Check your TV listings and set your recorders. While The South Bank Show may be no more on ITV, Sky Arts is bringing live drama back to British television for the first time in 20 years with its new series Sky Arts Theatre Live!, which will air on Wednesday nights for six weeks from 8 July 2009.

The brainchild of Sandi Toksvig, who acts as the new Theatre Live! company’s artistic director and presenter of the series, Sky Arts Theatre Live! will see the world premiere of six newly commissioned plays by successful authors in other fields, including novelists Michael Dobbs and Nicci French (the pseudonym for husband-and-wife team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French), making their stage writing debuts.

The playwrights will collaborate with five established directors (amongst them, Fiona Laird and Patrick Sandford) and a company of 20 actors, who will have just three weeks to mount each new production before performing it in front of a live audience – and the cameras, shooting in high-definition and broadcasting live – at a purpose-built studio.

The unique format aims to allow viewers to engage with live drama as they would in an actual theatre, while simultaneously providing the wider critique, comment and discussion forum that television offers. After each performance, the company and creative team will take part in a post-show discussion, taking questions and feedback from the audience, watching from both in the studio and at home. Each programme will be introduced with extensive “making of” behind-the-scenes footage.

Aside from the occasional live television dramas, live theatre has not been seen regularly on screen since the demise of the BBC’s Play for Today, which ran from 1970 to 1984.

Commenting on Sky Arts Theatre Live!, Sandi Toksvig said: “For the first quarter-century of British television, drama was live. Live drama has a rawness and immediacy in which anything can and did happen including on one sad occasion the death of the leading actor (Gareth Jones in Underground on Armchair Theatre in 1958). Now Sky Arts brings back genuine ‘reality’ television – drama as it happens, whatever happens. Vibrant, immediate, warts and all. I started my career in live television. It has an energy that cannot be found elsewhere and I am delighted to be going back.”

John Cassy, channel director for Sky Arts, said: “The current debate around cultural television programme will rage on, of course, but we’re absolutely convinced that a project as innovative and entertaining as Sky Arts Theatre Live! proves just how committed we are at Sky Arts to ensuring that arts on TV thrives.”

Sky Arts Theatre Live! is the flagship offering of Sky Arts’ theatre season for summer 2009 – but it’s not the only jewel in the theatre programming crown. The channel has also commissioned an eight-part series entitled Theatreland which goes behind the scenes of the Theatre Royal Haymarket’s in-house season, which has started with Waiting for Godot, starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, and will continue with three more high-profile productions, including the stage premiere of Breakfast at Tiffany’s starring Anna Friel in September (See News, 15 May 2009).

- by Terri Paddock