Open letter to a disruptive Twitter user

To the person who decided that he would respond to my Twitter feed today:

Yes, I tweeted on Monday that I had booked tickets to see the new play, Teddy Ferrara, at the Donmar Warehouse. I did so partly because the Donmar’s so small that it can feel that securing a ticket can be an achievement in itself. It was also prompted by the cast including an actress whose work I admire, and whose friendship I feel privileged to enjoy.

So I decided to share with my friends and others who follow me that, at some point in the future, I would be seeing the play.

And yes, I know that the play has LGBT themes. And that perceptions of the play have been decidedly mixed. And that the reasons for the criticisms have varied, from story events to characterisation to dialogue.

I also know that some audience members agree with those reviews. Just as I know that others, including friends of mine who have seen it, disagreed with them.

All of which I am sure I will discuss with those same friends – once I, too, have seen it. After all, talking about the merits of a play before you have experienced anything about it is not the greatest endeavour for anyone concerned.

So I am open to discussing the play.

But not yet.

Continue reading Open letter to a disruptive Twitter user

Ten Things… has moved

Over the course of the last full series of Doctor Who, I wrote a series of blog posts here collectively entitled Ten Things About Who, which I then collected into an ebook for Kindle.

I’m going to be doing the same again this series, but rather than on here, I’ve moved such posts to a new blog: TenThings.tv.

The site’s very much a work in progress at the moment, but the first post is ready:

Ten Things About… Deep Breath

 

 

Radio 4’s Craven: how drama takes on cyberbullying

Friends and followers will know that I’m a long-time fan of audio drama, be it on radio (most often Radio 4) or via other commercial outlets, such as Big Finish.1

In recent years, the regular slots that Radio 4 has for dramas has accepted more and more returning series – one of the reasons why those strands were renamed two years ago – the Afternoon Play becoming the Afternoon Drama, and so on. One of my favourite regular schedule slots is the 15 Minute Drama, short serials taking up the last quarter of Woman’s Hour from Monday to Fridays and which are now, as a matter of course, repeated in the evening and with an omnibus on Saturdays at 12pm on sister digital station Radio 4 Extra.

And in that slot, one of my favourite returning serials is Craven, a crime drama starring Maxine Peake as DCI Sue Craven, heading up a murder investigation team including Michael Obiora (Hotel Babylon, Casualty) and David Crellin (Emmerdale, The Cops). While DCI Craven herself had a tendency to sound unremittingly grim in the first few episodes, by its just-completed fifth series2 it’s settled into an analysis of grim (and sometimes topical) murder cases by a team that has settled into a pattern of occasionally prickly professional relationships that are nevertheless imbued with mutual respect.

Continue reading Radio 4’s Craven: how drama takes on cyberbullying

Strictly Come Dancing: Why the new trailer is so good

People who know me – and many who don’t – know that I’m a big Strictly fan. In the battle of the Saturday night TV voting shows, I’m far more likely to be watching Brucie than Dermot. When we started TV Today at The Stage, the weekly blogs were more to do with encouraging the celebration of dance, which at that time was under-served on television. The notion of celebrity involvement was tolerated rather than embraced, I’d say – but my summaries always tried to look dispassionately at how well the amateur dancers were learning (or not), as a direct response to blogs and message boards which cultivated fandoms around the famous participants.

After a few years, I had to give up the weekly summaries as they just took far too long to put together. But I’ve never stopped loving the show, have been lucky enough to be in the studio once or twice, and have seen many of the live stage shows which have capitalised on the BBC show’s popularity, whether drectly under the Strictly banner or by virtue of the programme’s pro dancers gaining their own celebrity status.

And that’s at the heart of the new teaser trailer’s genius. In previous years, we’ve been shown coy shots of the celebrities – whose head is that the back of? Whose ankle? Whose midriff, improbably squeezed into a sequinned bodice?

This time round, the trailer team have focussed on the dancers. The clever visuals, which render each dancer’s celebrity partner invisible, highlights that we don’t yet know the full roster of amateurs for this year’s series. But the emphasis is on dance – professional dance at that. Ultimately, it’s a celebration of talent. And yet, it’s still a celebrity-laden trail, because one of the strengths of Strictly is that it brings professional dancers into the spotlight and and makes them nationally recognised figures.

