I saw a terrific television play – the only minor catch being that it wasn't on telly at all, but in the basement of a Shepherd's Bush shopping centre. Adam Brace's Stovepipe, about contract security men working in Iraq, has been staged as a promenade performance and begins with ticket-holders being welcomed as delegates to a Jordanian trade show about Iraqi reconstruction.
Shortly after the audience settles down for the keynote address, from the South African CEO of a security company, there's a security alert and the plot is off and running, to be followed – at a modest distance – by us, tracking the action through an ingenious labyrinth of sets. And – although I often feel that promenade performances can be wildly overrated as a night out – this one is admirably fluent and engrossing.
Why use the words "minor catch" then, or bring up the question of television at all? Brace (I take it) wrote his play for theatrical performance and it would be implausible to suggest that it's knowingly theatrical manner would sit comfortably in the stolidly realist idiom of most current television drama. For all I know he might disdain the very idea – and I don't doubt that some of those who have seen and enjoyed it in the flesh would argue that its virtues are inherently theatrical. That the fact that you're only inches away from the players at times or that at one point you effectively pad out the cast as a mourner at a memorial service is directly connected to the impact of the piece.
Still, as I was leaving I found myself thinking – this should be on television.
I thought it for two reasons. The first was simply that Brace had looked at an under-reported and interesting subject – soldiers for hire – and produced a gripping and frequently funny piece of writing. I had braced myself for uncomplicated agit-prop when virtually the first words spoken came with an Afrikaaner accent but that suspicion proved unfounded.
In its way Stovepipe is a thriller – with a mystery that is ultimately solved, and it understands, I think, that sermonising is not enough on its own – that the audience must be entertained to a conclusion. Given that, it seemed a pity that – on even the most optimistic assessment of box office – just a few thousand people would have the opportunity to see a piece that had an immediate topical resonance.
The other reason though was less to do with what television could do for Brace than with what Brace might do for television. I thought "this should be on television", in fact, precisely because it's the kind of thing you don't see on television.
There have, of course, been many documentaries about Iraq and, to a limited extent, some dramas about the war – including the HBO series Generation Kill (co-produced by a British independent) and Nick Broomfield's The Battle for Haditha. But both of those were about American soldiers and count almost as dramatic reconstructions (ostensibly so in the case of Broomfield's film and less obviously so in the case of Generation Kill, which was based on an embedded reporter's non-fiction account of real soldiers).
Ronan Bennett's interesting series of short dramas 10 Days to War also stuck close to real events and real people. When it comes to fictional dramas though – and particularly popular mainstream drama that might have ambitions to win a significant audience – Iraq is the dog that didn't bark. And when you think about that it seems more than odd. Here's a hugely significant event – one which continues to engage British citizens in all sorts of ways (some of them fatal) and yet it barely registers on a the most significant storytelling medium we have.
You can see countless dramas about policemen and doctors, you can see dramas about Victorian postmistresses and Oxford detectives. You can see witteringly stupid drama about the fantasy sex-lives of middle-class women and intriguing drama about Sixties ad men. But if you want to see something that reflects real British lives now you will probably need to switch off the television and head to the theatre.
Art that makes you forget the labels
I went to see Mythologies this week, a selling exhibition staged by the Haunch of Venison gallery in the former Museum of Mankind and selected – so the catalogue says – on the basis that the work inside has an ethnological slant, responding to the buildings old preoccupations. This connection is very obvious in some pieces – based on Javanese shadow puppets or African fetish statues – but a bit more opaque in others, such as the giant Mylar kites which hang above the grand staircase. I couldn't see the connection at all in the case of the show's most engrossing work – a video installation called 'Small Saints', by Bill Viola. This consists of a slow motion image showing murky figures advancing towards – and then piercing – a falling curtain of clear water. He's played with the image so that until they penetrate this veil they're in fuzzy black and white, pushing through into brilliantly high-definition colour, as drops of water cascade like liquid light around them. They're so mesmerisingly lovely that they make you forget the theme altogether. Or rather they remind you that the only category box that really matters is the one marked "Art".
* It is intriguing to hear that David L Chase, hallowed creator of The Sopranos, is working on a mini-series about the creation of Hollywood, based around the working partnership of a college-educated engineer and a cowboy with a violent past. This could be another contribution to that modest canon of films which acknowledge that the artistic life sometimes requires the ruthlessness of a Mafia hit man – a connection which was explicitly made in Woody Allen's Bullets over Broadway and Barry Sonnenfeld's film Get Shorty, in which John Travolta plays a mob enforcer who discovers that he's perfectly qualified for life as a Hollywood producer. Barry Levinson also explored the connections in Bugsy, though his hero sadly became distracted by founding Las Vegas. In television terms Chase has made his bones many times over already – but it will be interesting to see how aggressively he takes on the rival mob.Reuse content