Ever since I first clocked that this broadcast was happening I have been hugging the knowledge of to myself and chuckling, contentedly, in excitement. Performance has made it onto television. Well, BBC4. Well, in a slot generally reserved for documentaries on enclosure or ancient gleaning practices or something. But still, we’ve got two solid hours of “live and unpredictable theatre” produced by Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) and presented by no less than Kirsty Wark, in nowhere else but the former home of the BBC Television Centre, a brutalist behemoth quaking with performers ahead of its imminent conversion to luxury flats.
BAC favourites Gecko open the programme, and aptly enough their performance it feels like it’s hearcking right back to the Television Centre’s glory days. It’s a kind of physical theatre This Is Your Life: or, it starts that way, as a bearded man encounters a surprise party, then an anodyne family living room straight out of a 1970s Play For Today. We whirl through weddings, funerals, dances and whitewashed rooms. It feels sweetly engaging and dated — but then there’s nothing easy about transporting the visceral energy of dancers feet from the audience into a feet-up, sofa scenario. You’re bound to lose the sweat.
But Gecko breaks with its usual silent form to run through lines behind the scenes. Our beardy protagonist accosts a woman who screams at him, distraught:
“You don’t understand. We have to do all of this, every day.”
It’s a kind of metaphor for the differences between the theatre and live television. Theatre traps actors in a Groundhog Day repetition: a brutal alternative to film’s Truman Show reality, where the semblance of naturalness hides a whole complex machinery of cameras, lights, action. Gecko’s play breaks out of its carefully engineered succession of sets to look behind the flimsy plywood walls, in a kind of backstage tour that’s made dystopian by its huge, frightened looking population.
Richard DeDomenici’s segment bites at Gecko’s tail with a hunger to push the potential of the programme to its absolute limit. The result is a blissfully self-aware twenty minutes of television that rips through the BBC archives, rips into its politics, and rips apart any pretence that we’re watching theatre as we know it.
DeDomenici has the considerable advantage of knowing film, and how to film performance: he’s made it a central part of his work as an artist. He launched The Redux Project in 2013: at the Forest Fringe, I saw a screening of his recreation of Bangkok Traffic Love Story, a cheesy romance whose lead he impersonated in a black wig. Since then, he’s enlisted the support of local artists to recreate films across the world. The results have a light but immediate appeal, undercut with the kind of DIY subversion you get in cabaret lip-synching, or Harold Offeh’s Covers. As DeDomenici puts it:
“People seem to like the bits that aren’t accurate best. This is a constant tension of the project.”
So it’s impossible not to laugh at first, when the team try to recreate the infamous mess caused by Lulu the baby elephant on Blue Peter…
Then again when we’re told that the elephant’s ping pong ball studded leotard is motion capture software, evidently malfunctioning in its bid to create a CGI pachyderm. We’re in the intensely television-friendly territory of the wind-up: and television has always loved eating itself. We get recreations of early Eurovision entries with literally grey-faced chanteuses. “It’s against BBC rules to film in monochrome, so we painted our performers black and white. But not in a racist way.” And then, more subversively, Bucks Fizz’s infamous skirt-ripping entry in a feminist interpretation that leaves the two male performers to flash the audience, and the camera ops to “Cut!”.
If you’ve spent enough time hanging about at Forest Fringe (who has, really?) there’s the fun game of spotting familiar faces pop up: Louise Orwin fronting a gloriously silly Live 8 style campaign to save artists, Lucy McCormick in sequins presenting a budget Strictly. But this isn’t an artists’ in joke. It genuinely encourages the audience to make their own TV, and to criticise the rather square frame that houses what we’ve got at the moment.
There are plenty of digs – including laying in to the BBC building’s penthouse future incarnation – delivered with a DIY aesthetic that cuts to a central irony of the BBC. While we “own” it, and pay for it, its content is made in a top-down way by a very limited clique of people who fought tooth and nail to be where they are. And even at its most shambolic Python-era glory days, it was never democratic. DeDomenici’s performance is a Don Quixote tilt at a cultural hegemony that’s left the building, but not the institution. Outsiders can mimic it or mock it, but their influence is as flimsy as his proposed portable artists studios housed in metal electrics boxes.
No Guts, No Heart, No Glory wasn’t crafted for television like the evening’s other pieces: it felt like a documentary record of an immersive performance, more than an artwork in its own right. But that secondariness didn’t make it any less powerful. The piece has played boxing gyms up and down the country: I saw it in Edinburgh, sweaty and packed close. Five young women in boxing gear spoke out about pressure from their Muslim families or neighbours, of dreams, of energies desperate for an outlet. On film, their raised voices had a new aggression — less of a struggle to be heard over shuffling crowds and squeaking floors, more of a right to take up space.
As cameras wheeled round to follow the dancing, boxing women, you could see audience members stand awkwardly, or rapt. It weirdly reminded me of old Top of the Pops episode’s knack for catching the odd vacant shuffler as the cameras wheeled through the party, all buzz and dense sweaty pressure. Seeing wonder, disorientation, even just physical closeness between audience and reactions added a kind of unpredictability that keeps live TV fresh and exciting.
Backstage in Biscuit Land was a masterful choice to finish the programme, mainly because it’s all about that unpredictability. And it’s a passionate argument for why trying to micro-manage audience experience is reductive and pointless. She more than earns her title Touretteshero with a collection of tics that expand out from “biscuit” to a whole galaxy of weirdness — cats, Romans with raisin bread, amorous lamp-posts, tits, cantilever bridge with masturbation scene. And, “the horrible Tory government” slips out too, among the whimsy. A reminder of the erosion of disabled peoples’ rights that – Tourette’s aside – can only be referenced under a veil of impartiality.
As she points out:
While spontaneity is great for theatre, it tends to make live TV people very nervous.
She talks, movingly, about being humiliatingly trapped in the tech box at a theatre performance so she didn’t disrupt the audience experience. But her tics create her performance, as an opening segment where she describes what she needs to the BBC results in an influx of zany props. A dalek turns up to say “Why does everyone think it’s okay to use the accessible toilet? I hate queues exterminate exterminate!” But it’s nothing to the grand finale with metallic jammy dodger people and stuffed kittens and Jonny & The Baptists soundtracking an anthem to spontaneity and biscuits. And in amongst the cat chat, Thom’s concluding message that:
Art should be invested in with every fibre of your energy bean.
As the last metallic biscuit grinned and faded, I tried to imagine what the same programme would have been like with four 30 minute shorts from the West End’s finest: or North London luminaries gathering to light Greeks in perfect chiaroscuro. Too grim to contemplate.
Performance works for television because it’s self-conscious. It’s used to seeing boundaries and conventions and kicking them away. It’s the kind of anarchic pragmatism that British TV used to be good at, before it got good at production values and global hit costume dramas. And it’s something we could do with so much more of. It’s great that the BBC is joining the BAC in investing in artists, as well as in all the edible gold leaf for decorative British bread bakers and sequins for twinkly dance dresses: trappings it needs to make the mundane gorgeous. But imagine if it could make seeing gorgeous performance on television mundane, too.
BBC4’s Live from Television Centre screened on Sunday 15th November. It’s still available to watch on BBC iPlayer here. And all four artists are on tour over the next few months: visit their websites for more info. Gecko. Richard DeDomenici. Common Wealth. Jess Thom.