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.

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Big Finish Drama Showcase: In Conversation With an Acid Bath Murderer

For the third in its series of Drama Showcase plays on CD, Big Finish has turned away from the lifestyle dilemmas that characterised its first two releases, Not a Well Woman and Pulling Faces, for a dark tale of murder based on historical events.

In Nigel Fairs’ In Conversation With an Acid Bath Murderer, Fairs himself plays John George Haigh, who was hanged in 1949 for the murder of at least six people. Presented as a monologue in which Haigh directly addresses us, the audience, he relates events that led to his incarceration – from developing his own twisted sense of morality as a byproduct of being raised by parents who were part of the Plymouth Brethren, through a series of convictions for fraud, through developing his method of murder and disposal of the evidence.

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How to murder a press review

As regular readers of this blog (both of you) may know, I’ve been regularly reviewing Big Finish Productions’ series of audio plays being released under the Drama Showcase marque:

The third in the series, In Conversation with an Acid Bath Murderer by Nigel Fairs, arrived on my desk this morning (if I’d been more attentive, I would have noticed that the MP3 download had been available for a few days. Oops).

I haven’t finished listening to it yet, so a full review won’t be forthcoming until some point over the next few days. But my eye was caught by a quote on the publicity material, and the back of the CD case:

“Darkly played… Nasty, creepy and disturbing” — The Stage

Wow, I thought. That sounds amazing. And in an effort to find out more, I turned to The Stage Archive. After a bit of searching, I found the full review from which the words above had been taken, which referred to a 1999 theatrical version of Fairs’ play.

However, while the words above did appear in Douglas McPherson’s review, they’re not exactly indicative of the tone of the piece.

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Happy talk (and a bit of singing)

Something I’ve been working on for a couple of months (longer, counting the times I had to stop and either go on to other projects, or go off and be ill) went live on The Stage website today.

Rodgers and Hammerstein in London is an audio documentary looking at how the famous musical theatre pairing’s shows have been received in London, using archive material from The Stage’s extensive archive of back issues. I was aiming for a half-hour, Radio 4-style arts programme: the finished product ended up as just over 38 minutes, but I didn’t want to edit it down any further.

The project had its genesis when the publisher of Helena Blackman’s Rodgers and Hammerstein album asked if I wanted to interview Helena about the CD, and possibly include some short clips of the musical tracks. While I didn’t mind the idea, it was a format we’d done before – and we’d also been talking about ways in which we could promote The Stage Archive, an amazing resource which stretches back as far as the paper’s first issue in 1880. So the idea moved away from a straight interview to an exploration of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s works, with Helena presenting.

Although The Sound of Music’s 1961 opening was the spur, the documentary reaches back to the late 1940s and the debut of the groundbreaking Oklahoma!, as well as coming (relatively) up to date with How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, the reality casting show that gave Helena her first break.

It’s been good fun putting it together – I’ve been interviewing people from the Dean of Southwark Cathedral to Stephen Sondheim – but the main focus is the archive readings, which my friend, actor Adam Lilley, very generously did for me. We kept in the original idea of including extracts from Helena’s album, as it helps break up the long, talky bits with a bit of music.

It’s available now from The Stage website, as a free MP3 download or streamed direct from the web page. It’s also available in iTunes as part of The Stage Podcast series.

Big Finish Drama Showcase: Pulling Faces

The second drama in audio company Big Finish’s Drama Showcase series (after last month’s Not a Well Woman) is a more conventional affair than Katy Manning’s solo tour de force. While Not a Well Woman took the concept of a one-woman show to its extreme, with Manning playing every single role, Pulling Faces brings in several other actors to allow the main performer, Louise Jameson, to concentrate on the central performance of Joanne Taylor, a former TV presenter who, in her mid-fifties, is finding it harder to get new work without going under the knife.

Written by Helen Goldwyn and performed on stage by Jameson as a one-woman play, the production has a history before this CD production. But following presenter Miriam O’Reilly’s high profile discrimination case against the BBC, which threw a spotlight on ageism and sexism within the television industry, it gains an extra level of relevance.

The issues of women’s beauty – or, at least, TV executives’ impression of it – is handled deftly. Goldwyn plays Joanne’s daughter, who acts as the voice of reason, saying that her mum looks great and ageing, being a natural process, is something that should be celebrated rather than avoided. It helps sell Joanne’s ongoing temptation with cosmetic enhancements, from the gateway drug of Botox to a full-scale facelift.

Also featuring a cameo role from Colin Baker as a small and slight surgeon (yes, yes, I know – but it’s audio, and it does really work), Pulling Faces easily stands on a par with much of BBC Radio 4’s output – I could easily see it being serialised as the daily Woman’s Hour Drama, for example. And in many ways that’s also its main problem – there is so much drama of this type on Radio 4 (both in the WHD slot and the daily Afternoon Play) that the purchase price of this one-off drama seems high by comparison.

Big Finish Drama Showcase: Not a Well Woman

Audio production company Big Finish is deservedly best known for its science fiction and fantasy releases, most notably its range of original Doctor Who dramas and associated spin-offs, as well as audiobook dramas with TV tie-ins from Stargate to Robin Hood.

Recently it has been spreading its wings a little further. From the beautiful translation and full cast dramatisation of Phantom of the Opera (one of the best audio dramas of recent years, easily on a par with the top flight of the BBC’s output) to short story compilations by Robert Shearman, there’s a clear desire for the company to expand its dramatic horizons.

The latest venture is a series of original plays being released under the company’s new Drama Showcase brand, the first of which, Not a Well Woman, has just been released.

