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Theatre on Television

June 24, 2015

For almost a decade from the mid 80s, myself and my friends were addicted to Barry Norman’s 40 minutes or so “Film” programme. A deeply authoritative round-up of that week’s releases, film clips, news and interviews with “triple A list” stars that other programmes could only dream of.

The moment Mr Norman retired, I (and everyone I knew) stopped watching. This was a man who really understood film, had impeccable taste but also a way of telling viewers to “go see what you think” for yourself – never actively discouraging anyone from seeing anything at all, and often encouraging me to see something I never would have considered.

You can guess what I’m going to say next. Yes, you are right. There isn’t – and has never been – anything like that for theatre.

Partly because theatre is mostly fleeting. A show plays a few weeks for a few thousand people and is gone. Also, partly, because I honestly don’t know anyone who is the equivalent of Mr Norman. There’s a few professional reviewers whom I trust – the inestimable Mr Shenton, Ms Mountford, Mr Shuttleworth, Ms Purves and Mr Coveney being a quintet able to warn when “something wicked this way comes.” I’ll also always miss Jack Tinker of the Daily Mail – the first critic I ever read regularly. I quickly learned that we agreed only on two artists, and that otherwise, I should hurry and see anything he disliked, and could happily miss anything he raved about.

Without a Barry Norman type TV voice, however, theatre probably can’t get more than the current “magazine column” mentions in broader arts and news programmes.

I do think, though, that there is an opening in the “fly on the wall” category. There have been a good few “backstage at the show / theatre” documentaries over the years, but what I am pitching today is “Audience Watch.”

We take an auditorium (and foyer, if you like) and wire it with several hundred tiny cameras. A couple of presenters, one hairy, one pulchritudinous with a psychology  degree, then hide out and commentate on captured footage.

The inspiration struck me this week at the Open Air Theatre. In the light of a summer evening, you can see the audience in front of you – and the steep steps mean you get a good view. Aside from a woman in front of me who appeared to really loved the taste of her guy’s earwax (or her depth perception was really poor) there was one act of outstanding interest taking place a row ahead of me, just over the aisle.

An elderly man could be observed masticating through most of act 1. When exhausted, he withdrew the little grey ball from his mouth, reached into his bag and brought out a crisp window envelope – the type banks send adverts in – and placed the gum into it, then carefully re-folded and stored…

Just how organised is that? Save an envelope thinking “hmm, that’ll do the put my gum in when I go to the theatre.” AND remembering to take it on the night. And I thought my own “rain pack” I always take to the park (and needed, that night) was good planning.

If we can’t have the shows reviewed, why not the audience? The material is there, for sure.

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