TV review: Arena: The National Theatre pays tribute to Sir Laurence Olivier's charisma

  • @MsEllenEJones

Theatre: it's just TV for the Amish, isn't it? Or so I thought, before I sat down to watch part one of the two-part Arena documentary celebrating 50 years of the National Theatre. Praise be to Dionysus, god of the stage! BBC4's commitment to arts programming has made me a better woman.

In the current climate of change-down-the-back-of-the-sofa arts funding it's inconceivable that a National Theatre was ever even founded, let alone that a British government set aside £7m for the construction of its Sir Denys Lasdun-designed home on the South Bank; Brutalism's concrete blocks aren't to everyone's taste, after all.

But the National Theatre was founded, in 1963, and in 1976 the company moved from the Old Vic to its current home. It was the contention of this hour-long show that none of that would have been possible without the celebrity charisma and forceful personality of Sir Laurence Olivier, director of the National until 1973.

When egotism is matched by talent, it's not such a sin, is it? As director, Sir Laurence was certain he always knew the best man for the role, and the best man for the role was usually Sir Laurence. Aside from the regrettable "blacking up" incident in a 1964 production of Othello and those false teeth he insisted on wearing as Shylock in Jonathan Miller's 1970 production of The Merchant of Venice, his judgement usually proved correct.

It took the braver instincts of the theatre's literary manager, Kenneth Tynan, to push Olivier into approving the National's more groundbreaking statements. Peter Brook's 1968 Oedipus, which culminated in the cast dancing around a giant gold phallus, springs to mind.

Almost all the stage greats danced around the National's metaphorical golden phallus at one point or another, and most of them were available to reminisce. Passions may have run high at the time (see: "Gold Phallus-Gate"), but last night they were all disappointingly civilised. There was Derek Jacobi on his Cilla Black-style wig for The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Ian McKellen on the canteen's cigarette machine and Dame Maggie Smith on her terror of Olivier.

It was Joan Plowright, however, who offered the best value. A respected actress in her own right and Olivier's wife from 1961 until his death in 1989, she was in a perfect position to dish the dirt on who "Larry" liked and who he couldn't stand. Unsurprisingly, his usurpation (as he saw it) by successor Sir Peter Hall was a major source of animosity. We'll have to wait till part two next week to judge if Sir Peter deserved it.