Monday, 6 June 2011

Ladykillers - was that Graham Linehan getting all Father Jack on Radio 4 this morning?

Graham Linehan, the creator of Father Ted, The IT Crowd and some of the best bits of Black Books on TV, has adapted the 1950s Ealing film comedy The Ladykillers for the stage.

It's opening in Liverpool with a cracking cast which includes The Thick of It's Peter Capaldi as the Professor, the role Alec Guinness took in the original and Tom Hanks in the Coen Brothers remake a few years ago.

I've not seen the Coen Bros version, but the original is lovely, a funny witty dark comedy that captures the despair and grimness of post war Britain.

But Linehan got into a fluster with the Today presenter because he didn't want to have to justify everything he's been doing over the past year adapting the film for the stage, for the sake of a polarised soundbite for the BBC. You can listen to the interview by following this link to the BBC website.

He had been paired with Michael Billington, the theatre critic, whose stance was that theatre should be original, not adapting ideas from movies that have already had their moment.

Billington had his point but the elephant in the room was money and neither interviewer or either of the interviewees alluded to it directly. Theatre needs the pulling power of a movie brand to bring in big audiences (and big audiences pay for productions). We have Legally Blonde, Shrek etc on the stage because of the profile these subjects have, not because they are inherently worthy. Now Ladykillers.

If Linehan didn't want to justify his work in a few minutes he shouldn't have agreed to appear on Today, which only ever gives a few minutes each to every subject. He should have insisted on a half hour documentary all to himself later in the day (and would probably have got it).

If he thinks Ladykillers is relevant to British culture of 2011, why didn't he explain why? If on the other hand he was imply offered a large amount of money to come up with a script for a new adaptation, why not be honest and say that?

One glance at a cast photo for Ladykillers and I was sold on wanting to see the show. But if all it is about is nostalgia, then fine, I can live with that. Unlike Michael Billington I can see a point in nostalgia. Theatre is itself a nostalgic medium and going to the theatre is surely a throwback to an earlier time when the only way we had of telling stories in a dramatic way was to sit and watch a group of travelling players stumble over their lines.

Perhaps the real scandal, the even bigger elephant in the room in this discussion wasn't the relevance of Ladykillers in 2011 but the fact that most theatre these days, original or otherwise, is like watching bad TV. The actors aren't quite as good looking, the sets less believable, the plots and dialogue not quite so convincing. (Also, you can't put it on pause so you can get up and go to the loo or fetch a cup of tea.) So why not get an accomplished TV writer like Linehan to help improve it a bit?

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