It’s the small things that drive you mad.
It’s the small things that drive you mad. Every so often I start worrying about the big stuff — God, or lung cancer or early-onset Alzheimer’s — but a cigarette and a cup of coffee usually puts me right, even if it makes cancer a little more likely.
What reduces me to a quaking heap is losing a bank statement or rushing off to work and discovering I can’t find my car keys. Such minor inconveniences make me feel as though my whole life is collapsing into chaos and the universe itself is out of joint. Cue whimpering self-pity.
Just occasionally, however, I am able to summon up a manly rage, as happened the other day when I was contacted by the Today programme on Radio 4. The show itself is bad enough with its predictable news agendas and interviews that generate so much heat and so little light, but have you ever tried dealing with its researchers?
Recently, and with great reluctance as there is no living playwright I like and admire more, I gave a dusty review to a revival at Chichester of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. What once struck me as a thrilling display of verbal fireworks now seemed show-offy, stale and empty.
The Today researcher said they were thinking of using the production, which has just transferred to the Haymarket Theatre Royal, as the starting point for a discussion of theatrical revivals in the West End. Would I be interested in taking part?
Well, yes, I would, I heard myself saying. Vanity, pure vanity. I know from previous dealings with the BBC that they are notoriously reluctant to pay you for pontificating on their programmes and that Today is a particular menace because it involves getting up at the crack of dawn and enduring the rush-hour traffic on the journey to the studios at White City in west London. It’s hardly worth the trouble for an interview lasting a few minutes, especially if you work for the Telegraph and are likely to be cast as a crusty old reactionary in the discussion.
The researcher, who sounded like a schoolgirl on work experience, asked various faltering questions, while seeming to have no idea what the angle of the debate was going to be. After chewing the cud in a desultory manner for what felt like an eternity it was agreed that a car would be sent to take me to the programme on Thursday morning. That was on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, a second researcher called, asked more fatuous questions and repeatedly called me ‘Sir’, which made me almost certain she must be a schoolgirl on work experience. The only time I have been called Sir in recent years was by a sarky policeman inviting me to blow into his breathalyser.
My suspicions about being set up increased during the call when I heard that the other person taking part would be Alistair Beaton, a favoured BBC leftie, several of whose plays I have drubbed over the years. But it seemed cowardly to duck out now.
At five o’clock I phoned the programme as I had heard nothing about the promised car that would take me to the studio the following morning and I was about to set off for a punishingly long night of Ibsen at the National Theatre.
The researcher phoned back and said she had been talking to the editor and they had now decided that they wanted to discuss first plays rather than revivals. Could I give her my thoughts on this subject, please?
At this point, gentle reader, something snapped. If the previous rambling conversations were anything to go by, I would miss the curtain at the NT. So I told her, firmly, that I was fed up with being messed about, that I had a play to see and I no longer had any desire to appear on the Today show. ‘I’m very sorry to hear that, Sir,’ she said, and this time I was sure I could hear outright mockery in her tone.
Boiling with fury, I realised I needed to listen to some music to calm me down — a little Mozart, perhaps, or the genial sanity of Haydn. But no. I suddenly realised that Classic FM has been getting it wrong all these years with its frequent infuriating injunctions to relax to the soupiest music they can find. What you need when you are in a rage is jagged and disturbing music, not an aural tranquilliser. So I played the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ followed by the greatest and most paranoid of all Stones’ songs, ‘Gimme Shelter’. My God, they did the trick. I set off to the theatre feeling purged and elated. The ancient Greeks called it catharsis and it’s a damn sight better than crying over missing bank statements.
Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.