One of “us”? One of who?

It is just possible, having recently returned from a holiday by the crystal-blue waters of Croatia, that I am going to regret the decision to wade into the murky waters of the Great Front Row Debate this afternoon. And since I am one of those weirdos you occasionally read about who doesn’t actually own a television, I can’t pass any kind of judgement at all on how the first episode actually went, because I had no means of watching it. But as I gradually eased myself back into working life this week, I found myself utterly fascinated by the reactions, on both sides of the fence, to Giles Coren et al in advance of the show.

For anyone who has missed this extraordinary phenomenon, it goes something like this: the BBC decided to turn their radio show Front Row into a TV show instead. They lined up three presenters – Giles Coren, Amol Rajan and Nikki Bedi – to host it. Immediately people got suspicious that, between them, they were not leading experts in all possible art forms. And then the presenters themselves made it worse (for the BBC’s press office, at least) by saying that between them they thought they’d do a fairly good job, but none of them really liked going to the theatre.

Uproar ensued, with some critics and commentators flapping in horror, and others jumping to the opposite extreme and claiming that Giles Coren’s objections to the uncomfortable seats, poor access to the toilets, and insistence that it ‘has to be such a good production’ for audiences to care being perfectly reasonable and pragmatic. Those of us not forced to instantly respond in print mostly fell into three categories, as far as I can tell: those who blustered on Facebook or Twitter, those who watched, intrigued, to see who would do what next, and those who shrugged and ignored it altogether.

Folding theatre seats row

At the heart of this great debate – and we’ll get back to Giles Coren vs The Theatre in a moment – seems to be the seemingly simple question of who we want our presenters to be in such circumstances. Do we want them to be towering figures of intellectual and cultural authority, fit to pass judgement on all art forms who cross their paths with the kind of relentless analytical bludgeoning that you might have found in a specialist journal of the 1890s? Or do we want them to be ‘normal’ people who are expressing opinions as individuals with some experience in the arts, but a relatively no-nonsense attitude to art-loving ‘luvvies’? (Which is a term I use guardedly because it’s stupid, but also quicker than writing a 500-word digression here about how much I loathe it and why we should say something else instead. Sorry.)

The answer seems to be both and neither, because generally we want presenters to be like us. Except ‘us’ is a moving target which embraces both these extremes and plenty of other positions in between. It’s not unlike the problem so many people have with critics. We want experts who don’t write like experts but know how to relate to us but aren’t like us, obviously, because then they’d write something that even we could write and we want specialist opinion but not that kind of specialist opinion, because that’s just being a snob and anyway these people couldn’t really do the performing that well if they tried which is why they’re critics instead and… and round and round we go.

Here’s the simple truth, and it’s one that actually, we all know already: no one human can know everything. Even three of them, carefully selected by the BBC for a specialist arts show, can’t know everything about the arts. It would be quite terrifying, frankly, if they did – and we probably wouldn’t believe them if they claimed to. So the fact that Team Front Row are not artistically omniscient is fine. If they manage to make their points in a way that is comprehensible and enjoyable, then so much the better.

But then that leaves us with the theatre problem. And it’s a problem as much to do with the way in which Coren and others expressed their opinions as it is a matter of the opinions themselves. Theatre seats are largely uncomfortable: true. The queues for the toilets are always longer than good architectural planning should allow: true. Are these the most important things about the theatre? No. Does this make them unimportant? No, but it does make them negligible if your physical health is good, and that isn’t the case for all. It’s hard to get to the theatre when you have young children: true. But there are also specialist shows for kids, and I find it very difficult to believe that there aren’t companies out there putting together family-friendly showings of mainstream rep. And audiences will think something’s rubbish unless it isn’t: well… yes. So the optimist might say: let’s begin by assuming that the quality of performance at, say, the National Theatre is likely to be better than at your local village hall. Let’s look for ways to talk about the show, and the story, and the acting, staging, movements, etc. in a way that everyone (including those who seldom go to the theatre) can engage with. Let’s also make a point of mentioning if a theatre has particularly good/bad/problematic facilities because raising this in the media might flag these as areas for necessary improvements. Let’s encourage theatres to hold family-friendly events. And hey presto! He could have said basically the same thing in a way that would probably have prompted rather fewer spleens to be vented.

Which is, of course, spin. Because it seems that if nothing else, this whole debate has proved that when all’s said and done, we still really want our experts to act like experts first, and pragmatic (and cynical) ‘people like us’ second. It’s a fine balance. But then, so is most art, isn’t it?

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