The best seat in the house

David Benedict asks Simon Curtis, chief producer of BBC2's Performance season, to name five good reasons why staying in is the best way of getting to the theatre
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The Independent Culture
It's like Opal Fruits: the cast lists alone are made to make your mouth water. Fiona Shaw, Donald Sinden, Adrian Lester, Sheila Gish, Mandy Patinkin, David Bamber, John Sessions... directors such as Deborah Warner, Roger Michell and Sam Mendes aren't exactly small-fry either. Were this a theatre season there would be a glamorous press launch and a box office advance you could retire on but, unless you are a Radio Times junkie, you probably know nothing about it.

"It does aggravate me that Ian Holm does a Performance play, and nobody says a word; then three weeks later he opens at the National, and gets two pages in The Evening Standard. I don't quite understand that." Simon Curtis, executive producer of the BBC Performance season of stage plays on television, is a benign man but there's an altogether reasonable level of irritation beneath the surface.

Curtis's problem stems from the peculiar relationship between theatre and TV. You only have to watch the Olivier Awards, replete with lifeless, hurriedly taped clips from the hits, to realise that theatre on TV is a dodgy game. The lighting looks flat, the camera excludes reactions from others on stage and performances never conceived for the ruthless eye of the camera are thrust into close-up. Cross-cultural mixing may be the stuff of post-modern life, but high culture in a low culture art form often ends up looking like the worst of all possible worlds.

Classical music has it easy. Televising orchestral concerts is a cinch by comparison. The visuals are usually a complement to good music from a good seat and, with decent camera set-ups, the opportunity to see a conductor at work rather than staring at flapping coat tails is a bonus. On the other hand, most opera broadcasts degenerate into "Event TV": thrill to Domingo in the comfort of your own home. It's a case of never mind the quality, feel the occasion.

The costs of creating opera in the studio are generally prohibitive, which means live broadcasts from vast stages. In technical terms, the frankly unsightly physical exertion of singing and the fact that few singers are likely contenders for Best Actor nominations renders close-ups almost impossible. All of which gives you static camera work, disengaging long- shots and largely unsatisfactory results. Fine for fans, but unlikely to hook the casual viewer.

Theatre is more malleable but there's a chasm between those in TV who believe that classics can and should be screened for the millions who never make it into the theatre, and those who can imagine nothing worse. The former camp underestimates the formal difficulties, while the latter cites the generally stodgy BBC Shakespeare seasons or the stagy Play of the Month slot of yesteryear, rightly asserting that they made for second- hand theatre and third-rate television. That group cannot have tuned into such triumphs as Anthony Page's masterly screen version of Absolute Hell that led to a major National Theatre revival with many of the same cast. Nor can they have been part of the audience of two million entranced by Juliet Stevenson in A Doll's House or Zoe Wanamaker and Colin Firth in DH Lawrence's The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd.

If these highlights from previous series are anything to go by, tonight's opening of the sixth Performance season should be worth staying in for. Anyone who has ever considered a committed relationship is in for a provocative evening on the settee watching the intimate Donmar Warehouse production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's startling musical, Company. Kevin Elyot's heartbreaker My Night With Reg hits the screen on 15 March, closely followed by Fiona Shaw repeating her controversial performance as Shakespeare's Richard II. Henry Goodman and Margot Leicester as the Jewish couple whose lives are torn apart by guilt in Arthur Miller's Broken Glass complete the quartet of West End triumphs coming to a TV screen near you. Four theatrical sensations, plus Penny Woolcock's Macbeth on the Estate, an adaptation of Shakespeare filmed on location in Birmingham. Dead certs?

"People say: `The reason your plays work is that they're great plays, you're not taking risks.' By that token," Curtis says, "every Shakespeare production at the RSC would be a success." It's true. Great ingredients don't necessarily make the perfect meal. On paper, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson and Kate Nelligan in Pinter's powerfully static Old Times should have scorched the sofa. Instead it remained frozen. The trouble with televising Pinter is that his elliptical dialogue flattens out into TV naturalism and the highly charged atmosphere that floods the auditorium like dry ice stops dead at the lens.

Curtis, who came from the Royal Court to create Performance, has formed his guidelines on the job. "I learned pretty quickly that Ibsen works better the Chekhov. Ibsen is structured not unlike a soap opera with very intense, two- or three-handers, but the beauty of Chekhov is the ensemble which the camera can't capture. It selects. You think, `Why are we looking at that when I want to be over there or watching those two?' " Then there's the problem of pacing. "Theatre plays almost always begin incredibly slowly. In Hedda Gabler there's 25 minutes, the length of a whole soap episode, before Hedda appears. Theatre writers are allowing the audience to get comfortable, to get used to the world. Television is about grabbing the audience immediately or they'll go. I'm always in favour of a director trimming but that's tricky."

He believes that quiet, intense, emotional moments work best, rather than trying to capture big coups de theatres. Company marks a departure, having been shot in the theatre, but it fits his criteria. "It's at its best when you just see Adrian Lester sitting on a chair singing a fantastic song in close-up." That exposing of emotions is what makes My Night With Reg so remarkable. Roger Michell takes the original ensemble cast who know each other and the subtext inside out and places the camera at the heart of the emotional cross-currents. On stage it was a hilarious and painful play about the lies people tell. On screen it becomes a profoundly moving exploration of the truths they hide.

As BBC2 slides relentlessly down-market - witness the axing of Moving Pictures, television's finest film programme and the arrival of such burning subjects for Late Review as The First Wives Club - isn't Performance under threat from the ratings-chasing ethos? "I never ever had any worries at all from the powers-that-be about audiences. They just want it to be quality work. In this little strand there is still that belief that the BBC should do work that some people will enjoy. That doesn't have to be a jackpot thing."

None the less, Curtis isn't living in an ivory tower and he keeps an eye on ratings and TV names. An appropriate sitcom actor could bring him a 10th or a 20th of the Only Fools and Horses audience. "That's the equivalent of an awful lot of nights in a theatre. I do everything I can to draw attention to the work and make it as accessible and popular as possible and then pray to God that the film on BBC1 isn't too good that night. One of my favourites was Paddy Chayevsky's The Mother. We had Anne Bancroft, it was the first time the play had ever been revived and it went out on the night of the first ever Lottery draw. We were dead in the water. That's the problem with TV. I've learnt not to care about audience figures. It's a crap shoot."

`Company' opens the new `Performance' season: 8.30 tonight, BBC2