David Lister: The Week in Arts

Some things are better left untouched
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The Independent Online

It must have seemed such a good idea at the time; lucrative for both writers and cast, easy programming for the schedulers. Bring back the characters from the popular and highly fashionable 1990s series This Life and take a peek at them 10 years on.

Indeed, so highly did the programme's creators regard their idea that This Life + 10 was followed by interviews with those same creators about their motivations, their techniques and probably what they ate in the Soho restaurant they visited between takes. It was all treated with such serious analysis that it was hard to remember that it was a popular drama series updated for one episode, and not Shakespeare.

And as the reviews show, the critics were embarrassed by how poor it was, and felt that everyone connected with it should have left us with the memory of a first-class piece of television from 10 years ago.

The creators and cast of This Life fell victim to a common affliction, the resurrection syndrome, the belief that if the public loved characters once, it will love them again years later, when both characters and viewers have aged. It rarely works.

I squirmed in my seat in the theatre last year when Steptoe and Son was resurrected by one of its original scriptwriters, and Harold joined the Hitler Youth - a ludicrous fantasy that Galton and Simpson in their prime would never have inflicted on us. But then, scriptwriters, like characters and viewers also age.

One has to wonder, too, if Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford are wise to be working on a fourth Indiana Jones movie, 18 years after the last. The 1980s trilogy was great swashbuckling fun, but Harrison Ford was young, sexy and a hero. That's another problem with the resurrection syndrome - actors sometimes forget that they're not as young as they were. The general giggling that has greeted Sylvester Stallone's return as Rocky testifies to that.

Great dramatic characters, whether in drama or comedy, belong to their time. It was a diverting idea of the late John Osborne to resurrect Jimmy Porter in the early 1990s, and see how the anti-hero of 1956's Look Back in Anger had coped with middle age. Diverting but utterly forgettable, and I'm sure that no one can quote a single line from the later play, and few can even remember its title.

Just occasionally, resurrecting characters does work, though. The 1970s series Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? was superior to The Likely Lads original of a decade previously. There was huge scope to see how that relationship evolved as they got older, and it turned out to be one of the funniest TV sitcoms ever. Maybe one day the BBC will get round to putting it on to DVD, but that's another story.

Such successes, though, are few and far between. And the risk of spoiling the memory of a classic is too great. I would hate to see Basil Fawlty return to the hotel trade in his 60s. But then John Cleese would never be that foolish, however lucrative the offers. A good writer knows when characters and situation have run their course, and when characters, situation and plots were indelibly connected to their period and indelibly etched in the memories of the viewers.

Besides, great writers and great actors want to move on. The trouble with the resurrection syndrome is that the easy publicity that it attracts fools those involved into believing it's terribly clever and original, whereas it's actually slightly lazy and old hat.

Out of the ashes ...

In an interview, Pete Townshend of The Who gives an intriguing explanation for his generation of rock stars' engagement with loud, aggressive music.

He says: "I understand now where the power of this music comes from. It's the aftermath of a great world war and how our generation dealt with that. When I was four I lived in a house where 12 people had died. We played in bomb sites, we'd find bits of bodies, skeletons and watches every day. We grew up in the shadow of this horrible bomb that had brought the war to an end. So it was never going to be about making beautiful music with an electric guitar, it was about trying to evoke the sound of trouble, the sound of anguish."

I've never seen it put quite like this before. Usually, the rise of the rock generation is credited to art schools, not to playing on bomb sites and finding dead bodies. Pete may have hit on something. At the very least, there must be a thesis in it for a music or sociology student somewhere.

* Andrew Lloyd Webber has done much for West End theatre, and it must have pained him to see that a survey carried out by The Stage newspaper finds that four out of the five most criticised West End theatres are owned by his Really Useful Group. One of these, the Palace Theatre, is described as having seats, which feel "like they are made out of itching powder".

A spokesman for the Really Useful Group responded: "Our own research shows that the quality of the shows and the experience as a whole completely outweigh any negatives."

It must have been a slip of the tongue. Surely the spokesman meant to say: "We are, of course, deeply disturbed that members of the public are uncomfortable in our theatres, and however good the show, it is unreasonable to expect ticket buyers to sit in discomfort for three hours. We will replace the offending seats immediately."

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