Theatre on TV: Whose line is it anyway?

Live plays are making a return to our screens – and the chance of a fluffed speech or two just makes the drama more intense, says Mark Ravenhill
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We all love stories of theatrical disasters. Everyone has their favourite anecdote of lines fluffed, props dropped and entrances missed. Some amateur theatricals exist almost entirely to give their members a fund of amusing stories of their own thespian embarrassments. But any regular theatre-goer will tell you that mistakes are the exception and not the rule of the live stage. Of course, theatre always has the potential to be a disaster. But that's only a very small part of its fascination. For the most part, the joy is in watching a tricky job skilfully executed.

But while theatre remains stubbornly live, we've got used to recorded drama on television. Ever since videotape became effective, affordable and possible to edit, we've been watching the record of performances and not the actual performances themselves. And so the mythology of the live television drama of the 1950s and 1960s has become dominated by anecdotes of disaster: of wobbly sets, of cameras and microphones in shot, of the leading man who was drunk or who died of a heart attack 20 minutes into the broadcast.

When I was asked by Sandi Toksvig to write a play for live broadcast by Sky Arts, I searched for some recorded examples of early live TV drama. There's very little in existence. Back in the day, plays and serials weren't put out live as a matter of choice: the technology simply didn't exist to record and edit. And so a Sunday night repeat of a play broadcast earlier in the week meant that the cast would reconvene and perform the whole thing all over again, while in the States, with its different time zones, there were two performances of TV dramas, one that could be broadcast on the East coast and another on the West coast.

So it's impossible now to watch the live dramas of the 1950s. They've evaporated into the ether just as the great theatre performances of the time have. But by the early 1960s, television was in a period of transition: it was possible to tape performances but video editing was cumbersome. And so most drama was shot as though it were live, with the cameras only stopping if it became essential.

A few months ago, I got hold of a stack of DVDs of early Doctor Who episodes and Dennis Potter plays, all of them made "as live", and watched them with Will Charles, a hugely experienced television lighting designer who will be lighting my Sky play. We were surprised and impressed. Far from being the world of fluffed lines and microphones in shot that has been created by popular mythology, what we saw was the work of a highly skilled group of people who had developed a sophisticated vocabulary of camera movement, live vision mixing and bold lighting choices. Often this period of television is written off as being "theatrical", as a proscenium arch with a few cameras sticking into it. That might have been the case in the early 1950s, but by the 1960s TV had developed it's very own visual language: too fluid to be theatre but not at all like film, since it was studio based and shot by several cameras at the same time. How, we wondered, could this incredible legacy of TV drama have become so undervalued and the amazing men and women who made it have been so uncelebrated?

As we prepare for the live broadcast of my play Ghost Story tonight, I'm very aware that we are reinventing the wheel. We're rediscovering the arts of live multi-camera directing, of live vision and sound mixing – skills which have been almost entirely lost in television drama. We can only hope to take a first few faltering steps. We can't match the skills of those who spent a decade perfecting the art of live drama in those far off days before recording and editing became the norm. A huge skill has been lost and it will take time to rediscover it. But we're making a start.

Most TV drama today aspires to look like film. It's glossily shot with a single camera and spends several months in post-production being carefully edited before broadcast. And that's fine: sometimes a Wallander or a Cranford is exactly the kind of classy, filmic drama we want to see on our screens. But by denying us the possibility of live multi-camera studio drama, TV bosses are failing to offer us one of the richest flavours of drama available.

I'm not suggesting that we need to replace any of the current ways of making drama, but I do believe strongly that live studio drama – either as single plays or serials – should be back in the mix. TV executives are, after all, now searching for the "event" shows that will pull an audience at the moment of broadcast, shows that are best savoured now rather than caught up with a week later through on- demand or a year later on DVD. Come on BBC and ITV: why not give live drama a chance? The actors are up for it. The current Sky season of five plays boasts performances from an impressive range of talent including Juliet Stevenson, Lesley Manville and Sinead Cusack. These are "names" that filmed dramas on the mainstream channels, with budgets a hundred times the size of our show, would be hard pushed to attract.

Do tune in this evening if you can. You might see a line fluffed or a prop fumbled. I can't promise that. But I can guarantee that you'll see the work of a group of actors and other TV artists who are operating on adrenaline and nerves, thinking and feeling quicker and sharper than they would if the work were recorded. As the nation finally acknowledges what a bore Big Brother has been for the last few years, maybe live drama could finally be finding its feet again. You want a group of people trapped in a room being put through a peculiar set of tests and rituals and being watched live by a multitude of cameras? We've got just that at Sky's Playhouse: Live. Move over Davina. Sandi Toksvig and her live drama might just be the future.

Sky Arts Playhouse: Live, 'Ghost Story' by Mark Ravenhill, screens tonight at 9pm on Sky Arts 2

For further reading: 'Mark Ravenhill Plays: 1' (includes 'Shopping and Fucking'; 'Faust is Dead'; 'Handbag'; 'Some Explicit Polaroids'). Published by Methuen.