Sunday 30 October, 2016


The BBC receives four billion pounds in free money each year, from the licence fee and from other State departments. That is four thousand million or £4,000,000,000.

I received the following email:

“Hi there,

I am contacting you from BBC History department as we are currently making a four part history series for BBC Two which explores 2,000 years of Black British history. As part of that we are exploring the history of the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) and are looking for a couple of young people to do some readings from it.

We will be filming in Granary Square at approx. 5pm on 30th August and I was wondering if there was anyone at the school of African or Afro-Caribbean heritage who might be interested in taking part? We are principally looking for anyone under the age of 28 who may be free to come along – we would ask them to read a short excerpt from the book directly to camera, and after this they would be free to go – there may be a short wait but it should be pretty quick. Unfortunately we are not able to offer a fee, but could cover travel expenses.

If you could pass this onto anyone who you think might be interested in taking part that would be greatly appreciated. Or if you can recommend anyone who we should contact that would be great also.

Thank you so much,

Kind regards”



I receive several requests per week for actors to work for nothing. Occasionally these come from individuals with no money committed to genuine projects and I do my best to support them. The History Department at the BBC, however, is exceptionally well supplied with funds. Here is what I sent back:

“With respect and apologies I have a policy of not passing on requests for free labour, except under particular circumstances which don't apply here.

May I ask why the BBC is looking to use actors and not pay them?


Upon which I got this:

"Hi Paul,

Thanks so much for your email. Huge apologies, I didn't mean to cause any offence and of course we would pay actors on any normal occasion, and understand why you would not like to pass this enquiry on. We were looking for contributors in the area from all sorts of backgrounds, whether that be acting, a passion for literature, or an interest in the subject from a historical or an artistic point of view. This is the core reason why I regret on this occasion we weren't able to offer a fee. Apologies, I perhaps it don't make that clear in my email.

I completely understand and agree with your policy.

Huge apologies, and thank you again for your email.

All the best”

To which I responded with:

" 'We were looking for contributors in the area from all sorts of backgrounds, whether that be acting, a passion for literature, or an interest in the subject from a historical or an artistic point of view. This is the core reason why I regret on this occasion we weren't able to offer a fee.'

This doesn't make sense. There is no natural connection between the first sentence and the second. The one doesn't lead to the other. It is like saying "I wore a raincoat today because my printer had run out of ink".

Could I have the reason, core or otherwise, why the BBC is seeking presenters to work unpaid?




That was several weeks ago. The charming researcher – I imagine her as very bright, with a very good degree, early twenties, eager to please – has been leant on by a producer on 200 grand to get stuff for nothing. She thus fires off a series of fascistically correct, pious mails, essentially looking for something free which ought to be paid for. From me she had the unanswerable question: why is the BBC doing this? Her response was educated, mendacious, and bore no scrutiny whatsoever. Her reaction to my last mail was to ignore it; I have had no response.

I wonder if she realises that by telling serious, syntaxically impeccable lies to me the person she most insults is herself? I hope so. On the other hand perhaps she is aware that effortless dishonestly followed by denial is one of the characteristics of those who go far.

A complaint to the BBC would take months of persistence and result in an apology, qualified by an assurance that this was a misunderstanding, not representative of usual practice. This would be a lie. The researcher’s attitude to me and veracity is a microcosm of what the BBC has now become; a corrupt, unreformable monster which has contempt for the people it is paid vast amounts to serve. The institution will come crashing down - the only question is when. I wish someone would orchestrate a licence fee strike. It would only take 200,000 or so to make it logistically impossible for the State to cope, and if there were that many there would soon be ten million. The French would do it, why not us?

Monday 26 September, 2016


Another astonishing piece of acting. I leave it to you to work out why.

You might want to spend 20 minutes watching the rest of the episode. This is how the BBC used to make drama, with care and detail. Look out for the weather on the car journey, and the lorry. Also you could try to spot any bad acting (I can't find any).

Friday 09 September, 2016


In the first 20 seconds of this clip there is a great piece of acting.

Country stiles are designed with steps so they can be negotiated. But the steps are arranged at odd angles to make it impossible for livestock to get over.

Michael Henchard, the Mayor of Casterbridge, the character, would have been negotiating stiles all his life.

What I invite you to do is visit the countryside, find a stile and attempt to hop over it in the manner of this actor.

I am interested in how many times you need to climb over until you can do it like Bates.

