TELEVISION / Mad, bad, but never dangerous to know

'IS HE just very, very angry or is he plain bonkers or what?' asked Nigel Williams, searching for the mot juste to describe King Lear. The actor playing the role at Stratford looked mildly nonplussed at this formulation of an ancient essay question and declined to discuss. I suppose you could take this slangy interrogation as evidence of a decline in standards at the BBC but you would, I think, be wrong. What made Omnibus's (BBC 1) profile of Robert Stephens bearable - more than that, positively engaging - was its irreverence about the rough magic of the stage. I wouldn't have believed it possible, for example, to make an hour-long documentary about Lear without somebody mentioning Everest.

This wasn't entirely forbearance on the part of Williams, who occasionally flirted with luvvyish gush. He tried to coax some heroics out of Stephens after a spectacularly drenched storm scene. 'Exhausting doing this I imagine, isn't it?' he said, as Stephens peeled off his dripping beard. 'No. It's all right,' the actor replied, blithely departing from theatrical tradition, which insists that the role be compared to high-altitude climbing. Without oxygen. While giving a sherpa a piggyback. Though we had seen him, moments before, arteries distended in rage and anguish, Stephens' manner implied that acting King Lear was about as demanding as doing a spot of dead-heading in the garden.

But, far from being disappointed by this, Williams was shrewd enough to see that the disjunction was the film's true subject, a theme he reinforced by structuring the film around a single performance, so that his nosy camera could poke around behind the scenes as the play unrolled. In many of the interviews the play itself, that great fetish of cultural veneration, was relegated to the reedy speaker in the corner of the dressing- room, the distant sound of people at work. Goneril sat comfortably doing some knitting while Regan busied herself writing a birthday card. Up in the wings a young woman ordered the weather about: 'Stand by please Storm. Rain, go. Flash, go.'

Actors, too, have to be able to turn on the waterworks, but the analogy, unfussy and mechanical as it was, added to the mystery rather than detracting from it. Anyone with romantic notions about the actor's mental preparation for gruelling scenes now has to contend with the memory of Stephens ambling casually down the stairs, fag in mouth, as the Tannoy announces that he's about to miss his entrance.

The film was also unusual in recognising that the performance of the actor, the matter of technique and artistic decision, is actually more interesting than the life. There was a bit of biography, it's true, taken on the hoof between exits and entrances, but only enough to show you that there could be no simplistic relation between personal experience and pretence.

What echoes there were only confirmed the central mystery of transformation. In the middle of playing a man brought to the edge of sanity by emotional hunger and resentment, Stephens talked with equable generosity about the painful breakup of his marriage to Maggie Smith. If Stephens were really putting his own character into Lear, the monarch would have patted Cordelia on the head with a gentle smile and said, 'Nothing, eh? Oh well, I expect you have your reasons, I know these things can be difficult.'

Dispensing with explanation, which will always be inadequate, and with adoration, which usually obscures its object, Omnibus delivered something quite rare - a film about acting that didn't make you want to spit.