David Lister: The Week in Arts

What fools these BBC mortals be!
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The Independent Online

What a brilliant trick the BBC has pulled with its self-proclaimed "Shakespeare season". This is the series of updatings which has Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing as two TV newscasters and Macbeth as a Glaswegian celebrity chef. The BBC can boast that it has attracted young viewers, won a new audience for Shakespeare, justified its role as the nation's public service broadcaster, and honoured the national playwright.

The critics have largely been positive; the actors have given supportive interviews - Stephen Tompkinson has claimed it will attract teenagers who find the original texts "forbidding". BBC producers have stated in print that the new versions will have these same teenagers scurrying to read the original text.

And I feel very alone in wanting to scream: But this isn't in any shape or form a Shakespeare season. There's not a word of Shakespeare in it. Has everyone gone mad? And, by the way, can you please produce some of these teenagers who have dashed to read the original plays after watching the BBC adaptations?

There is nothing wrong with updating, nothing wrong with Much Ado set in a TV station or Macbeth in a restaurant. But Shakespeare wasn't just the stories. In fact, what makes this season utterly ridiculous is that most of Shakespeare's stories were nicked anyway. It's the language, the poetry, the imagery that make the thing Shakespeare.

The BBC hasn't put a genuine Shakespeare play on screen for years. The accepted, and breathtakingly patronising, wisdom is that the viewers won't wear it, just as they won't wear Chekhov or Ibsen, who are equally absent from our television screens. At least one controller of BBC1 has told me this. Not that you see any of the aforesaid playwrights' works on BBC2 either.

Mind you, when I go to a Shakespeare or Ibsen or Chekhov play I quite often bump into well-known BBC executives and their families. But what's good enough for them and their own children is clearly too good for the rest of the population.

Actually, I blame the critics. Two years ago, when the BBC put on its " Chaucer season", naturally without a word of Chaucer, it was praised to the skies for its daring. Yet without any of the original language, what was it but a series of sex romps? I wouldn't necessarily expect to hear Chaucer's language on television. But is Shakespeare, studied in school by every teenager in the country, so impossible to imagine on screen?

It's terrifying to think of the smug BBC executives glowing with pride that they have screened Chaucer and Shakespeare, when in fact they have screened neither. And it's sad to realise that the success of the "Shakespeare season" means that we are unlikely ever to see genuine Shakespeare - or Chekhov or Ibsen - on a mainstream terrestrial channel again.

I was about to make a far-fetched remark that pretty soon TV would update Jane Austen to rid itself of "offputting" language. But never try to be far-fetched where TV executives are concerned. It was announced this week that Austen's novels are indeed going to be updated, this time by ITV, with present-day dialogue imposed upon them.

At least this means that I am probably wrong about never seeing Chekhov on the screen again. In the updating frenzy we will, no doubt, have The Three Sisters on television, updated to become, who else, the Slater sisters from EastEnders. Kat, Lynne and Zoe will dream of leaving their stultifying existence for a trip up west to Bond Street.

No misery allowed in the theatre

I notice that the adverts for the new production of John Osborne's play Epitaph for George Dillon with Francesca Annis and Joseph Fiennes, pictured right, have suddenly changed the name of the play. It is now being called simply George Dillon. I hear that with times particularly hard in the West End, depressing words like "epitaph" are deemed unlikely to bring in the punters.

The late playwright would have been amused by the irony of history repeating itself. When the play originally transferred to the West End more than 40 years ago, the producer suggested to Osborne that he should rename it " Telephone Tarts", the title the corrupt producer in the play suggests that George should call his own play.

Perhaps there is something in this idea of leaving depressing words out of play titles. Death of a Salesman might have sold even more tickets if it had been called just "Salesman", or even better "Make Me An Offer". And Les Misérables? It will be the hottest ticket in town if they will call it "Put on a Happy Face".

* Next Wednesday the London Mozart Players, the UK's oldest established chamber orchestra, are trying a new wheeze to attract what their press release calls "younger people" to hear the old tunesmith. For the concert at the Arts Depot in London, they are teaming up with a tango outfit to combine classical music and tango. But, wait, that's not quite it. The London Mozart Players have decided to make it a "speed-dating concert". Classical Partners, the musical and cultural introduction agency (don't ask!), will be organising a session of quick-fire dating before the concert, to a musical theme.

Mozart would have probably quite enjoyed it. But I find it a puzzler. If these younger people come for the speed-dating, and actually manage to speed-date with success, will they bother to stay for the concert? If you've just found the speed-date of your dreams, do you sit down together and listen to Mozart or go for a coffee to talk? This little wheeze could backfire.

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