David Lister: The Week in Arts

It's good that things ain't what they used to be
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The Independent Online

The actor Brian Blessed has complained that theatre isn't what it used to be. Nothing is. Even complaints aren't what they used to be. Andrew Marr pointed out recently that Lord Reith, the first director-general of the BBC, complained about the awfulness of TV, even before there was a television service. Now, that's what I call a stylish complaint.

Brian Blessed made his claim while promoting a new production of Peter Pan on Ice. Mr Blessed provides the voice of Captain Hook. Ah, voices of Captain Hook aren't what they used to be. I can remember voices of Captain Hook, which would have curdled the blood and shattered the ice. Mr Blessed is a relative newcomer to ice shows. He should be wary of comparisons that will be made by historians of Peter Pan on Ice. Their theses may reveal that he is competing with some great reputations.

Mr Blessed has quite a reputation himself, of course. He has been a film actor, RSC and National Theatre man, and a household name on TV going back to Z Cars in the early 1960s. Ah, TV police series aren't what they were. It's all action now. No lingering in the police car for a good portion of each episode with PC Fancy Smith, played by young Brian Blessed, holding forth about crime on Merseyside.

As for the stage, Mr Blessed complains that modern theatre leaves him "bored", and today's actors are no match for those of his youth. He says: "I have for a long time been dissatisfied with legitimate theatre. I tend to find myself going to marvellous musicals, or marvellous films. And very little theatre excites me - actors pausing, actors boring me."

I'm not sure what Harold Pinter would make of this denigration of the art of the pause. And it's noticeable that even the notoriously plain-spoken Brian Blessed shrinks from actually naming the actors who bore him.

He looks back longingly to a golden age, saying: "Whereas in the past Olivier, Wolfit, Redgrave, Richardson, Gielgud - ah! You went to the theatre and your hair stood on end, and I've not had that for a long time."

Certainly, it's true that Olivier's magnetic stage presence was unique. But there is much to raise the hair in legitimate theatre today. And actors such as Simon Russell Beale, Mark Rylance and Michael Sheen can usually be relied upon to tingle the scalp.

Mr Blessed is 69 and suffering from the Fings Ain't Wot They Used To Be in the Arts syndrome. They never have been, as the disgruntled punters and critics at the first nights of Waiting for Godot, The Rite of Spring and the first Impressionists exhibition will confirm.

Good theatre is rather like good rock music. It should sometimes annoy the older generation; it should sometimes find no meeting point between the generations. It's an art form that has to renew itself or it will only attract people of Blessed's generation, as sadly too many theatres do.

Styles of acting change. The declamatory styles of some of the people Blessed mentions are so out of fashion in today's naturalistic stagings that they would seem faintly ridiculous now.

It may sound perverse to say so, but the arts should annoy. If they don't annoy, they are not doing their job properly. If Brian Blessed thinks that theatre is just the same now as it was in 1960 or 1950, if he can even claim to understand everything that's going on from his seat in the stalls, then that's not theatre at its most provocative.

Mr Blessed can ponder that in Peter Pan while doing his climactic scene with the crocodile. Now I've seen some crocodiles - ah!

Timing is everything

The Royle Family last Sunday night was the best sort of comedy writing, the kind that makes you smile, then laugh, then cry. And I will certainly do one of those three things the next time I see a menu and recall them talking of "soup of the day, it was Friday".

Caroline Aherne must be the most gifted comedy writer and comedy actress of her generation. Her own reported past problems of drink, depression and fractured relationship problems may have caused her programmes to be less frequent than we would all wish. They may have also given her comedy its distinctive poignancy.

But doesn't the BBC work in mysterious ways. Each year the criticism is voiced, with some reason, that Christmas television is not as special as it should be. So why, I wonder, did they schedule this one-off episode of The Royle Family, the first for seven years, on a Sunday night at the end of October? Surely it would have made the perfect Christmas Day treat.

* The show must go on. But what to do when it doesn't? Ideally, don't follow the example of the Royal Court and its artistic director, Ian Rickson. A recent performance or non-performance that I attended there of Krapp's Last Tape starring Harold Pinter was cancelled 45 minutes after scheduled curtain up because of "technical issues", and the theatre was evacuated for the same opaque reason. An official addressed us outside through a loudhailer. He didn't know how to work it but carried on talking, presumably for the benefit of those who could lip-read. Many of us asked what these "technical issues" were, but they refused to tell us. One of them eventually said it was a generator failure. Why then were lights on all over the theatre? Nope, couldn't answer that one.

I wonder why Mr Rickson can't trust his audience with the real information. After all, we do pay his wages.

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