As not seen on TV

Television provides a window on to the best of live music and opera. So why, asks David Lister, is theatre shut out?
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Soon, Fiona Shaw will suck her thumb for the last time as King Richard II. Though that gesture has not appealed to everyone, Ms Shaw's mould-breaking, gender-crossing portrayal of Shakespeare's king, in Deborah Warner's thought-provoking production, has rightly been the talk of the town this year.

I use the words "talk of the town" advisedly. The production has not been out of London, indeed has not been out of the National's studio theatre, and so one of the most fascinating theatrical experiments of recent years has been seen by only a tiny audience.

Britain still has the best theatre, and probably the best actors, in the world. Yet most of the population never sees it or them. Productions pass, treasured, into the memories of a few. Whole mini-eras, such as Sam Mendes's stint at the Donmar, with its acclaimed stagings of Cabaret and The Glass Menagerie, leave no permanent record.

The answer surely is obvious. We should televise more of our theatre. Or rather - since, as Alice put it at the Mad Hatter's tea party, you can't have more when you haven't had any - we should televise some of our theatre. At present, we televise virtually none.

What a peculiar situation this is. On the BBC, we can and do get opera from Covent Garden and classical music from the Royal Albert Hall. On satellite, the Performance channel shows every conceivable art form from every conceivable country, except theatre from Britain. Alan Yentob, when head of BBC2, famously saw Verdi's Stiffelio at the Royal Opera House one evening and liked it so much he cleared the schedules and put it out on television that very weekend. Does no senior BBC executive ever go to the theatre and get similarly enthused?

There are a number of reasons, all poor ones, for this glaring omission in our cultural life. First, it seems that, while the BBC's Music and Arts Department copes creditably with televising opera, dance and music, the Drama Department has failed lamentably with televising theatre. That responsibility should now move to Music and Arts.

Second, there is the continual cry that televising theatre is expensive. No one at the BBC bleats about expense when the same corporation pays millions to populist presenters like Chris Evans or Noel Edmonds. Yet, for many of us, buying in the work of Fiona Shaw or Deborah Warner or Simon Russell Beale or a host of other actors and directors would represent just as important a use of our licence fee.

Third, there is the worry about the theatre unions charging extra for television rights. Probably true, but not beyond the wit of man to enter into some form of negotiations, or is the theatre the one centre of union domination that Mrs Thatcher failed to change?

Lastly, the theatre directors themselves do too little to help. Adrian Noble, who is having such success at the RSC, is nervous about having his productions televised. He says, with some justification, that a straight recording off stage will not properly capture the experience; plays need to be redirected for television and filmed in the studio. Indeed, he is even now directing a special screen version of the RSC's A Midsummer Night's Dream with funding from C4 and the Lottery. Fine, but why can't this be done on a regular basis? And aren't directors like Noble being a little too precious anyway? Even a television record of a performance that falls short of the original is better than nothing at all.

The BBC does have its "Performance" season, with fine new versions of great classics. No argument with that. But it is not the same as capturing for ever live stagings that have sent audiences home breathless, and introducing to a mass television audience some of the great actors and directors who are known only to metropolitan theatre-goers. How we wish now that we had a full record of Olivier's National Theatre in the Sixties.

Apart from making a permanent record of great performances, there is another pressing reason why this lack of theatre on television must change. Both the BBC and our national companies are subsidised by the taxpayer. There is a duty to let audiences out of reach of London share in the capital's cultural glories. There are enough channels, there is enough good theatre. Only the will is lacking.