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

BBC4

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.

twitter.com/MsEllenEJones

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits