Shakespeare play on the BBC may have tipped the balance in favour of a particular candidate for director-general. It is wonderful that the chair of the governors notices such things and considers them important. He is effectively saluting Entwistle's decision to broadcast culturally upmarket fare, and is saying that is the sort of DG he wants to run the show.

So far so good. Let us be generous and not make too much of the fact that before The Hollow Crown, the BBC has been pretty much a wilderness in recent years as far as Shakespeare is concerned – less than a handful of play broadcast in literally decades. I, and I'm sure many others, have argued over a long period for the national broadcaster to show the national playwright, but with little success. Perhaps Mr Entwistle could give us the statistics on how many Shakespeare plays have been broadcast per year under his watch.

Still, let's not be too churlish. He is committed to the Bard now, and that's good news. But classical drama does not begin and end with Shakespeare. Perhaps Chris Patten should delve a little deeper before he and Mr Entwistle become too self-satisfied. How often has Ibsen been on BBC TV in the last 20 years. Has Lord Patten asked when last a Chekhov play was broadcast? He needn't bother. I have done it for him. No one at the BBC could tell me. It was so long ago that no one can remember.

Nor do we have to look just to the past or just abroad. Pinter, Stoppard, Caryl Churchill, Michael Frayn and so many other key names of the 20th- and 21st-century stage are rarely if ever given airtime. The young, mainly female, playwrights lighting up the stage at present are also unknown to TV audiences.

Mr Entwistle has started well, but he and Lord Patten should realise, that if the new DG is to live up to his chairman's commendation, he has to radically reform the state of BBC drama and give the next generation of viewers regular doses of both the classics and the great contemporary playwrights that the last few generations have been deprived of by television controllers. Mr Entwistle has a way to go. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

No golden moments for Gilbert and Sullivan

The people who run the Cultural Olympiad haven't been shy of sticking their logo on all manner of arts events that are already happening. The Proms, for example, are now part of the Cultural Olympiad, even though they have been going for quite a few years now. So I'm surprised to hear from Bernard Lockett from the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, which takes place in Buxton and Harrogate later this summer, that all his overtures to the Cultural Olympiad to have G&S included have fallen on deaf ears. I wonder why. Are Gilbert and Sullivan too unfashionable for matters Olympic? They're part of England's cultural and theatrical heritage, surely. Perhaps Danny Boyle will surprise Mr Lockett and all of us by having his green and pleasant land setting for the Opening Ceremony populated by G&S characters singing, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-general".

Jokers always seem to be geniuses

Reading the reports of the death of Eric Sykes and the subsequent tributes, I was struck, as I am always struck when a great comedian dies, that the use of one particular word is de rigueur in such circumstances: genius. When great comics, with sufficient longevity, die they are always geniuses. It seems to have become mandatory, the words comic and genius inseparable. Yet strangely this rarely happens in any other art form. Pavarotti was not called a singing genius, Margot Fonteyn was not labelled a dancing genius,nor Lucian Freud a painting genius. But funny men and women are geniuses plain and simple. There should be more equality among the art forms here.

d.lister@ independent.co.uk