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Brief Encounter With ... Sandi Toksvig

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As well as being a prolific writer, presenter and performer, Sandi Toksvig is the brains behind the Playhouse: Live season of plays, which broadcasts live on Sky Arts and runs at the Riverside Studios from 3 June to 4 July 2010.

Now in its second year, the line-up includes new plays by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Mark Ravenhill, Alia Bano, Frank McGuinness and Eve Ensler.

The plays run for a week at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith before being broadcast live each Wednesday night. For a full schedule, see the Sky Arts website.

Can you clarify your role in the Playhouse: Live season?
Well, this year I'm the executive producer, and Pip Broughton is the artistic director (I was artistic director last year). Basically, it was my idea and it's my passionate project, but now I have a whole team of people that are equally as passionate about it. So, the way I see my job is I’m the real enthuser for the project, so if people are not sure about joining the project, I go and enthuse them to make sure they come and join us; and if you like, the public face of the Playhouse: Live. I will also be hosting the live discussions that take place after each play.

There's a quote from you saying, “We're staying true to the theatrical experience whilst simultaneously ensuring that we successfully marry the components of theatre and television.” Can you expand on that?
Certainly. Last year, we created a small theatre in a television studio and it was limiting because the cameras didn't have the fluidity of movement that we would have liked because of course they were restrained by the audience’s positions. So this year there will be four previews, here at the Riverside Studios, so that will be a theatrical experience for the select few. Then when we go into the television studio, there will be no theatrical audience; it will be done entirely for the cameras, because that way we can shoot it with much more interesting camera angles which we were not able to do before.

So it’s trying to get the best of theatre and the best of television. Finding a way of marrying the two things. I think we're much nearer that this year, even though it was great last year, we won an award, it was lovely, but that doesn’t mean you have got it right; we need to improve on it.

Can you run us through some of the highlights of this season?
It’s impossible to say! I don’t know what the highlights are because, look at the list of writers, it's astonishing! Rebecca Lenkiewicz, that’s not a bad start. Frank McGuiness is incredible. Eve Ensler who had worldwide multimillion dollar success has agreed to come and work with us for almost no money. Then there's Alia Bano, a tremendous new and young talent, and the legendary Mark Ravenhill.

Look at the list of actresses: Lesley Manville, Gemma Jones and Juliet Stevenson are in this building as we speak. And on top of that we have a fantastic assistant director training scheme, so every single play has a young training director working on it. I mean we really are, in every single area I can think of, trying to make sure that this is a kind of watershed for the way in which talent ought to be encouraged and celebrated.

Do you think the relationship between theatre and television has broken down?
Well you know it’s very easy to criticise. It’s very easy to say, “Oh television isn’t what it was… culture is going down the pan”. Well instead of criticising it, I think we ought to do something about it. I think what Sky Arts are doing for the culture of this country is fantastic. I am not one of those people that sit around and moans about how things used to be. Is it the dawning of a new collaboration? I hope so, that would be great. What I know is that the British public, not only deserve better, they crave better.

What I love is the range of people who say ‘thank you very much for bringing theatre to us’. I was checking into a tiny hotel in Scotland, and a woman said “I know you; you do that theatre thing on Sky Arts”, and I thought 'isn’t that fantastic?' That’s what she wanted to talk to me about and that was the thing she was excited about mentioning. So she can’t get to the West End, she can’t get to see the quality of drama she would like to see, and there it was for her, we delivered it on a plate. That's when you feel your job is worthwhile.

Would you like to see the BBC picking up this idea?
I wouldn’t be specific about the broadcaster; I would like to see anybody who is passionate about good writing and good acting and doing something about it. So, sure if the BBC decided to bring back Play for Today then you wouldn’t find anyone happier than me. Maybe we will kick start them to say, “actually this is a really good idea”. The British public are brighter, more literate, more interested in good quality work than they are ever given credit for.

So you'll be back next year?
Next year I'm going upward, I mean why not! You never sit back and think, 'that’s it, I’ve done it' - there’s always more to do. The next thing I would like to do is carry on with the live dramas, then I would like to generate new films, with stories of social relevance to this country. There is no end to the work that could be done. This is the beginning.

The Playhouse: Live season continues at Riverside Studios until 4 July 2010.


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