Man about the House - a zany new sitcom

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The Independent Online
I didn't watch the first episode of The House, the BBC's behind- the-scenes look at what really goes on at the Royal Opera House. I had imagined that it would be about opera, a dead art form I am, sadly, congenitally unable to enjoy.

However, it was clear listening to my friends in the next seven days that I had not missed a programe about opera. I had missed the best thing since Fawlty Towers. Now, I am probably alone in the civilised world in not having seen Fawlty Towers, but you don't actually have to have seen Fawlty Towers to know all about it - you only have to be present at conversations where Basil Fawlty is rerun by those present. Where two or three are gathered together, saith the Good Book, then one of them shall say "Don't mention the war!" and another shall say, "Meester Fawlty" in a mock-Spanish accent, and behold everyone shall fall around laughing.

Thus it is that although I have never seen these episodes, I know all about the visit of the health inspector, and the discovery of the dead body, and the one where Basil gets a meal in from a local restaurant, because I have pieced them together from re-enactments by friends. And that is how I recognised that this new thing called The House was a true descendant of Fawlty Towers, because people were talking about it in the same do-you-remember-that-bit-where-that-awful-woman sort of way ...

"Oh, God, do you remember that bit where this woman who is playing Carmen at short notice is told they can't give her any free tickets for her family? Oh, God, do you remember that bit where the marketing bloke, or is it the other one, starts throwing phones about in his fury? Oh, God, do you remember that bit where Jeremy Isaacs makes a prat of himself in front of the board ...?"

And this was just after the first episode, which gave me time to recant and join in. If it were not a programme about opera but a new sitcom, then obviously it was worth watching. And I watched, and people were right. It was a very funny programme. The plot was unbelievable, of course. In real life an opera house would not make the crass mistake of hiring the same designer to design two productions opening at about the same time. In real life they wouldn't make their leading dancer do a dress rehearsal on a floor so slippy that she kept falling over, nor would she in real life be called Darcey Bussell. In real life they wouldn't spend thousands of pounds just getting two shire horses on stage for a Janacek opera ...

"Oh, yes, they would," I was told by a friend who had worked in opera for a year or two before returning to theatre production. "Things like this are always happening. The reason that such things happen is that opera is a crazy world and the people tend to become the same. Opera is fantasy, so their lives become fantasy as well, or at least they come to apply different standards of logic to life. Jeremy Isaacs really, genuinely believed that a fly-on-the-wall documentary would do the Royal Opera House a favour. He told Melvyn Bragg so on Radio 4. He told him it would show the public how they are now balancing the books and getting their money's worth. As the programmes are showing the exact opposite this suggests either that Isaacs is round the bend or working in a world where normal rules do not apply.

"I'll tell you a story," my friend continued. "I briefly worked with the Belfast Opera for a season. Now, although the soloists are all professional over there, the chorus is composed of amateurs. One of the keenest amateur singers is, or was then, a local judge. Every time he featured in a production, he had to be accompanied by at least two bodyguards wherever he went, including on stage, so the bodyguards also had to put on operatic costume and go out in the chorus with him, to make sure he was not shot at. At all times there were two fully armed security men in the chorus, dressed in 18th-century costume, bristling with guns and unable to sing. Still, the judge's friends, as we called them, did learn the words and mouthed them along with the others ...

"Now, I challenge you to think of any other branch of the performing arts where such a crazy situation could be thought passably normal and where the inmates come to think of their fantasy world as the real world."

I couldn't. Apart from the House of Commons, of course.