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Michael Coveney: Bye-bye BBC, hello new theatre week

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We've long given up waiting for great new drama at the BBC, but the BBC management has provided its own with the sudden departure of its director general, George Entwistle, after less than a month of giving his brilliant impersonation of a rabbit trapped in the headlights.

He bungled his response to the Jimmy Savile affair then admitted that he had no idea that Newsnight, the programme that had shelved its own damning enquiries into Savile's alleged child abuse activities, had wrongly fingered a Tory grandee as a paedophile.

Grilled mercilessly by his own employee, John Humphrys on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, he said he was too busy to notice stories on front pages, let alone what Newsnight was about to irresponsibly broadcast. The BBC will, of course, renew its unquestionable status as the greatest broadcasting organisation in the world. I think they should appoint Jeremy Paxman as director general.

But the deeper, more pernicious problem is that of child abuse itself: its widespread practice, and the reactive, post-dated hysteria that now surrounds it. So it was almost depressing that the new play at Theatre 503 on Friday night should have been about, well, child abuse.

Where the Mangrove Grows is not very good, but at least its author Joe Hammond writes even-handedly about the sad situation of a young boy in a care home, neglected by his mum, dreaming of a life elsewhere with a fantasised, exotic paternal supervision. Abuse is a many-headed monster, the play posits, and involves a whole lot more than a bearded social worker fiddling about with junior genitals.

And that's where theatre comes in, making sense, and poetry, and humane and sensible moral judgements about the human condition where such activity is common, if not exactly rife. It was all part and parcel, for instance, of Alan Bennett's The History Boys, and no-one questioned the sensitivity with which it was treated.

Earlier on Friday I was in Bow School, in the East End of London, to catch The Hate Play by “contemporary theatre for young people” group Box Clever, played out to an attentive audience of impeccably behaved 12-year-old boys. Although dressed up in pop and rap music, cool dancing and zippy catch phrases, the piece dealt honestly with themes of bullying and racism without once mentioning skin colour.

The victim, played by a white actress, was merely “different” - perhaps in her clothes, perhaps in her eating habits - but she was more resoundingly “similar” in her bag of books - which were tipped on the ground - and cultural interests. Her boyfriend was played by a black actor, while white and black ganged up against her.

Just to add another layer, and to fit in with the overall presentation, which started with the track-suited actors in warm-up exercises - celebrating exam results, giving a flower to a lover boy (one of the teachers was targeted) - the bullied girl confessed to her dad when she went home that she was playing the part of someone who was being persecuted, or "picked on," in a school play.

This device objectified the story-line, so that the boys could both watch it as a story and stand aside to recognise the truth of it in their own experience, one of the most perfect demonstrations of Brecht's alienation theory I've ever seen. And what was fascinating here was that the white boys in the audience were in a tiny minority; 98 per cent of this crowd were Asian or Bengali.

It's the great delight of theatre that we go in order both to be taken out of ourselves and to learn about how we live now. This can happen with Shakespeare as much as it can with new work. And this week kicks off with a new version of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale at the tiny Landor in Clapham, south London, written by Nick Stimson with a score by Howard Goodall, no less.

What with the new Lucy Prebble play at the National, a new Nick Dear at the Almeida, and Nick Payne's brilliant Constellations coming into the West End from the Royal Court it's another red letter week for new drama in the British theatre, a reminder that no other country in the world has such a rich and diverse tradition of new theatre work, a tradition that BBC drama helped to foster and indeed sometimes surpass, but behind which it now limps sadly along with a diet of over-budgeted adaptations and nosy, unsavoury show business biographies.

And, quite frankly, even if he'd stayed on, you'd hardly have had any confidence in George Entwistle to do very much, if indeed anything at all, about that.


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