Monday 29 August, 2016


or THE MONA LISA, improved by David Hare


Oscar, in his slightly florid way, called translation the art of pouring from the golden chalice into the silver, meaning that however wonderful the work there would be an inevitable loss of quality. As a mono-lingual Englishman I can only imagine how difficult or impossible it must be to translate Shakespeare …

The best translator of modern times was perhaps Michael Meyer, of Ibsen. Meyer cut, especially from the first act, took occasional liberties (else A Doll’s House would have a character called Dr Hank) but emphasised always that his attempt was to create an English version, as true as possible to the original, with characters talking and behaving as they would have in the 1890s.

Meyer loved Ibsen. Ibsen remained the star of the show, with the translator his humble servant.

Then there are adaptations. This is when a text is used as the basis for what is essentially a new play. A successful example of this is The Blue Room by David Hare. In 1897 Arthur Schnitzler wrote a series of humorous, light hearted scenes, all with the theme of seduction and sex, and published them three years later under the title La Ronde. Probably because of the subject matter, and possibly the simplicity of casting, the play became successful, infamous and was banned, adapted and talked about. Two films have been made.

Schnitzler himself would have readily admitted that the piece had no particular literary merit. It was this that The Blue Room was based on. Hare retained the shape of the original; the nature of the scenes and the length but everything else is new – the names of the characters and the dialogue, and the play is set in modern times.

It makes for an extremely entertaining and mildly erotic evening. No-one, David Hare (I assume) included, mistakes it for a great work or something that pushes the boundaries of dramatic experience. He is entitled to claim the work as his own as he contributed originality. All writers get their ideas from somewhere. I can’t believe Schnitzler would be offended in the slightest, on the contrary.

What Hare hadn’t done was modify The Mona Lisa.

IMG 3478

The Seagull by David Hare

Leonardo, or anyone who loved art, might not be so happy had he done so.

Now Hare has adapted The Seagull. Not translated – he can’t speak Russian – but adapted.

I, along with many others, feel that the writing of The Drama peaked with Chekhov. The Seagull is a great work, contemporary and relevant, not a light-hearted piece of soft porn.

In the same way that I wouldn’t want a cocky art student to scrawl a moustache on one of Giotto’s frescos, I am uneasy that David Hare wants to muck about with the work of a genius.

In the press release by The National the “play within the play” that Konstantin has written – performed in Act 1 – is referred to as an example of “cutting edge drama” which “changes the lives of all that see it”.

Of the play that Chekhov wrote, this is wrong. It is outside the limits of legitimate interpretation.

The “play within the play” exists so Chekhov can gather all his characters together in the same place in Act 1. Konstantin’s writing is represented by Chekhov as juvenile and of no consequence. Its content changes the lives of no-one.

If, in this version, Konstantin’s play is “cutting edge” and if it “changes the lives of all who see it” then what is being presented may be a good play but it is not The Seagull and is not by Chekhov.  

It is misrepresentation (worse than plagiarism) to say so.

As things stand – this is absolutely key, for me - someone could pull off a bookshelf The Seagull by Anton Chekhov (today, next month, in ten or fifty years) and read a play that is not The Seagull.

I hope it’s clear why this is wrong.

In a free world and with no new ideas of his own Hare is entitled to utilise the shape, structure, characters and themes of another man’s work to create a new piece, and, if he can, to persuade theatres to produce the result. But, as with La Ronde, he needs a new title.

Now, and in the future, it will then be a simple exercise to judge to what extent a pygmy was standing on the shoulders of a giant.

Sunday 14 August, 2016

I love sport, but...

rio logo

Did anyone notice how the drug-tainted (by association) Mo Farah was virtually ignored by his fellow competitors after winning the 10,000 meters gold medal at the Rio Olympics? I think this is quite telling.

The BBC, on the other hand, waxed breathlessly hysterical and referred to him as the greatest ever British athlete … wait for the faux shock to emerge from the same source as various revelations are made about who cheated.

This item goes on my acting blog because I suspect no other commentators will mention the legitimate doubts about “our Mo” until it becomes fashionable to do so.

Wednesday 10 August, 2016


Directed by Kenneth Branagh

It was an evening where the old met the new and pretended to like each other. The tiny foyer of The Garrick, looking and feeling as it did in 1895 when The Importance of Being Earnest opened down the road, is now guarded by security, square-jawed and muscled, perversely relishing the task of rummaging through innocent handbags. It was the same on stage, where Derek Jacobi showed a few young people how to act.

