I'd Do Anything sounded like a new low for reality TV (would you? Really? Surely not that), but it is, in fact, a family show about the process of casting a new West End production of Oliver!, and very jolly it is too, if you like oompah-pahs, actresses in silken bustiers the colour of Quality Street, little boys singing "Whe-e-e-e-er is LUB?" and camp catchphrases ("You're going to Nancy school!"). You tune in for the kitsch but you stay for the talent: most of the Nancy wannabes are enormously impressive performers, and the icing on the cake is seeing them get a gentle put-down ("You would eat Bill Sikes for breakfast, my dear") from Barry Humphries.
All harmless fun? Not so fast. Kevin Spacey complained last week that I'd Do Anything gives a commercial musical so much publicity that is an abuse of the BBC. "Where's our 13-week programme when we put a play on?" he demanded. "When are they going to do the same thing for a play?" Well, they did, and it was called The Play's the Thing, and it was awful. It pitted different playwrights' concepts against one another, which was like trying to make fish fight foxes, and it failed to capture any theatrical magic. However, that's no reason to give up.
A grandstanding audition live on TV for, say, the roles of Hamlet and Ophelia could be wonderful ("Press one if you liked the antic disposition! Two for the surly Dane! Three for the merry madness! etc). It could be the opposite of wonderful. But they should definitely do it, because they have to do something. Anything.
The BBC has badly neglected theatre. Spacey is absolutely right: it's downright thesp-phobic. Where's the Jonathan Ross sofa space for Eve Best or Helen McCrory when they're about to play Hedda Gabler or Rosalind? Where are the profiles of Martin Crimp and Philip Ridley? Where are the classic plays, filmed afresh? The only example in recent memory is She Stoops to Conquor, put on by Sky Arts.
Spacey said the BBC should still be making Play for Today, but there's enough low-budget new drama on TV. What I want to know is why they aren't filming every current stage hit for posterity? It's indefensible not to. They can put them out late at night, after the run finishes; even that would be enough. They managed to do it with Copenhagen in 2002, which was good. But since then the only stage play I've seen on television was Trevor Nunn's Old Vic production of Nicholas Nickleby, on BBC4. It was filmed in 1982. A lot of wind has blown through a lot of stage doors since then. So who's with me? What do we want on TV? Thespians! When do we want 'em? Any time o'the clock, if you please!
Poppy Shakespeare was maddening. I mean that as a compliment: it pitched the viewer into a state of temporary insanity, which is a good strategy for a drama about the mentally ill. You never felt as if you were pressing your nose up at the Bedlam window; rather, you were sitting in a corner, scratching your shorn head.
Gripping this drama's slippery meaning was like trying to get purchase on a marble with your teeth.
Some parts you could safely write off as hallucinations (the scene where the lead delivered her urine sample wearing a tutu, say); others were terrifying because they felt, however fleetingly, plausible (Naomie Harris says with reasonable, calm conviction that she is not mad: she simply did so well at a skills aptitude test at the Job Centre that the men in white coats arrived), while other details struck a satirical note (the shiny new HD TV in the lobby of the hospital, for example). Just because you're hallucinating, it doesn't mean they're not privatising mental homes.
It was a demanding hour and 45 minutes of television. You could neither sit back and take it as O Lucky Man!-style mad magical realism, nor engage with it as a debate on the state of our health services. Still, you kept with it for the performances (Anna Maxwell Martin, Naomie Harris) and the fizzing ideas.
It posed so many questions. Should mental illness be given the same sober sympathy as physical illness? If so, why did the programme invite us to laugh so often?
Why did it show us a patient with a nervous tic trying to play the "mirror-me" game? Why the upbeat mood music? Can you feign madness? Inherit it? Is it catching? Is rubbing chocolate on the seat of your pants so you look weird enough to get "mad money" a sane and cunning lie, or does the act itself diagnose you? Sadly, Poppy Shakespeare delivered no answers of any kind. For those you need Foucault.
Hughie Green: Most Sincerely was one of those glorious biopics that BBC4 does so well, on a par with Fantabulosa! and Fear of Fanny. The script, by Tony Basgallop, brilliantly exploited the TV host's life for every irony, every illuminating contrast.
It was a play about Hughie Green and Jess Yates, two of TV's tawdriest personalities, and yet it achieved a kind of profundity. The Word really was the bastard offspring of Opportunity Knocks. It was as much about the evolution of television as its stars' sordid lives.
Trevor Eve's performance as Hughie Green was a perfect exposition of monstrous charm, vanity and finally, bitter regret. For an electric second, here and there, he seemed to be the man he represented. If he doesn't get nominated for a Bafta, I am going to eat Bill Sikes for breakfast.Reuse content