The Front Row presenters wouldn't be dismissive about football, why are they about theatre?

As the new presenters of the BBC arts programme ”Front Row” give a controversial interview to ”Radio Times”, Sarah Crompton questions their disparaging comments about theatre

Nikki Bedi, Giles Goren and Amol Rajan
Nikki Bedi, Giles Goren and Amol Rajan

Sometimes it is hard to escape the feeling that the BBC is eating itself. On Monday night, W1A, the amiable mockumentary about the inner workings of the Corporation, returned and provoked laughter with the sight of a staggeringly unsuitable football pundit being appointed to give his views on football on Match of the Day.
On Tuesday, life imitated art. The three new presenters of the BBC’s much trumpeted TV version of the arts flagship Front Row gave an interview to Radio Times in which they all appeared to have a semi-detached relation to most art forms, with a particular dislike of theatre. (I will note in passing that opera, dance and classical music weren’t deemed worthy of even mentioning.)

Food critic Giles Coren revealed he hadn’t really been to the theatre for six to seven years, got stressed in case people forgot their lines and found the seats uncomfy; media editor Amol Rajan confessed all he had seen recently were two musicals; Nikki Bedi, a former actress now a radio presenter, confessed that she preferred film because "I resent going to the theatre and not having an interval for two hours and forty five minutes" a duration which is the running time of many a blockbuster yet quite rare in a theatrical setting.

You can’t imagine them being as dismissive of football or – god forbid – pop music on which they all have a view

I will also point out – just in passing – that both men gave as an excuse for their failure to be more culturally adventurous the fact that they have young families, an explanation I don’t think any woman would have mentioned.

Anyhow, the interview went sort of viral and a corner of the internet got very grumpy indeed. Now, in a world where Donald Trump is threatening to "totally destroy" North Korea, the Caribbean is being laid flat by hurricanes, and tube stations are under threat from bombers, a light-hearted interview with three TV presenters doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.

There is, in any case, a school of thought that suggests that a good interviewer can ask the right question without necessarily being an expert. Front Row will have more knowledgeable commentators as guests; we might as well wait and see how their interlocutors perform before writing them off.

Theatre is treated with opprobrium, yet it is a vital engine of this country’s creative life

I am willing to give them that chance. Yet what really depresses me about the interview is the attitude behind it – the way in which everybody thought it was acceptable to talk that way about theatre. You can’t imagine these clever, articulate people being as dismissive of football, or the hard seats in the pavilion at Lord’s, or literature (indeed they all talk intelligently about books) or – god forbid – pop music on which they all have a view.

It is theatre that is treated with opprobrium. Yet British theatre is a vital engine of this country’s creative life. Without its power to uncover and develop talent both on and off stage, TV viewers would not be watching Doctor Foster, written by a playwright and performed by two seasoned stage performers. Hollywood would lack its Doctor Strange without the work that Benedict Cumberbatch put in learning his craft on stages where audiences perched on uncomfortable seats because his performance had taken him to the edge of them.

The death of Sir Peter Hall last week reminded us, if reminder were needed, of how long and how fiercely theatre in this country has had to fight for its place in the national culture. It is something of which we should be stunningly proud, yet generations of politicians have tended to disparage and under-fund it. They have set the tone for a conversation which makes theatre seem stuffy and out of touch.

That view bears no relationship to the work being undertaken in theatres around the country to keep drama as a vital force. At its best theatre inspires, provokes and excites. It is a blazing place for new ideas and old wisdoms. It shouldn’t be ignored.

I hope that in a year’s time Front Row‘s three new presenters will be eating their words and looking forward to their evenings out. There is plenty for them to look forward to.