And it was a very modern beginning when a sheet fell from the programme regretting that Richard Madden, due to play Romeo, was unable to perform. Subsequent research revealed that he has a “bad ankle”. So bad is his ankle that he has left the production altogether. I can’t be alone in smelling a rat; didn’t Brian Blessed play Lear a couple of years ago twenty minutes after having a heart attack? Isn’t the tradition that actors keep their ailments to themselves and just get on with it?

Did the show work? No, there was too much bad casting and too much bad acting. Was it worth seeing? Yes, the company cared and fought, sometimes too hard, for every moment. If they had sore ankles they kept it a secret.

People who know nothing about theatre and care less know the balcony scene. Two serious, shy adolescents, alone in a garden at night, embarrassed and awkward but ardent, each equally obsessed with the other. They inhabit an enchanted, private world that can be visited, if at all, only once.

As far as I know Shakespeare never attempted this kind of scene again; his love scenes, and falling in love scenes, are anguished, unfulfilled (at the time at least), triangle-ridden, painful clashes of unrequited passion. But not here. This scene is devastatingly simple. That’s why it’s so hard.

brannagh jacobi
Kenneth Branagh and Derek Jacobi

Neither actor got to the garden, nor even bought a ticket. As a dramatic event the evening died here. Lily James is mostly an assured actress; she has detail and an effortlessly rich voice. Only on the balcony did things go wrong. She spoke at a level that could be heard several streets away, never mind by the Nurse behind the curtain. Does Juliet really want everyone in the neighbourhood to know her business?

I wasn’t able to identify any effort to embrace the vulnerability required. It is possible to say “tis almost morning” without breaking stride or glancing at the sky, as she did, and make sense, except she didn’t. It was just another line. By then it seemed the actress was more concerned with getting the tiresome scene over with.

The new (and apparently fully fit) Romeo had an excellent start. He brought on the right kind of energy, listening and thus talking not reciting. Only during and after the balcony scene did he lose his way and become a photocopy of himself. Acting is like that. Each evening is a breathing animal. Once dead there is no comeback, even with two hours to go.

Never have I seen such a dreadful Nurse; a tangled, tension-riddled, inflected travesty of a simple woman. The stage was a mess when she was on it. Lady Capulet I couldn’t hear. She made noise but didn’t breathe. A brilliant female Peter. She listened; every action was a reaction. Where are the leads for this actress? I would like to see her Juliet.

Casting Derek Jacobi as Mercutio was not innovative or courageous, just daft. What needed to be testosterone-filled was instead 77 and camp. It made a nonsense of the exposition. Romeo and Benvolio, young lads up for anything, get into their best pulling gear and head off to a party on Saturday night – and take this old bloke with them?

He should have played the Friar, who was bizarrely cast as a young, anxious man. But … who cares? I suspect Jacobi, who fills every moment and makes it look simple, has never missed a performance due to a slight injury or a worse one.

Did he take the role because he felt his reputation needed adding to, or did he need the money? Why put his old bones through the stress?

I suggest he might just love acting…

His text is interpreted in a way that suits him, but it is an object lesson nevertheless. The talent is greater than the ego, though the latter may be large. When the reverse applies – perhaps to Richard Madden, who seems happy with the absurd justification for his absence, and perhaps also to Lily James, too precious to play a good scene honestly – chaos reigns.

To take a non-publicly funded Shakespeare into the West End is a marvellous, courageous thing. For nearly 50 years the State – by its financial policy – has decreed that only one company should be subsidised to produce Shakespeare and, indeed, uses this justification to refuse funding to others. As a result that company has become complacent and stale. If Romeo and Juliet is a challenge to the status quo then it is to be celebrated. I hope there is more to come.

Monday 01 August, 2016


I hardly ever pay to watch Shakespeare. For decades productions – by the subsidised companies at any rate – have done everything they can to escape from the text, to “interpret” or “modernise” (whatever that is). What they need to do is tell the story. For that they don’t need much set or costume, just a generousity of spirit and a love of the text. I am seeing Kenneth Branagh’s ROMEO AND JULIET this week. Branagh’s HAMLET is the best filmed Shakespeare I have seen so I have some hope. Report coming.

Romeo is one of the hardest plays to do. It is the worst tragedy; it relies, as the text endlessly acknowledges, on bad luck and coincidence rather than inevitability. There are three great scenes: Mercutio’s death, the Friar’s sudden rage at Romeo, and Juliet during and after her final meeting with the Nurse.

Anyone want to know what a great scene is?

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