right of reply

Simon Curtis replies to David Lister's argument that more theatre productions should be televised
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The Independent Culture
Working at the BBC, you have to get used to reading how you ought to be doing your job in the national press. David Lister is outraged that in this country we televise "virtually none of our theatre", and cites Sam Mendes's recent production of Cabaret as a show that deserves to be seen on television and recorded for posterity. Unfortunately, his point is somewhat undermined by the fact that it was broadcast recently on Carlton Television. This neatly illustrates one of the disadvantages to broadcasters of televising work already seen on stage. It is next to impossible to attract attention in any media for work that has already been well covered on the arts pages and elsewhere.

I am the executive producer of the BBC's Performance series, and I have recently produced a number of theatre productions, including David Hare's Absence of War directed by Richard Eyre, Harold Pinter's Landscape and Karel Reisz's production of The Deep Blue Sea.

In the current climate, it is essential to create a sense of event around the single transmission of a film or play. This is very hard with a show that is already in the public domain. David Lister bemoans that no one has recorded the Fiona Shaw/ Deborah Warner Richard II, but I produced a television version of their last collaboration - the excellent Hedda Gabler - and it was watched by less than half the audience of our new television version of A Doll's House by the same playwright.

It is often as expensive to take a theatre production into a television studio as it is to create a new show, so it is wrong to expect the beleaguered television companies to take the burden of recording work for posterity. When you look at old theatre shows on film now they are at best curiosities, and even the great Olivier seems to be wildly overacting. When you do a play in the theatre in New York, it is roughly taped by a crew from the Lincoln Center Library. A camera is simply pointed at the proscenium arch, and this serves as a record of the production, but its value as good television would be very limited. Opera might still work in long shot but I believe a television audience would no longer tolerate intimate drama broadcast in this form.

David Lister would be surprised how hard it is to get permission to record an existing show in the theatre. At the BBC we have been refused permission more often than we have been granted it. This can be because the rights are not available, or because there is a dream of a feature film or Broadway transfer. We offered to take The Rise and Fall of Little Voice into the studio at the end of its run in the West End, and permission was refused by a director developing it as a feature film. I maintain that a television broadcast three years ago would have very little impact on whether a film is now made.

Superb theatre does not always make good television. Some shows are made to be performed with a live audience and not meant to be crammed into the small screen or shown in close up. Stephen Daldry's magnificent Machinal could only work on stage. Force- feeding a reluctant public with worthy but unexciting stage transfers does nobody any good. Our duty is not to be a theatre archive but to make good television.

Theatre will always be a prime source for film and television producers, and I am delighted to be in pre-production with Arthur Miller's Broken Glass and Kevin Elyot's My Night with Reg, not only because they were great hits in the theatre but because we believe they will transfer successfully to the small screen.

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