A theatrical misrepresentation

Vanity Fair's paean to the British stage is misplaced, says Tim de Lisle; What we really do best is television: our documentaries, commercials and current affairs leave US counterparts standing

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EVERY Thursday until recently a ritual was enacted in the office of this newspaper. The theatre critic, Irving Wardle, would ring up to ask how many words he should write in his column. The arts editor, conscious of Wardle's 40 years of expertise, would answer with a question of his own: what sort of week had it been? And Wardle would say, "A bit thin, actually ..."

Irving has since retired, and I have switched from editing to writing. The cast has changed, but the script remains the same. Our new theatre critic, Robert Butler, has not seen much to rave about yet. Of course, there's good wine in every vintage. There's Tom Stoppard and Alan Bennett and the RSC and the National. But the West End is widely regarded as having had a thin decade, unless you love Cats. If audiences hold up, we assume it's because of tourists, school trips to Shakespeare, and family outings to Lloyd Webber, plus the odd one-off hit, like the good-but-not-great An Inspector Calls, which started yet another West End run the night before last.

We made much the same complaint three years ago, in a special report in the Sunday Review. The thesis was that the theatre was losing its natural constituency - the young, free and educated. Among those who gave evidence were Martin Amis ("I don't like theatre"), Steve Jones ("in the past year I've seen about four first acts and one second act"), and Ian Hislop ("I used to see quite a few plays and now I don't, having been to a run of really bad ones"). The novelist, the geneticist and the satirist were not alone. We had hoped the report would provoke rebuttal, but the only hands thrown up in horror were those of Nicholas Hytner, director of The Madness of George III, who admonished us in an article of his own - but then we had hardly expected bright young directors to agree.

Nothing has changed since. "Sold out", in the British theatre, is still a synonym for "musical". No new play this year has had better reviews than Burning Blue, by DMW Greer, but it closed after a few weeks at the Haymarket. (It has now got a second chance, thanks to an American benefactor, at the Ambassadors, which is smaller.) Another critical hit, Dealer's Choice by Patrick Marber, will come off in a fortnight. People who like the idea of the theatre - the fact that it's live, sociable, and safe from Arnold Schwarzenegger - are too often disappointed by the reality. They come out at the end (or sooner) thinking, great acting, shame about the play.

So when Vanity Fair, one of America's leading magazines, announced a special issue devoted to the British theatre - "the Stars, the Players, the Power and the Glory" - some might have wondered if it was an elaborate joke. Vanity Fair's editor, Graydon Carter, made his name as a satirist, at Spy magazine. And here he was writing in his editor's letter, "The tradition that began with Burbage, Shakespeare, and Garrick, and continued through Kean and Irving and Olivier and Gielgud, is today at peak form." At what?

A closer look confirmed our prejudices. Faced with a choice of virtually every well-known face in the British theatre, the editors have chosen a cover-girl, Julia Ormond, who has not been seen on stage for years. The theatre award she won in 1989 does not change the fact that she is a film star. One of the actors featured inside is Sir Anthony Hopkins, who renounced the stage for Hollywood in 1989. Another is his old friend Lord (Richard) Attenborough, whose last stage role, according to his entry in Debrett's People of Today, was in 1958.

The special report (words by John Heilpern, pictures by Snowdon) occupies 56 pages. Heilpern, a senior New York theatre critic, had the good idea of going to the rehearsal for John Osborne's memorial service, and came back with some sharp vignettes of Dame Maggie Smith and Sir Dirk Bogarde. You don't have to have a title to be included, but it helps.

And then there are the photographs, no fewer than 80 of them. Everybody is there, from Gielgud and Guinness down to Day-Lewis and Ralph Fiennes (who appears topless, with long fluffy hair, as if playing a mythical beast - half man, half souffle). Fifty pages in, when it might be scraping the barrel, you find elegant, full-length portraits of Juliet Stevenson and Nigel Hawthorne, two superb actors who have not forsaken the stage. Snowdon's portfolio is not just a handsome document: it is a piece of advocacy, convincing those who need convincing of the enduring excellence of British acting.

Vanity Fair has a largely American audience, of course, and however bad things are in the West End, they are undoubtedly worse on Broadway. It has driven Arthur Miller, as clear-eyed a writer as you could wish to hear from, into a sort of exile: turning 80 last weekend, he held his celebrations here. As Heilpern notes, Broadway staged 52 productions last year, while the RSC and the National put on 53 between them.

Heilpern quotes Michael Gambon's classic definition of his job - "shouting in the evenings". Vanity Fair's job is shouting once a month. It believes in making a splash. And it knows its readers - how they love the theatre, and associate Britain with it. British Airways' shop in Manhattan displays a poster of a man in tights holding a skull. Turn on American television and there's Jonathan Pryce, looking very Paul Smith, sounding very RSC, suavely extolling a Japanese car.

But do we deserve this particular accolade? If Vanity Fair had thought hard about what the British are really best at in the arts, they would have done an issue on British television, where the acting is just as good as in the theatre and the writing, on average, is better. This week alone, you can see two outstanding serials (Pride and Prejudice and Cracker), and a third which may not be far behind (Jake's Progress). British documentaries, current affairs programmes and commercials leave their US counterparts standing. But "Special Issue: British Television" wouldn't have had the same ring. It would have delivered a view of Britain which, though true, might not have carried romantic conviction in Boston or Baton Rouge or Billings, Montana. As it is, even more Americans will now have an exaggerated respect for our theatre. Still, as international stereotypes go, it's not too bad.

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