The Big Question: Why is there such controversy over TV talent shows and the West End?

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The Independent Culture

Why are we asking this now?

Because theatreland is abuzz with a debate that has thrust that giant of musicals Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Hollywood star who is artistic director of the Old Vic, Kevin Spacey, centre stage. It all started when Spacey said that TV talent shows unfairly promoted West End musicals at the expense of straight plays, and that as a non-commercial broadcaster, the BBC shouldn't involve itself in such ventures.

Spacey cited the current show I'd Do Anything, which is casting the role of Nancy in a new production of Oliver! Before that there was How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, which found a Maria for a West End production of The Sound of Music, and Any Dream Will Do, which did the same for Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. All three are BBC shows, with ITV mounting a similar operation on behalf of a production of Grease.

Where doesLloyd Webber come in?

Lord Lloyd-Webber – whose credits as a composer include "Joseph", as well as Phantom of the Opera and Cats – has carved out a new career as judge supreme in TV talent shows. He, with the help of votes from viewers, has already cast Maria in his production of The Sound of Music and gained considerable publicity for the show in the process. He is now judging I'd Do Anything, and yesterday, in a blog on his website, he responded to Spacey's comments by saying that he was "very proud of the fact that audiences for theatre right across the country have gone up, many of them as a consequence of the TV shows".

How popular are these TV shows?

Very. More than seven million people tuned in to see Connie Fisher's triumph in How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? The format's a winner: every week a group of pretty, talented girls strut their stuff, and at the end one of them cries. The public get to vote and have some say in casting a West End show, which is empowering. And Lloyd Webber and the panel of judges do actually have useful and informative things to say about acting and singing in musicals.

So what's Spacey's problem with this?

That theatres like his own – which produces straight plays – don't enjoy the same privilege. "I feel that these shows were essentially a 13-week promotion for a musical. Where's our 13 week programme? When are they going to do one about a play?"

Is he right?

Absolutely. A 13-week series will inevitably lead to increased ticket sales, and it made a star out of Connie Fisher. All but one of these TV reality shows have been about musicals. The exception was a Channel 4 show about new playwrights; but it's hard to make watching people writing as interesting as watching performers singing; and it was not a success. There is no reason why the BBC should not do a similar programme on casting and rehearsing a high-profile play.

Isn't the BBC barred from promotingcommercial ventures?

Yes indeed. And the BBC stresses that these programmes are not "unduly promotional". It "always reflects other West End shows in its talent programmes", and, besides, Lloyd Webber is not actually producing Oliver!

Isn't that fair enough?

Up to a point, Lord Reith. The programmes cannot help but be promotional, mentioning the show dozens of times every Saturday. Quite how the talent programmes "reflect" other West End Shows is a mystery. How does casting Oliver reflect Kevin Spacey in David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow? And, true, Andrew Lloyd Webber is not producing Oliver! But he does own the theatre in which it will be staged. So he will make money out of the production. The BBC isn't on the firmest ethical ground.

How exactly has Lloyd Webber responded?

Until yesterday, he chose to remain silent. But now he has put a video blog on his website, explaining his position. He says that The Sound of Music was a huge risk at the time: "No one thought Saturday night TV could be a platform for musical theatre". Saying that "the issue about whether the BBC should be doing this is something that I really can't get involved with", he pointed out that Oliver! is not my show. "Cameron Mackintosh owns it completely. It's going into the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane yes, but if it wasn't Oliver! it would be another show. What I'm really proud of is if you look at I'd Do Anything you'll see artists there who would never ever have got a chance to get anywhere near an audition process with myself or Cameron Mackintosh."

Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh are the great philanthropists, then?

Not totally, no. They genuinely get a kick out of seeing young talent, helping young talent and spreading the word about musical theatre. It is a passion for both of them. But equally there can be no doubt whatsoever that the shows increase box office takings. The viewers who vote for their favourite feel that they have a vested interest in the show and many will go along to see their nominated star perform. And those who don't vote are also intrigued to see how the winner will shape up on stage. It is undoubtedly promotional of these shows.

So the BBC should stop making these programmes?

No. Television takes such little interest in theatre that anything is better than nothing. These talent shows do get more people going to the theatre and developing an interest in at least one area of theatre. What television should do is not to cease these programmes but expand them. It could indeed do a series on a play at the Old Vic, show how Spacey and his team prepare for it, cast it, rehearse and promote it. It could watch the likes of Pinter and Stoppard (when did they last have works on the main TV channels?) working on a new show with directors and casts.

The position of the BBC is a delicate one. But to be honest, any chat show interview with an actor (such as Kevin Spacey indeed) is a form of promotion for an upcoming show. At least, if the BBC widened its embrace of theatre it would go some way to answering charges of promotion of one product. Alternatively, the talent shows could move to another channel.

So is there a problem?

Yes...

* TV promotes a show put on by rich people, and give those people an advantage over their commercial rivals

* The BBC is a public service broadcaster and should not be promoting a commercial venture

* The proper route to a theatrical career should be drama school and a conventional audition

No...

* TV is encouraging an interest in theatre among a prime-time audience and boost theatre attendances

* It's giving talented youngsters who have not been able to attend drama school the chance to audition in front of top impresarios

* Shows like 'Maria' and 'I'd Do Anything' are good old-fashioned Saturday-night entertainment

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