And while there has undoubtedly been a lot of involvement from others in the production of this play – Toby Hrycek-Robinson’s sound design alone is far deeper and richer than most radio dramas, capitalising on the experience Big Finish has acquired on its sci-fi ranges – this is a tour de force by one woman, Katy Manning.

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Tracy-Ann Oberman: Playing the diva

“I didn’t want to be in this,” admits Tracy-Ann Oberman. “I’d suggested Catherine to the producer, I thought she’d be brilliant. But I didn’t want to be in it at all, so I was a bit nervous when the producer came to me and said Radio 4 would really like me to be.”

Oberman is talking about Bette and Joan and Baby Jane, her new play for Radio 4 which documents the bitter struggles between actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford during the making of Robert Aldrich’s classic 1962 psychological movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?.

Davis is played by Catherine Tate, a long time friend of Oberman’s (they performed together in the second series of the BBC2 comedy sketch show Big Train), with the role of Crawford taken by Oberman herself.

The interview is taking place just after a full-scale photo shoot promoting the play and the pair have been dressed in the iconic make-up and costumes from the film.
It is quite disconcerting to discuss Davis and Crawford with a woman who, her trademark blonde locks secreted under an impressively accurate wig, looks for all the world like Blanche Hudson, albeit one tucking into a chicken salad and sipping mineral water in a photographic studio in west London.

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And you can quote me on that

Over the last week or so, my name’s popped up in a couple of places. Firstly, in Sunday’s Observer I was quoted in a feature on television’s propensity to remake old series.

The Observer TV feature

My quote, taken from a much longer conversation, rounded off the article:

Scott Matthewman, assistant editor of the trade paper The Stage, who writes its TV blog, explained the sudden vogue: “A lot of these are the dramas that people commissioning at the moment grew up with, so it appeals to them. Doctor Who transformed from being the butt of so many jokes to become the BBC’s highest-rated drama, so they are trying to match that. Also, with the severe financial pressure broadcasters are under, they are going for productions that will generate the ratings.

“But you wonder if all this means better, newer ideas out there won’t be produced – there’s only so much drama that can be commissioned at any one time.”

There was a lot more I said — stuff about how it’s important to have a strong creative vision (Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica) or things could go seriously wrong (Minder, for example). None of that made it in to the piece, but I would have my opportunity to say it…

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Building a trailer

For the fourth year running, _The Stage_ has joined forces with Ewan Spence and The Podcast Network to produce [The Edinburgh Fringe Podcast](http://edinburghfringe.thepodcastnetwork.com), a daily podcast covering the best in theatre and comedy from the world’s largest arts festival.

The top and tail of each show will include adverts for various parts of _The Stage’s_ publishing activities. I’ve made the first, which heads up Friday’s first full episode, to promote [The Stage Podcast](http://blogs.thestage.co.uk/podcasts/), using excerpts from some recent interviews:

Advert for The Stage Podcast

The excerpts are, in order:

* Sally Lindsay, talking with Neil Bartlett about the Manchester International Festival about _Everybody Loves a Winner_
* Arthur Smith, who talked about his autobiography, _My Name is Daphne Fairfax_
* Omid Djalili, interviewed just prior to taking over as Fagin in _Oliver!_
* Daniel Dae Kim, the star of _Lost_ who played the King of Siam in _The King and I_
* Suranne Jones, who I interviewed about Unforgiven (although the clip concerned mentions her role in Coronation Street
* And we finish with a great quote from Arthur Smith again.

The Stage Podcast is available in iTunes, as is the Edinburgh Fringe Podcast.

Holmes v Sunday Times: WTF?

Something really bizarre seems to have happened to a column penned by comedian Jon Holmes, BBC [6Music DJ](http://www.bbc.co.uk/6music/shows/jon_holmes/) and regular contributor to Radio 4’s [The Now Show](http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qgt7).

As can be seen in the Twitter post above, Holmes has provided a link to the [original document on his website](http://www.jonholmes.net/articles/stcarparks.html), and [the version that has been published on the **Sunday Times** website](http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/men/article6627094.ece). All is well initially: the piece has been subbed a little, and rather more paragraph breaks have been added than appear in the original. This is neither anything new, nor of any concern.

However, the endings to the two columns seem to be completely different. First, the original:

> I’ve checked on their website under the Freedom of Information Act and it turns out all the extra cash from the recent price hike in my car park (Canterbury City Council, in case you were wondering) is being used to take a technological leaf out of the new Transformers film and then, should you miss your ticket’s expiry time by just one second, the seemingly innocuous truck parked in the next bay will turn into a massive robot that will loom over the town centre, pluck you bodily out of Debenhams, smash you back into your car and then hurl you, and it, out of the county. Park that thought.

But that section of Holmes’ column isn’t anywhere to be seen. Instead, the following paragraphs close his column:

> It’s funny, isn’t it, that so much effort and technology are expended on catching and fining drivers for the most trivial of offences. It wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that they are a soft target in terms of extracting money, would it? Once you have taken down or photographed a driver’s registration number you know where they live and that means you can menace them with threats to take away their house and starve their family. By contrast, if you take CCTV pictures of hoodies engaged in acts of vandalism, they aren’t recognisable and even if they were, they don’t have money to pay fines.
>
> So the daylight robbery committed against drivers every time they want to park will continue and probably get worse as local councils look for ways to raise more cash. I am going to write to the DG of the BBC, not to chastise him for his expenses, but to ask him the whereabouts of the machine that costs only 23p. And when I find out, I won’t be telling anyone else.

As fellow Now Show contributor [Mitch Benn noted](http://twitter.com/MitchBenn/status/2483822643), the amended paragraphs look more akin to something penned “by Littlejohn, not by little Jon”.

It’s an amazingly insulting way to behave towards a contributor. Especially since online, they even spell his name wrong in the byline…