television review

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The Independent Culture
One of the ignored truths about television executives is that they don't have very much time to watch television. Not other people's television, anyway, even if they are occasionally obliged to sit in a darkened room and consume their own product. Perhaps this explains Jeremy Isaacs's decision to allow the TV cameras into the Royal Opera House. It's also true that he hasn't been a TV executive for some time, which provides another good excuse; the frantic bailing out required to keep this magnificent, gilded hulk afloat cannot leave many evenings free, so it seems unlikely that he found time to watch The Club or HMS Brilliant, two vivid recent demonstrations of television's dangerous charm.

Moreover, though Isaacs was a distinguished documentarist himself, he did not work in the observational mode - so he had less opportunity to become familiar with the genre's instinctive appetite for discord. This isn't a matter of dishonesty on the part of directors incidentally, not in most cases, anyway. It's just that it's almost inconceivable that the purposes of the pursuer and its prey will coincide. "Never smile at a crocodile," you should hum to yourself, if you ever find yourself falling for the winning enthusiasm of a television producer - "Don't be taken in/ By his friendly grin/ He's imagining how well you'd fit within his skin."

Once swallowed, of course, there's little point in complaining. The muffled whining emerging from the belly of the beast merely makes you look even more ridiculous. After all, the viewers have the evidence of their own eyes to set against your hurt feelings. Jeremy Isaacs, to his credit, has been pretty stalwart about this, bar a few loyal mutters about the achievements of a hard-pressed staff.

If he does feel outrage, he is right to keep it to himself. For one thing, on the evidence of the first episode, Michael Waldman's series The House (BBC2) is nowhere near as damaging as some of the pre-publicity has made out. True, it doesn't look like much fun to work in senior management at Covent Garden, throwing yourself daily against the insolence of undisturbed tradition. True, too, that this introductory film betrayed a decided taste for operatic melodrama in its account of a House divided (one typical edit was from the Opera House's armourer, with his racks of swords, to an upstairs office in which weary looking men were talking of corporate blood-letting). Chief villain in this respect was Keith Cooper, brought in by Isaacs from English National Opera, where he was responsible for the fatuous "Everyone Needs Opera" campaign. Despite this black mark against him, Cooper initially had your sympathy, as an outsider up against the haughty languor of the long-term insiders. "The House doesn't do that," he was told when he suggested some change of style, a response that understandably made him a little testy. He lost his advantage, though, after one of the film's more arresting scenes - a glacial management meeting in which he delivered a damning verdict on one of the box-office staff: "Andrew," he said, "neither has the seniority, nor does he have the intelligence to cope with the new software that's coming on." This seemed unnecessarily cruel, particularly in the amplifying presence of the camera, which would happily convert this confidential plain-speaking into a broadcast humiliation. Along with Cooper's unabashed enthusiasm for the word "purge", it suggested a man happy to be seen as untouchably hard.

There was some drama on stage as well - in particular a gripping sequence in which Denyce Graves struggled through a performance of Carmen with failing vocal chords, each successive entrance more and more like the long walk to face a firing squad. Astonishingly, when she was forced to withdraw on the eve of the press night, nobody ran shrieking into the night. Ninety minutes before curtain up, Jeffrey Tate was seen calmly taking the replacement through her musical paces, which suggested that there are times when engrained custom might be a positive advantage.

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