Dave Cunningham: Seen anything on the telly lately?

Years ago the Beeb honoured Alan Bennett, the UK’s greatest living playwright and national treasure, by allowing him to pick an evening’s worth of viewing on the TV. Bennett explained how, in his youth, the telly gave him access to artistic events that weren’t readily available in Leeds. I can relate. Having an inferiority complex the size of the Titanic I approach new developments with caution always afraid of making a mistake in public. TV gives you the chance to try new things in private with minimal risk of embarrassment.

Always kept well clear of opera until Jonathan Miller’s version of Rigoletto was broadcast on TV. It was revelatory; oh I knew the music was magnificent but to actually be able to understand the bloody thing (Miller set the opera in a Mafia setting sung in English) did wonders for my confidence.

As well as offering the chance to try out unfamiliar genres telly also gives regional audiences access to shows that will never leave London. BBC4, usually around Christmas, offers shows from The Globe and posh opera and dance that I could never afford. We even got Terry Gilliam’s version of Faust and Simon Russell Beale in a ballet. No really, one of our greatest actors with an astonishing speaking voice and he doesn’t say a word – wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

You can’t really consider whether telly encourages people to visit the theatre without considering the impact of the talent shows that have sprouted like weeds. For my money the issue was best articulated by Kevin Spacey who pointed out that the Beeb’s coverage of auditions for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals amounted to little more than 13 weeks of free promotion for his Lordship leaving Spacey to wonder if other theatres would be granted parity. Really that sums it up – the talent shows encourage public interest in a specific show and benefit an individual, who really doesn’t need the publicity or the money, rather than the genre as a whole.

They also have a really strange effect on live performances. WOS website sent me to check out Dancing on Ice and it was an odd experience. Everyone involved – audience and producers- seemed to be trying to replicate the TV show in a live environment. The audience cheered on their favourite dancer but zoned out and chatted when others were performing. The format was the same as the TV shows with dancers competing but there hadn’t been time for them to hone skills so they performed the routines familiar from the TV and, inevitably, the winner was the same as in the show. So really the audience had paid for a ticket, travelled to the venue and watched something they could have seen on TV in the comfort of home.

It is the reverse effect of the benefits of TV – instead of encouraging audiences to try something new it limits their options to something they have already seen. Besides if we keep encouraging audiences to accept the limited options generated by the TV talent shows there is a real risk that Starlight Express might tour again.

– Dave Cunningham