TV UK, 6 July

Unless you think that TV is for people who can't be bothered to go to the theatre, Channel 4's Samuel Beckett plays are of limited value.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

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Sales of video cassettes no doubt went through the roof last week as Channel 4 screened the first six in its series of Samuel Beckett plays. All 19 will be shown over the summer, with helpful breaks to give you time to actually watch those videos before you accidentally tape over them with Ally McBeal. Or not.

In any case, this is an ambitious, admirable, blah, blah, project from the people who brought you Brookside, Big Brother and Top Ten: 19whatever. It just goes to show that high art still has its champions.

On last week’s Late Review (BBC2, Fridays at 11pm) the novelist Philip Hensher – who muttered discontent about having to discuss the kids’ film Shrek – was reluctant to voice his fairly substantial criticisms of the Beckett season, on the grounds that we should be grateful for whatever morsels of proper culture we are offered. Much has been made of the fact that the BBC rejected the idea of filming Beckett’s plays. Tut, tut, BBC; bravo, Channel 4. Maybe.

Samuel Beckett is a notoriously prescriptive playwright. The 19 directors have taken a few understandable liberties with his stage directions while trying hard to retain Beckett’s artistic integrity. That would be fine, except that Beckett is a playwright and not a screenwriter. The difference is not trivial, and the impression given by the first six plays is very much of theatre filmed for TV. Unless you think that TV is for people who can’t be bothered to go to the theatre, this is of limited value.

Maybe subsequent plays will be great TV and prove me wrong, but it seems to me that for now Channel 4 will have to go on importing its quality material from the USA rather than the theatre, or indeed Australia.

The Secret Life of Us (Channel 4, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 10.30pm) is supposed to be the Australian This Life, but it has more in common with Neighbours. Magazine adverts announce the show as ‘a major new drama’, giving an outline of the plot with helpful Chicken Licken-style illustrations in the text. The juvenile theme carries into the programme itself.

The story revolves around three shared apartments in a single block. There is plenty of scope for student-halls type ‘relationship’ shenanigans, and last week’s opening episodes did not disappoint in that regard. But this sort of thing should have no place in the late evening schedules. Fans of sub-Dawson’s Creek tweenage drama would do better waiting for the new series of Home and Away, coming soon to Channel 5.

Still, those crazy kids at Channel 4 are always up to something interesting. Next Tuesday (9 July) Big Brother and The Secret Life of Us are preceded by Royals and Riots 1981 (9pm). This subverts the whole pop-nostalgic genre of Top Ten… and I Love… to create social history. The programme is based around two highly televisual events, the wedding of Prince Charles and ‘Lady’ Diana, and the riots that broke out in London and Liverpool at the same time.

All the records you’d expect are on the soundtrack, but instead of indulging has-been popstars, the programme investigates the political and social divisions that characterised 1981, and above all the sense of impending change that never really happened. The programme has its flaws, but it is 100 percent TV, and gives us an idea of the potential of the medium in a way that its poppy progenitors don’t.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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