Click to follow
The Independent Culture
People will have learned much from watching The House, BBC2's increasingly engaging account of life in the Opera House. If he can bear to watch, Jeremy Isaacs will have learned that his strategic taciturnity and the grim clamp of his mouth make him look like a bottom-heavy prototype for an Easter Island statue. Keith Cooper, Isaacs's right-hand man, will have learnt that his new-sheriff-in-town posturings do not look quite as heroic to sceptical outsiders as they presumably do to his mind's eye. Viewers, on the other hand, will have learned how difficult it is to make art appear effortless.

There seems to be a general consensus that the programmes represent a public relations disaster for the Opera House, a hilarious tragi-comedy of petulance and mismanagement. What would you call it? Carry on Camping? Nightmare on Bow Street? Spite at the Opera? And it's true that there's no denying the comedy of Michael Waldman's portrait, a film structured with subtle skill. But it seems to me that at least part of the public reaction has less to do with what you actually see on screen, and more to do with a pervasive, grumbling public prejudice about the institution which has found in the series an occasion for gleeful expression.

Were you amicably disposed to the current administration (or even to the idea of subsidised opera) you could easily take The House as an account of a heroic labour of modernisation, a process which is bound to be conducted to a soundtrack of sotto voce bickering. Is it mismanagement, for example, to tackle the casual absenteeism which clearly afflicted the backstage crews? Is it mismanagement to try and wrench working practices into the Nineties? In one telling scene the new Head of Personnel asked his predecessor for copies of the existing union agreements. The response was an enormous sigh and an incredulous "They're boring", which suggested that the Garden's thicket of small-print was long overdue for some vigorous pruning.

It's true that last week's episode, in which the designer Maria Bjornson showed why you should never put all your egos in one basket, didn't entirely support this generous interpretation. It was difficult to believe that one designer had been recruited to work simultaneously on two important productions, even more baffling that all concerned had been allowed to treat the budgetary bottom-line as a mere trampoline for their artistic ambitions. But everyone is entitled to the odd mistake and the results, after much needless backstage panic and equine quantities of Grecian 2000, were far from catastrophic.

The House is also eloquent about the curious alchemy of these expensive art forms, the way they convert positively Olympian exertions into a simulation of transcendent ease. At least Linford Christie is allowed to gurn as he performs but Zoltan Solymosi must reserve his racked panting for the wings. One male dancer, obliged to dance on pointe with a giant frog's head masking his grimaces of pain, unwrapped his feet after rehearsal: they looked like some macabre package discovered in the bushes by a man walking his dog. This was, he made clear, an entirely routine form of torture.

There is considerable pain in Tuesday evening's other backstage offering, the exemplary The Larry Sanders Show (BBC2). This week one of the running gags twisted its ankle, when Hank's characteristic paranoia about job- security bubbled over into a sneering attack against a new English band- leader, who has been scoring with his ad libs. After Hank has accused his rival of having sex with minors during a warm-up routine, he reassures Larry that the audience would know he was joking. "That audience comes on buses Hank," Larry replies (the ultimate LA insult), "they can barely tell when I'm joking." The series does not share this contempt for the audience, securing most of its laughs not from punchlines but from an awkward, edgy timing and a recognition that people who are risible are not always nice.