Alan Bennett has criticised “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens and asked why every sphere of life – including allotment tending – must now be turned into a television competition.
The playwright, who said there was no longer a television producer he could trust to put his work on screen without interference, revealed that he had once been an unlikely Big Brother viewer.
Asked if he watched reality shows, Bennett told Radio Times: “Very few. Maybe the first Big Brother but I thought ‘God, they’re all repellent’. I tend not to watch anything where one person is eliminated each week.”
He added: “There was even a programme about allotments: I thought ‘this’ll be alright’. Then they introduced that format there! Allotments isn’t a competitive activity.”
The Big Allotment Challenge, screened by BBC2 in the summer, featured “nine pairs of the country's best allotmenteers” who were “put to the test, as they attempt to harvest prize-winning fruits, vegetables and flowers for show day” before a panel of expert judges.
Contestants were required to produce matching radishes, as well as jams and chutneys, and negotiate a “surprise floral arrangement challenge” during the series, which was seen as an attempt to replicate the success of The Great British Bake Off, which transferred from BBC2 to BBC1.
The playwright, 80, said television was “not all rubbish”, citing Midsomer Murders and the art documentaries presented by the critic Andrew Graham-Dixon as preferred viewing.
Bennett also enjoys the deadpan comedy of Stewart Lee: “I like him because he’s offensive. And Jeremy Hardy, but he’s only on radio. The others just seem to be showing off.”
However he is also fan of the broad comedy of the animated US sitcom Family Guy, in which he guest-starred last year, and sitcom The Big Bang Theory.
Bennett feels he cannot create new drama for television since his regular producer Innes Lloyd died in 1991. He said: “Since he died, television has changed so much. When I worked with him, it was so straightforward. I’d show him a script, he’d set it up and it was all very quickly done. Now it’s a much more tortuous process.”
Was there not a producer out there who could overcome all that? “Not that I’ve met.”
However Radio 4 is to air Bennett’s first drama to premiere on radio. Denmark Hill, a modern day take on Hamlet set in South London, was adapted from an unproduced screenplay written 20 years ago and discovered in Bennett’s archives.
The black comedy follows a 15-year-old London schoolgirl (Bryony Hannah) who, as she struggles with a Shakespeare essay, suffers a bereavement, then sees her family’s life mirroring Hamlet. The Bard looms over all dramatists, Bennett concedes. But Shakespeare can be enjoyed in a reduced form.
“You can’t get away from it. But I mean, I always think with Othello: 10 minutes, if everybody sits round having a talk about it, that whole thing could be settled. Instead of ‘how about this handkerchief’ and all that.”
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