Compare that with the X Factor, whose pre-series publicity always tends to emphasise the bitchiness of the judges, the toe-curling awfulness of the preliminary audition rounds.

I know which one I’ll be watching this autumn.

Talking about Peter Capaldi

So I’m a guest on this week’s As Yet Untitled London Theatre podcast, talking about new Doctor Who Peter Capaldi’s acting CV and how the approach he’s taken to his previous roles in theatre, film and TV may – may – give us clues about how he may approach his fortchoming role of the Doctor.

Some of the stuff I talk about is based on the interviews The Stage has done with Capaldi over the years, extracts from which I featured the other day.

Peter Capaldi in his own words

So it turns out the bookies’ favourite was the correct one – Peter Capaldi is to be the next actor to play the lead in Doctor Who.

A quick scurry around The Stage archives finds several theatre and TV reviews, and three interviews. Two of these incorporate paragraphs which are interesting to contrast with each other.

First, from a 1990 interview with Jane Garner, connected to his role in BBC crime thriller Chain:

He enjoys comic roles as well as serious ones and has ambitions to do more film work.

“I am fascinated by that medium and I am not terribly attracted to Shakespearian roles or have any great ambition in that area. I like to do things that I am not really sure I can do and that stretches me – then I am working with something new.

“Chain was different for me because it was terribly serious and a lot of the time before, I had played a lot of rather comic roles which I love and I am comfortable in.”

And from 2007, as he prepared to appear in Absurdia, a trio of one-act comedies (two revivals by NF Simpson, and a new Michael Frayn farce) at the Donmar Warehouse, interviewed by Nick Smurthwaite:

“You do it for the challenge, the stretch,” he replies, “Generally in TV, you are employed to do what you are known for doing best. Here I’m doing things I’ve never done before, a lot of mime and movement. The Frayn play is about staging a farce in the middle of the desert, generated entirely in the imaginations of the two characters, with no props. I’ve never done mime before, so it remains to be seen if it works.”

You could, if you were being harsh, make comments about how once it was film and TV which stretched actors, and now theatre is more likely to give that challenge. But really, I see a man who’s only going to take on any role if it could push him in ways he’s never been pushed before. Given the self-confessed Doctor Who fan that he is, I can imagine that Capaldi is going to make damned sure that the BBC production team push him in his role as the Doctor.

More interesting is a quote from a 1995 interview, where the focus was more on his writing ambitions. On the back of winning the Academy Award for Best Short Film (for Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life), he was working on a feature-length screenplay. But this quote is, considering yesterday’s news, intriguing:

Being in a series for any length of time doesn’t appeal to me and I’m always trying to avoid it. I suppose the two series of Chandler and Co. that I did was the longest I have been in a show, but I don’t like doing the same thing over and over again. I want a bit of variety.

In the eighteen years since, maybe he’s mellowed to the idea, especially for a role he’s loved since he was a boy. But Doctor Who is one of those roles where longevity and variety can go hand-in-hand.

The new Doctor Who to be revealed – and who I’d like it to be

Who would have believed, back in 2003 when the revival of Doctor Who was announced, that ten years on not only would the series still be ongoing, but news of the lead actor’s recasting would be presented in a live TV programme?

Yet that is what is happening.

Continue reading The new Doctor Who to be revealed – and who I’d like it to be

And the Blue Peter badge goes to…

After the announcement in March that Blue Peter was recruiting for a third presenter via a TV series, the reactions were mixed. As I said at the time:

[the series] has always been at the pioneering end of audience interactivity, long before ‘interactivity’ was even used in television circles… In that context, it makes perfect sense for the children who have always been part of the show’s ethos to be let in on the audition process.

Others I spoke to were a little more concerned that this was part of the “dumbing down” of television, that Blue Peter had succumbed to the reality TV format. But concerns like that didn’t stop the applicants: some 20,000 audition showreels were sent in before the production team whittled them down to just ten hopefuls.

