An audience left shuffling in the stalls

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The Independent Culture
IN ONE of the last journalistic pieces he wrote, Anthony Burgess, an angry old man to the end, lamented the current condition of television drama. The Evening Standard published the piece posthumously and it kept coming to mind during Nicholas Renton's production of The Entertainer for Performance (BBC 2). It was partly a strong echo - Burgess's irascible, old-bufferish protest against 'mandatory obscenity' and 'low-life dialects' isn't very far away in emotional tone from the complaints of Billy Rice, the grandfather in the play, who recalls the proud old days of music-hall and deplores its replacement with the sort of tatty nude reviews that his son Archie struggles to keep afloat. But it was also because the demanding virtues of Performance, an exceptionally strong season of plays on television, have been proving his point for the last four Saturdays.

'A generation is growing up,' Burgess wrote, 'in which drama resembling a bowl of Rice Krispies is replacing drama as a roast sirloin with Yorkshire pudding.' His point was that where the first television dramas - broadcast live and built like plays - 'accepted that the scene was a true dramatic unit', most current drama aspires to the condition of the award-winning commercial. The visual has replaced the verbal and the pulse of drama has quickened to frantic levels. Even if you haven't noticed this on screen, you can't miss it when you discipline yourself to watch one of the plays on Performance, because discipline is needed. You find yourself in an odd hybrid of a theatre seat and a television couch, strung between the habitual patience of the former and the fidgety liberty of the latter. 'Doesn't Tennessee Williams go on,' you find yourself thinking as you finger the remote or, even more ridiculously, 'That Hedda wouldn't have so many problems if she only got out and about a bit more.' This isn't to do with defects in the productions - Richard Eyre's Suddenly Last Summer and Deborah Warner's Hedda Gabler have been as good as any theatre on television for years - just that the patience and enclosure of stage-drama just doesn't sit well with our viewing habits.

The Entertainer suffered more in this respect than its predecessors in the season, partly because it is unrelenting anyway - a bilious assault that opens with invective and only calms down to get nastily maudlin - but also because the virtues it had when it was first staged (just after the Suez Crisis) have proved highly perishable. A line like 'Is it all for the sake of a gloved hand waving from a golden coach?', which caused apoplexies and threats of horse-whipping in 1957, now seems positively genteel in its dissidence. Archie Rice's seedy, self-deluding cheeriness was wired to larger issues then, designed to send a galvanising jolt through the audience but those old connections long ago came unstuck (we need a newsreel now to make sure that we all know exactly where Archie's soldier son has been kidnapped and killed). Gambon did marvels with what was left, a character formed from thin layers of patter pasted on to vacancy, but even he couldn't insinuate into the drama the urgency it used to have. 'You've been a good audience,' Archie Rice says at the end, 'a very good audience. Let me know where you're working tomorrow night and I'll come and see you.' Those who were still there to hear it had been good, but, as Burgess feared, they are likely to become increasingly rare.

I was fidgeting myself during the opening moments of 'Return to the Sacred Ice', a film by Nicholas Shakespeare for the Legendary Trails series (BBC 1). 'It is to the mountains I must travel,' he said early on. It is to the other channel I must switch, I thought, but he more than made up for the odd outbreak of cod orotundity with a marvellous film which took you into the Andes, where secular rationality is as thin as the air. I would have forgiven him a lot more than that for one beautiful image - of a sacred mountain reflected in the glass covering a heavy crucifix, a picture Shakespeare's voice-over touched into life with perfect delicacy.