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Michael Coveney: Golden Ages with Spacey, Hall and Nicholas Lyndhurst

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By definition, a Golden Age is something that happened in the past, and yet we are continually being told that we are living in a Golden Age of this or a Golden Age of that. This week, no less than three of our cultural titans - Kevin Spacey, Peter Hall and Nicholas Lyndhurst - have evoked the phrase; and all of them not as loosely as is usual.

Kevin Spacey with Kim Cattrall
© Dan Wooller
Last night, Spacey was the first actor ever to deliver the MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. He did not, as far as I can see (I haven't read the complete text) suggest that he was responsible for a golden age down at the Old Vic - a claim that would be exceedingly hard to back up - but that television, following the innovative burst of the 1950s, and a second creative high point in the 1980s, has now entered a "third golden age" with such small-screen high quality drama as Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Homeland and Breaking Bad.

These are all American series, and all popular here, and all better than most things on British television, and in British film (I went to see Alan Partridge, aka Steve Coogan, in Alpha Papa the other afternoon; tepid isn't quite the word - funny for five minutes, parochial, waste of talented actors like Anna Maxwell Martin and Nigel Lindsay more like it?) - but you couldn't possibly promote the argument that British television had displaced theatre so comprehensively here, not at the moment, anyway.

Nor, to be fair, was Spacey saying that. What he seemed to be embracing as a good thing - the freedom of distribution and availability as exemplified by his own latest series, the House of Cards re-make, being released, in its entire season, at once and online - now gives the audience total control. Over what they watch and when. Series-binging is now the model of audience behaviour, no such thing as sitting down on Tuesday night with your nearest and dearest to watch a favourite programme.

This situation has evolved inevitably with the advent of the internet, the iPad and the social media. But Spacey still insists this changing audience wants stories above all else. They will share those stories on Facebook, fan pages, in tweets and blogs. What they won't do (he doesn't say this) is share those stories in the same room at the same time as they would in a theatre.

And if there's one argument that re-empowers the theatre as a medium, it's that one, the one of sharing in a community, the one of experiencing a once-only event as it happens, delivered and bespoke by a bunch of actors or singers at a certain time on a specific night in a mood of cooperation, concentration and, above all, participation.

The headline on the interview with Nicholas Lyndhurst in the Telegraph on Wednesday - "It's a Shame TV's Golden Age Has Gone" - referred specifically to television comedy, which Lyndhurst graced for 20 years as that "plonker" Rodney Trotter in Only Fools and Horses. He's now joining the mysteriously successful BBC drama series New Tricks which The Sopranos it ain't.

But as the comedy awards in Edinburgh proliferate with another round of stand-ups who will infiltrate the airwaves and the small screen in the coming years, it's worth pausing to consider what Lyndhurst is saying. Good comedy, in the first place, is about good writing and, secondly, good acting (which is not what Steve Coogan or Rowan Atkinson does, exactly). Alan Partridge and Mr Bean are brilliant creations, as is Al Murray's Pub Landlord, or whatever it is Miranda Hart does, but they're the province of light entertainment, or revue, not true comedy.

And what's happened to British television comedy is that all these stand-ups go onto quiz shows and panel games. That's not comedy, either. In a dispiriting feature about female stand-ups from the Edinburgh Festival on BBC's The Culture Show this week, Bridget Christie asked why were there so few female stand-ups on the panel games. It's the wrong question. The question is: why are there so many panel games with so many stand-ups on them, and why are they so nauseating and so bad?

It's a great shame that Lyndhurst hasn't done more stage work. He was a blissful Trinculo in the Ralph Fiennes/Trevor Nunn The Tempest at the Haymarket and, 20 years ago, was outstandingly funny in a slight comedy, Straight and Narrow, at the Wyndham's: he has a uniquely whey-faced, droll and sensitive persona on stage, but what absolutely marks him out is his comic expertise. He can wait as long as Jack Benny to charge up the next line, and he does nothing. It's a trick of stillness and timing, and it's very rare.

Lyndhurst loved working with Nunn and deeply regrets (he has said elsewhere) not taking up the opportunity when offered to work with Peter Hall. He's probably not made as much of his talent as he should have. But then, he has had a great life (and he's still only 52), full of ecstatic highs and resonating lows: he loves flying planes and deep sea diving.

Hall himself said, with exemplary caution, in The Times article about 50 years of the National Theatre, that he thought the last 50 years of British theatre would be seen as a golden age in the future. The second Elizabethan age of British drama is already well-documented. But the definition of its goldenness will be in the hands of our successors; and they will start by acclaiming its foundations at the Royal Court, the National and the RSC. And the crucial, significant part played in all of that by the godfather, Peter Hall himself.