Continue reading And the Blue Peter badge goes to…

It’s tough to be an actor, or anything else

Over the last couple of weeks, the acting world has lost several people – Paul Bhattacharjee, Briony McRoberts, Richard Gent, Cory Monteith – in ways that have thrown into focus the various mental health pressures that people in the entertainment industry share with others in other walks of life, as well as where the issues differ.

Mental health issues are rarely caused by one solitary outside influence. Everybody’s own personal health can have a myriad of contributory causes and pressures. That means that treatment and preventive measures vary, too. That’s partly why seeking help when one needs it is so imperative – another being that, if you are experiencing depression yourself, you’re rarely the best judge of your own illness.

The acting world in particular has pressures that many other professions don’t. Actors tend to have to move form short term job to short term job, often taking roles which pay poorly – if at all – in the hope that the exposure and/or experience will pay off with greater, better paid roles in the future. And far more than anybody in an office job – or even a backstage career within the entertainment industry – you are judged, judged and judged again.

Not being an actor myself, I’m limited to seeing my actor friends’ lows – and, it has to be emphasised, the highs as well. It’s far from all misery. But even on the best projects, the critically acclaimed and commercially successful ones, there are always avenues for individuals to encounter mental health problems.

In the first of a number of articles published recently on this topic, Matt Hemley wrote for The Stage, quoting Eddie Redmayne:

Although it looks great – and is great – there are also shoddy moments when you feel really rotten, and when it’s going well, you’re not allowed to complain.

While producer Richard Jordan, also for The Stage, emphasises that it’s not just actors:

It’s important we recognise that in our industry depression is not exclusively an illness affecting just actors but people across all sectors of the business. Those affected can also be great masters at hiding it, with a frequent fear that, by admitting being a sufferer, you might be viewed as unreliable and unemployable in this small and gossip-fuelled industry.

And today, over in The Guardian, Michael Simkins asks if the industry itself is too cruel:

The cruellest aspect of the acting business is not that it’s unfair, but that it’s merely indifferent. It gives everything to some and nothing to others; talent, ambition and virtue have little to do with it. What’s more, with no qualifications or tests to assess how good (or bad) you are, the only benchmark is success.

Regardless of the potential pressures, actors put themselves through the wringer time and time again. The end result is usually great enjoyment for audiences of theatre, TV, radio, film – but we need to ensure that it’s not at the expense of anyone’s health and wellbeing.

Actress Katie Brennan has written a nice piece in direct response to Simkins’, which if I had to sum up in half a sentence, explores some of the positives to be found amongst the negatives:

 In no other profession would potential employees be treated this way, and perhaps the worst thing, is that we have learnt to accept it, that that’s just the way it goes in this industry, which makes me a little bit sad. We’re people at the end of the day, not just timestepping robots. I just like it when people are nice to each other…

…when [the industry] is glorious, it is wonderful glory UNBOUNDED. Seriously. There’s absolutely nothing like it. All those clichés about showbiz, the lights, the greasepaint, the applause, the comradery of castmates, the feeling of just standing on that stage and belting the shit out a brilliant, yielding money note- they’re all true on paper, but they FEEL even better.

I don’t have any pat answers: as I’ve indicated above, I think everybody has different triggers and anxieties, and their ways of dealing with their own mental health issues will be different. The key is finding the right support – nurturing friendships that last long after the curtain comes down, finding the people who will lift you up when you need it, and who you will walk over hot coals to help should the need ever arise.

And, of course, nor are the sort of pressures actors face unique to their industry. Short term, low paid, itinerant jobs are hardly the exclusive domain of the performer. Mental health issues, whether influenced by those pressures or others, need to be recognised better across all industries – but we can all of us start changing within the realms we work in.

Of course, no amount of talking about mental health will ever replace what the families, friends and our industry has lost in the people whose deaths have been reported over the last few weeks. But I’m beginning to see the start of conversations that will without doubt help others, and hopefully prevent similar headlines in future.

For information and advice, mental health charity MIND is a good place to start.