TV UK, 24 August

The Edinburgh Festival has caused me to muse on the differences between TV and theatre - and mostly theatre comes off pretty badly.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

For the past two weeks I have barely looked at a TV set, and have had nothing but the Edinburgh Festival for entertainment. So inevitably, I have been musing on the differences between TV and theatre.

Mostly, of course, theatre comes off pretty badly. Shane Danielsen, the incoming director of the Edinburgh Film Festival, told an audience of young thespians last week that 95 percent of theatre is ‘shit’. Apparently only 90 percent of film fits the same description. We didn’t get on to TV.

But the point is not so much the quality of the content, which varies tremendously in all cases, but the virtue of the medium itself. At a Book Festival event I was bemused to hear cultural pundit Muriel Gray lamenting the demise of the family evening in front of the telly.

TV has always been lambasted as a privatising technology, first isolating families in their living rooms, and now individuals in their bedrooms. But actually, that’s what is good about TV. Sometimes you don’t want to be part of an audience. Sometimes you want to watch a TV programme at your leisure, without the distraction of conversation, or indeed companionship.

In company I would never have cried at the murder of Kendra in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and my appreciation would have been diminished accordingly. Never mind what the luvvies tell you – to cry as part of the audience at the theatre is to dilute the experience, not intensify it.

A musical production of Gogol’s Marriage in Edinburgh brought out the misanthrope in me (which isn’t easy, despite what people might tell you). It was all heavy make-up and pantomime acting, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the audience. They seemed to be genuinely delighted by every hammy quip and slapstick tumble. Why other people’s enjoyment should be so upsetting I don’t know – but I was quite discombobulated by the whole thing.

Of course, theatre is not without its merits. I was especially impressed by a production of Macbeth set in an east London pub. The audience spilled out into the set itself, so that I got to sit at the banquet exchanging embarrassed glances with the lords as Macbeth imagined Banquo’s ghost, and Lady Macbeth tried to calm things down by passing out sandwiches. Here was a show that made the most of the visceral qualities of theatre, that cannot be reduced to audiovisual.

Real live human contact is all very well then, but you can have too much of a good thing. As the Edinburgh International Television Festival begins this weekend, I will be heading back to the sofa to give the medium the concentrated attention it deserves.

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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Topics Politics


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