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Opera house documentary lifts lid on backstage crisis

Covent Garden on film: Fly-on-the-wall BBC television series set to reveal a picture of discord behind the lavish scenery
The Royal Opera House has joined the growing list of British institutions that have attempted to win the heart of the nation by opening their doors to fly-on-the-wall camera crews.

But instead of images of passionate music-making and enthused music- lovers, the documentary shows a saga of gloomy staff, cursing directors and disgruntled opera-goers caught up in various disputes.

A BBC camera crew followed the life of the Opera House for a year, through the 1993-94 season, to create the six-part series to be shown from next month. Opera house officials had anticipated a celebration of its creative achievements, rather than an insight into tensions behind the lavish scenery. But Jeremy Isaacs, general director of the Opera House, said he was foolish to have expected such a film and claimed it was not a true reflection of the company. "It was naive of me to think we would get a measured picture of our work. I don't think it is that at all," he said.

Even Mr Isaacs's former career as a television executive did not protect him from the probing eye of the camera. He is seen in full flight angrily uttering a four-letter word, after the Arts Council resisted giving extra funding to pay for an alternative venue while the opera house is rebuilt under a pounds 200m redevelopment plan. The series gives a close-up account of the trials of the Opera House, including a spending crisis on Anthony Dowell's production of Sleeping Beauty, called "absolutely catastrophic" by the opera house chairman Sir Angus Stirling in a boardroom row with Isaacs.

Staff struggle with outdated machinery; attempts to show that opera is not elitist are undermined by a shot of the Princess of Wales in the grand tier, while a working-class woman searches for her cut-price seat in the gods. Even Peter and Bill, the barmen in the Crush Bar, hate each other after three decades.

So why do prestigious institutions with troublesome public images lay themselves bare for the camera? The Opera House was anxious to justify its funding after years of allegations of elitism and profligacy in expectation of a large lottery bid - it was awarded pounds 55m.

According to its supporters, the Opera House will still benefit from television exposure. "It's a good thing when fly-on-the-wall crews lift the lid off how arts institutions work, warts and all," Graeme Kay, editor of Opera Now magazine said. "People will be quite surprised to find out how much dedication there is and it is providing productions that are the best in the world in terms of how much money they have to play with."

But a leading arts administrator said: "These institutions always think they are going to get something out of it that will enhance their image and then they're upset when they don't just get the straight PR puffery."

In the last three decades British institutions that have been wooed by the cameras include the police, the foreign office, the monarchy, a local golf club in Northwood, where all eight directors were forced to resign after it was shown as a bastion of male chauvinism, and the England football team, whose then manager, Graham Taylor, showed a colourful turn of phrase and temper.

At the Opera House an outburst of temper is displayed by Sir James Spooner, chairman of the opera board, who accuses Mr Isaacs of giving designers and directors too much freedom. "It really does annoy me, these grand people. They really are bastards the way they play us about like this . . . you don't kick 'em hard enough," he says.