Bryan Cranston

Coming late to the dramatic joys of television

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

As a theatre fan as well as critic, I spend most of my evenings out. As someone who freely admits to being a theatre addict, I've been known to see up to 12 shows a week: all available seven evenings, plus five matinees.

But this year I've turned over a new leaf by starting to moderate this, and now typically average around three to five shows a week instead, which is still ample in order to meet my professional responsibilities - as well as indulge my own penchant for actually taking pleasure in going to the theatre by re-visiting shows I particularly like. (I've already been back this year to pay a fourth visit to Girl from the North Country, and went to ArtsEd's British premiere of the musical version of Freaky Friday twice).

I know I've long said that it's a fools' errand to try to see EVERYTHING - it is, in fact, utterly impossible, with a typical week yielding somewhere between ten and twenty openings of note in London and in regional theatres.

How, though, have I been filling in (some of) the time I've freed up? By doing what 'normal' people do: I've discovered the joys of watching television for one thing.

As someone who grew up in South Africa, we didn't actually have television until I was about 13 years old (the apartheid regime long resisted its introduction, with Dr. Albert Hertzog, Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, stating that "South Africa would have to import films showing race mixing; and advertising would make (non-white) Africans dissatisfied with their lot", so it only finally arrived in 1975, and then for only a handful of hours a day, with the limited number of broadcast hours shared between English and Afrikaans language programming.) So I never gained the 'habit' of watching it as a child, and even when my family moved to Britain when I was 16, was more eager to head to the West End and see live theatre that I'd already fallen in love with in Johannesburg than stay in watching TV.

Today, I feel like I missed out a whole swathe of cultural history - not least when, as this week, a beloved public figure like Nicholas Parsons died, and I have little personal history with him, beyond knowing that he was a staple at the Edinburgh Fringe in the years when I used to go there.

But thanks partly to being married to someone who does enjoy television, and partly thanks to the availability of programmes on Netflix and other streaming platforms, I'm now in the process of catching up on (some of) what I missed. I could very well never leave the house again, were it not for the fact that there's still theatre to see.

It all started with Breaking Bad, which I'd heard spoken of in hallowed terms long before I ever saw it. But my determination to finally do so was precipitated when its star Bryan Cranston came to London to make his UK stage debut in Ivo van Hove's stage version of the film Network in 2017, before transferring to Broadway. I saw it in both places; but when, as chairman of the drama section of The Critics' Circle, I actually met him when the Circle gave him our Best Actor Award for that performance in January 2018, I'd still not actually seen Breaking Bad yet - and recognised that I'd missed something.

That was exactly two years ago, but I've long since made amends and am now determined to no longer be so culturally out-of-touch. Apart from anything else, the fans were absolutely correct: the series was stunning - and Cranston's performance astonishing. By the time Anna Gunn - who plays Cranston's wife in Breaking Bad - came to make her own London stage debut last summer in Tennessee Williams's The Night of the Iguana, she was one of the reasons I was feeling a little starstruck - something I don't usually experience with actors I've grown to know through their stage work first. There's something particularly democratising about sharing the same air as a stage actor; yet there's also a close-up intimacy of seeing them on TV first that makes them feel at once extremely familiar yet also strangely beyond-reach. I don't subscribe to the fact that they become public property as a result.

And now I've been bitten by the TV bug, I simply can't stop. Thanks to the "box set" culture in which the entire back catalogue of a series is available to consume via streaming platforms, I've since caught up with the entirety (so far) of The Crown and Dr Foster, and smaller gems like Fleabag and the series of State of the Union short films, featuring Chris O'Dowd and Rosamund Pike undergoing marital counselling. What's a treat in all of these is seeing actors I know from the stage doing such great work on TV; from lead roles to passing cameos (a particular treat of State of the Union was to see the wonderful Elliot Levey making a largely wordless appearance as part of another warring couple). We've also been sent on hilarious diversions to track down other appearances by actors we encounter: a young O'Dowd, for instance, is a real delight in The IT Crowd, where I'm also enamoured with another actor I've loved from the stage first, Katherine Parkinson. We've now watched all four series of the show, and it's a comedy classic.

As with the theatre, if I've found delight in a series, I will now try to re-watch it if I can: while we're impatiently awaiting for Series six of the US show Schitt's Creek to land on UK streaming services, my husband and I have rewatched the first five series in their entirety - and it's even funnier the second time.  

This week I employed part of my new-found enthusiasm for all things television by being a judge for one of the 24 categories in the annual Royal Television Society's Programme Awards. In the Best Actor category I was helping to judge, this involved watching specially selected clips from 33 entrants that had been submitted by the TV companies themselves. Many, of course, are actors I have a long history with from their stage work, so knew exactly who they were, like Benedict Cumberbatch, David Tennant, Dominic West, Cillian Murphy, Andrew Scott, Timothy Spall, Mark Strong, Michael Sheen, Russell Tovey or Adrian Scarborough.  But it was also a pleasure to discover actors entirely new to me, like Callum Turner (who when he was starting out did a couple of fringe theatre shows at the Cockpit and Finborough that I didn't see, but has not been back to the theatre since) and the TV regular Stephen Graham.

My experience with TV is opening up new vistas of appreciation for the privilege we sometimes get to see these actors on stage, too. It was only after watching Alessandro Nivola in the TV series Chimerica, for instance (itself based on a play that was originally premiered at the Almeida before transferring to the West End), that I realised I'd already seen him on the Broadway and London stage, when he starred opposite Bradley Cooper in the 2014/15 revival of The Elephant Man.  

Photo credit: Jan Versweyveld

Originally published on

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