review

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The Independent Culture
Last week in The House (BBC2), Jeremy Isaacs raised the jocular suggestion that they might include the Chippendales in one of their productions to perk up attendances. This week, he appeared to be auditioning for a place in the chorus, baring his torso and a broad strip of underpants to the steady gaze of the camera. The series itself has constituted a kind of strip-tease too - a revelation of an institution trying hard to get itself in shape after many decades of over-indulgence, a glimpse of grubby fabric beneath that gleaming stucco exterior. There have been catcalls and ribaldry from the bystanders (a line of narration at the beginning had been cast in the historical present but stood perfectly for the last few weeks too - "it's been open house on the Opera House recently and the press has found it an easy target") and it's true that the exposure has not always been flattering. Collectors of symbolic moments (among which we can include the director of the series) will no doubt have seized gleefully on the little scene towards the end of last night's programme, in which Isaacs stared in bemusement at his bow tie - how perfect, the malign decoding might run, an elitist and outdated adornment maintained only by unreflective tradition and corporate jamborees.

But The House has been much kinder to Covent Garden than its enemies will allow - a picture of an institution that is difficult to run, but not impossible, in which hard-working people cope with an outdated structure and where a sense of vocation is detectable even through the gripes - from the electrician who makes sure he is back from the pub in time for an admired chorus to a General Director who loses his temper during funding negotiations. Some have complained that the series concentrated on strife at the expense of skill - too much needle and not enough needlework. But this was never intended as a glossy corporate endorsement, whatever Isaacs or other members of his board may have hoped for. To complain that it has left out admirable features of the institution is slightly to miss the point - as if the Seville Chamber of Commerce were to protest that Carmen gave a misleading impression of working conditions in the tobacco industry.

The House, like many documentaries, is concerned with exceptions as much as rules - a truth which appears to be absorbable only through bruising experience, if we are to explain the never-ending supply of willing victims. And even if it has shown itself overfond of parallels between stage-fiction and backstage drama - last night contained another hard cut between mock combat and pin-stripe duelling in the boardroom - it is difficult to imagine how one would have avoided the analogy from rising up in viewer's minds.

Many of the problems the Opera House management face are not susceptible to rational management solutions - they cannot, through mere efficiency, resolve the inherent cruelties of a dancer's career. Nor is improved communication ever likely to close the gap between the desires of rich sponsors and the democratic ambitions of political purseholders - "We like it because it is elitist," explained one corporate sponsor, "that's why people like to come here." What matters is that enough people continue to believe these unwinnable battles are worth fighting.

An odd thing has happened with The House - it gets only half the very respectable figure currently sustained by Our Friends In The North, BBC2's main current drama series and a programme which received a considerable boost of pre-transmission publicity. And yet in the currency of conversation there is no question about which has profited most. This is partly because Covent Garden will usefully stand for a number of other political issues, partly because it offers ready-cooked gossip for our consumption. But it is also, I think, because The House depicts the familiar difficulties of working life - the backbiting, envy and power plays of every office in the land - resulting, for once, in something beautiful.

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