Good arts coverage? Not Today, thank you

If you were listening to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday morning, you might have heard a segment talking about a forthcoming stage production of The Ladykillers, which was originally an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers.

What was significant about the short item was the fractious nature of the piece, a three-way discussion between Today presenter Justin Webb, Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington and writer Graham Linehan, who has taken on the task of adapting the film so that it works for a live theatre audience.

The segment started out easily enough, with Linehan talking about how he has changed the story slightly so that all the action takes place within the one set, and how that frees up time that would otherwise be taken up with scene changes to explore characters in more depth.

But that changed under Webb’s stewardship, as he brought in Billington to dispute the merits of adapting any film for the stage.

Reading Linehan’s comments, it seems that he was the only one unaware that the discussion was being set up as a debate on the merits of adapting the work in the first place. And so, he decided not to co-operate.

Without the knowledge of this background information, in the audio of the interview Linehan sounds a bit chippy and uncooperative. But knowing that he was effectively set up, I don’t see how anyone could feel anything other than this was a pretty despicable way to treat a guest.

Whatever your feeling about Today‘s combative style and whether it is an effective method for political interviews, there’s no reason why it should be assumed to be by default the best format for arts coverage. Linehan’s comments about the changes he has made to the film could — should — have been explored further. That in turn could lead to a discussion about the adaptation process in general, and why some (e.g., Kneehigh’s Brief Encounter) work better than others. Instead, what we got was an attempt to turn it into a boxing match, with general harrumphing from the BBC when Linehan made it clear he wasn’t going to take the bait.

If the Today programme wants to cover the arts properly, why not give the sector a regular slot with its own specialist interviewer, just as they already do for sports and business coverage? There seems to be an assumption that you don’t need specialist knowledge to interview practitioners of the arts, and any old sod can do it. Those of us who are lucky enough to get to do it as part of their job know it’s not that easy.

It’s doubly annoying, because Today is BBC Radio 4’s flagship show and reaches such a large audience in comparison to other outlets on the same network. How annoying that such an opportunity to talk about cultural products is wasted in the hands of people who seem only capable of thinking in terms of Westminster-style bunfights.

As the preparations for The Ladykillers continues before opening at the Liverpool Playhouse in November and transferring to the West End later that month, we’ll doubtless see, read and hear answers to all the questions Justin Webb should have asked. But I doubt that’ll happen on Today.

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.