The National

Sarah Woolley
BBC Radio 4

The National

It is always good to see the theatre being featured in the broadcast media.

This three-part drama, presented on consecutive days, totals around two hours running time and is helpfully available to download on BBC Sounds.

At times, it can feel like a heavily speeded up version of the early parts of Daniel Rosenthal’s magisterial history of the theatre, choosing some of the juicier episodes and focusing on the bad times more than the good.

The first part covers around five years from 1963, largely centring on the tricky relationships between Robert Glenister, sounding uncannily like the future Lord Olivier, the theatre’s actor-director; his right-hand man, John Heffernan as the former theatre critic Kenneth Tynan; and the board’s chairman, Lord Chandos, played by Michael Pennington.

Behind-the-scenes, the most influential players are Olivier’s current and former wives, Joan Plowright and Vivien Leigh, but also his confidant and manager Cecil Tennent, a helpful sounding board for the heavily pressurised director.

Occasionally, the namedropping can get a little wearisome but listeners will get a good overall impression of the prime concerns and, particularly, the difficulty that the artistic team faced when attempting to present controversial modern work to accompany iconic productions of Shakespeare and the classics.

The second episode takes place in the early 1970s, as the Board, now under Max Rayne (who subsequently received a life peerage) and Lord Goodman, sought to find a replacement for Sir Laurence Olivier.

Scheming threatens to get out of hand after the incumbent proposes his wife as successor and then a committee of 12. This pleases nobody, while Ken Tynan beavers away behind the scenes to protect his own position.

Eventually, secret talks with Sam Troughton taking the role of Peter Hall, the former director of the RSC and great rival to the theatrical knight, built towards disturbing conflict.

Pleasingly along the way, a run of bad calls ended when Olivier was persuaded to risk his own health by taking on what was eventually a triumphant production of Long Day’s Journey into Night.

The final part, covering the period between 1974 and 1976, continues to concentrate on conflict, as the future Sir Peter Hall takes over a team that has its sights set on moving from the Old Vic into the new building on the South Bank, fighting the government, the unions and his own workmates along the way.

The profligate leader doesn’t help himself by taking breaks to make money through advertising and work in TV, much to the annoyance of colleagues and amusement of the media.

Like so many other incoming artistic directors, the new head of the National started off with a series of disasters, not helping himself by getting into fights with associates Jonathan Miller and Michael Blakemore, the main links with the Olivier years.

Instead, he chose to ally himself with an old friend, Harold Pinter, and it was No Man’s Land that helped to save the day, but not without creating more controversy.

The National may concentrate a little too much on the negatives but it is an entertaining and insightful look at the early days of what has now become a much-loved institution and anyone interested in its history and theatrical politics will enjoy the listening experience and hope that subsequent series bringing the story up-to-date might be in the pipeline.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher