The National Theatre’s recent 50th anniversary gala was delightful in a number of ways, and not just for the opportunity to hear Dame Judi Dench give another magnificent rendition of “Send in the Clowns”.
Broadcast on the BBC, it offered the rare and cherishable spectacle of theatre on terrestrial television. We’re used to the occasional ballet or opera, especially over Christmas, but theatre almost never gets a look in. The days of Play for Today, when hit plays were filmed for television audiences, have never seemed so far away.
The irony of the situation is that, thanks to developments in digital technology, theatre, as well as opera and ballet, is now regularly available in cinemas. The NT Live programme, which live-films productions for broadcast, has been one of the great success stories in recent years; according to the National’s 2012-13 annual report, a total of 277,000 people in this country enjoyed seven NT Live productions across 260 venues last year.
However, despite these glowing – and growing – figures, there is a sense of unease in some quarters. The National Theatre, as the name implies, has a country-wide remit; it is for this reason that it gets £17.5m of Arts Council subsidy. Filming its shows and then charging people 10 quid a ticket to see them on the big screen cannot possibly pass for a national outreach strategy.
Compare and contrast the healthy NT Live figures with those for the two touring shows that it sent out on the road in that same financial year: just 96,700 people enjoyed an actual live National Theatre production across 11 venues. One Man, Two Guvnors and Travelling Light went to Glasgow, Belfast, Newcastle, Blackpool, Leeds, Llandudno, Salford, Nottingham, Leicester, Norwich and Cardiff. Plot those cities on a map and spot the problems in geographical spread. Tough if you’re a tax-paying arts lover in the south-west, isn’t it? (Two National shows have, however, visited Plymouth this autumn.)
With this in mind, and following the decimation of BBC4’s drama budget, might a virtuous-circle solution for all concerned not be for some NT Live shows to be broadcast to licence-fee payers on the BBC? If successful, and it’s hard to imagine otherwise, the project could be extended. Just imagine, for example, the lifelines and possibilities that could be extended to permanently struggling regional theatres through this scheme.