New BBC flagship arts show presenter finds theatre too 'stressful'

Hannah Furness
Giles Coren, presenter - Clara Molden

When the BBC announced it would be moving its flagship arts show Front Row onto television, it promised editorial expertise from an all-new team, backed by real depth and insight.

In hindsight, they may wish to add a caveat: the theatre.

The new presenters of BBC Two’s Front Row have expressed a distinct lack of expertise about the art form, with Giles Coren claiming he finds plays too stressful and the seats too uncomfortable and has barely been in the last six or seven years.

Amol Rajan admitted he is too busy with his young baby to attend shows, while Nikki Bedi "resents" long shows without intervals.

Amol Rajan enjoyed School of Rock Credit: Alastair Muir

The comments, made in an interview with Radio Times, have already caused disquiet in the theatre industry, with experts calling them “more than a little dispiriting”.

The Radio 4 version of Front Row regular includes discussion, reviews and interviews from the world of theatre. The new television version begins on BBC Two on Saturday.

Asked about the last play he saw, Coren, a restaurant critic and broadcaster, said he had “not been to the theatre much in the past six or seven years”, worrying too much that the actors would forget their lines.

“I’ve always found the theatre stressful,” he said. “I’ve not been because you’ve got to get there by half-past seven and I have to bath my kids and put them to sleep before I can go out.”

Shakespeare's Globe was singled out for praise

Conceding he will “have to go to a lot of theatre for Front Row”, he added it “has to be such a good production” for the modern audience to suspect disbelief.

Asked what he would change to improve the theatre experience, he told the magazine: “The seats! ...In the theatre they’re all so uncomfortable and old, and it feels like they’re trying to throw you out.

“I’d also like easier access to the loo.”

Amol Rajan, the BBC’s media editor, said he loved plays as a result of his English degree, but added: “I have a young baby, so I don’t get to do as much as I’d like to.

“My favourite place is Shakespeare’s Globe and I love musical theatre. I went to New York a couple of years ago and saw Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock, and a few of weeks ago I saw Dream Girls.”

Amol Rajan, presenter

Nikki Bedi, a broadcaster who presents The Arts Hour on the World Service, said that she gets excited by a “fresh new piece of theatre”, but said film is her true passion.

“I resent going to the theatre and not having an interval for two hours and 45 minutes,” she said. “I want more intervals.

"I like tight, fast-paced, creative theatre that moves away from tradition."

Dominic Cavendish, the Telegraph’s theatre critic, said he was “almost speechless” at the comments, asking: “What is the BBC doing, given the world-envied pre-eminence of our theatre culture, handing over the invaluable job of informing the TV-viewing public about what’s on stage, what's good, what's not and why, to a Come Dine With Me melange of lightweights who between them seem to have quite liked going to Shakespeare’s Globe and School of Rock IN NEW YORK!"

Nikki Bedi, presenter

Mark Shenton, theatre critic and associate editor of The Stage, said: "It’s more than a little dispiriting that cultural commentators, as these presenters are being appointed to be, can be so casually dismissive of theatre - hiding behind spurious reasons like anxiety over actors remembering their lines (they're professionals - that's what they're paid to do, and mostly succeed at!), the discomfort of the seats and the lack of intervals.

“Yes, these matters sometimes vex professional theatregoers too - I routinely go to the theatre six or seven times a week -- but the rewards far outweigh the inconveniences and irritations.”

Alistair Smith, editor of the Stage, said: “It’s great the BBC is putting arts and theatre coverage front and centre, but I’m sure the industry will be hoping it will include some slightly more incisive criticism than ‘the seats are uncomfortable and there aren’t enough loos’.

"Theatre is one of the art forms that we really excel at in the UK. It deserves engaging, lively and expert commentary – let’s hope the show itself will deliver on that.”

A BBC spokesman said: "Theatre review and discussion will be a prominent part of Front Row and the presenters are looking forward to reacquainting themselves with the best that British theatre has to offer.

"The series will feature guests who regularly attend and review the theatre.”

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