theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
Anyone interested in, involved with, or concerned about British Theatre should read this book. Tracing the development of British drama since the end of the Second World War, its raison d’être is, above all, to chart the relationship of that development to the fluctuations of British society and politics, arguing, in the process, that the theatre has attempted to spell out (often far more perceptively than either politicians or the Third Estate) the true ‘state of the nation’.
As a critic, Billington has of course experienced, over several decades, much of what he discusses: he has, apparently, clocked up about 8000 performances over the years, and he uses his immense experience with both a light touch and absolute authority. Indeed, his analyses of practically every notable piece of English drama since WW2 are so astute, lengthy and informative that all else aside The State Of The Nation is worth using as an encyclopaedia. (You name it, it’s there, from Look Back and Godot right on to David Hare’s trilogy and pretty well up to date with The History Boys and beyond.) Without exception, Billington always handles the piece under discussion not as a self-contained experience but, rather, as a direct expression of English society of the time, including, when appropriate, references along the way to film and television.
Not least, his insights can sometimes shake up received opinion: Look Back In Anger, which first opened at the Royal Court in 1956, is usually accepted as the major turning point in the development of British theatre: but he argues – very persuasively – that the real watershed came only later, in 1960, with Beyond The Fringe, crucially the forerunner of a decade of raspberry-blowing at any sort of authority. Its key element demonstrated an out-and-out lack of that deference which had, up till then, been shown to all members of the establishment. Billington argues that this collapse of reverence (spectacularly demonstrated by Peter Cook’s relentlessly cheeky lampooning of the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, coincided with the phasing out of National Service, a feature of British life which had kept generations of young men in thrall to theirs ‘betters’.
But this book is not a blandly dry academic exercise. Billington’s prejudices – albeit carried lightly – inform a large part of his argument. His own barbed amusement at the gentility of the sort of plays put on by Binkie Beaumont’s H M Tennant group in the mid-fifties (‘Binkie,’ he observes drily ‘was the Fortnum & Mason of the theatre world’) says as much about his own prejudices as the plays – The Reluctant Debutante, for example – which he discusses. In another context he refers to the Iraq war simply and unequivocally as ‘illegal’, leaving the reader in absolutely no doubt as to where his own socio-political sympathies lie. That said, those sympathies inform his arguments throughout but never hinder his incisively objective analysis of specific plays or movements, even when it is perfectly clear that he himself rather disapproves of them.
What makes this not only an instructive but thoroughly enjoyable read lies in his own personal engagement with his subject. He is happy to interpolate a minor private reminiscence if it illuminates some larger public happening: ‘Silly swot that I was, I was too busy studying for A-levels to go,’ he remembers ruefully, when Bill Haley’s 1956 Rock Around the Clock was causing teenage riots in cinemas up and down the country, even in his own respectable home town of Leamington Spa. And discussing the enormous impact the television programme That Was The Week That Was made each late Saturday night in 1962 he remembers – with, one suspects, some affection – the way in which his possession of a television set caused a weekly invasion of his tiny flat in Lincoln by the local rep company the moment the curtain came down on their own Saturday night performance – an invasion suffered all over the country at the time by those comparatively few individuals lucky enough in 1962 to own a television.
Essentially, Billington believes above all in the power of the dramatist: his concluding afterword offers a careful comparison between Directors’ and Dramatists’ theatre, and whilst he gives fair credence to the former in all its manifestations (total theatre, multi-media experiments and the like) he comes down, in the end, in favour of the Dramatist and the power of words. ‘It is bracing,’ he writes, ‘to encounter the unresolved angularities of a straight play…. If theatre continues to matter it will be because of its linguistic richness … its ability to link our private hopes and fears to the state of the nation.’ His final sentence, ‘In the end, the future of the theatre rests with the playwrights’, rings out splendidly. This impressive book suggests that in the long run he may well be right.
Warren Hearnden © 2007
Originally published on R&V 03-12-07
Food & Wine
~ my everyday life through the lens of my camera ~
Helping Improve Lives
Vintage Inspired Paper Crafts & Digital Design
A journey through life in Southwest France
Historical Fiction with a French Flavour
It isn't being John Malkovich, but it is being me
Writer + Poet + Educator + Narrative Designer: Researching East Asian Literature, Folklore, Storytelling, Narrative Design, Game Studies & Pop Culture.
Daily Reflections from My Home and Garden
The Power of Story
Unlocking the Door to Your Past
Not just a blog, a philosophy
by Jack Monroe, bestselling author of 'A Girl Called Jack'
Realist, writer, reader, reviewer and rocker.
The Real England is a concise, direct, and not-so-gentle window into the depths of the leftovers of the world’s once greatest empire. It is told from the perspective of one lone (or not so lone) long term visitor. It informs one of the dregs of the country and helps to explain quaint British oddities such as the crack addicted chav.
Artists, Writers and Visionaries Blog on the Unique and Ordinary
Collected works and other excuses from a textile obssessive
has random thoughts
Airborne, Seadwellers and Landlubbers Lives
Working with dead people
Writing - Loving What I Do and Doing What I Love!
the darker side to sedge808
Photographs, music and writing about daily life. Contact: email@example.com
Creative Intuitive from New Zealand
Family Saga Fiction by Adrienne Morris
Burgers, Books, Music, Movies, Offbeat Adventures & Pop Culture!
theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013...
Candid cultural comments from the Isles of Wonder
Horror, Science Fiction, Comic Books and More
Traveling the World Through Others
A trip through life with fingers crossed and eternal optimism.
Art, Literature, Poetry, Politics and a little History
Travel and Wildlife Adventures
Writer & Author
it's all about the story, possums...
Observations of the illusion through the eyes of wonder...
Adventures in Watercolor Painting and Sketching, Watercolour Magazine, with Charlie O'Shields
Memoir, poetry, & writing theory
The Bridge between two countries
A lifestyle blog with a little bit of everything.
A personal exploration of autism from a brother’s perspective, including family relationships, philosophy, neuroscience, mental health history and ethics
Entertainment, travel and lifestyle blog
Founder of the Three Things Method of Storytelling