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Sir Richard Eyre's history of 20th century theatre
"Theatre is the most human of all the art forms"
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Sir Richard Eyre
On how he got involved in making the series
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Sir Richard Eyre
On documentary: Television versus writing
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Sir Richard Eyre
"It's a view of 20th theatre century history, not a history"
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Sir Richard Eyre
Running the National Theatre is like being "captain of an aircraft carrier"
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Sir Richard Eyre
On the state of British theatre today
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Sir Richard Eyre
On his next project
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Friday, 3 November, 2000, 10:34 GMT
Eyre's stage spotlight
Sir Richard Eyre
Sir Richard Eyre: Former artistic director of the National Theatre
Distinguished theatre director Sir Richard Eyre spoke to BBC News Online's Jatinder Sidhu about his major new television series on the British theatre, Changing Stages.

"It's like retiring from the game, like you're playing at Wimbledon, and saying 'I'm going to spend a season as an umpire'."

Three years after being approached to write and present a history of 20th century theatre for BBC Two, Sir Richard Eyre is glad he is back at work in theatre.

"I thought this isn't quite what I should be doing and simultaneously feeling - I am doing it and its going to take twice as long as I'd imagined it would," he says.

changing stages
Changing Stages: The TV series was based on the book
Eyre, one of Britain's leading theatre directors, was in the last year of his ten-year tenure as artistic director of the National Theatre when he took up the project.

"We talked a lot about its inherent difficulties - by its nature you can't show theatre on television - only a copy of it. It's a live art-form, depending on spontaneity, a live audience and live performers," he explains.

"It's like military reporting where you're describing battles. It's always in hindsight, from the point of view of the ex-combatant."

But the 57-year-old was drawn to the idea because it is an art form that rarely features on television despite the historic debt owed it is owed by broadcasting.

The British theatre is dying - but then everything else in life is dying - and then renews itself.

Sir Richard Eyre
"Clearly television in many ways is very heavily dependent on the theatre and has been throughout the 20th century."

'A view' not a history

With no idea of how to get going, he took advice from a friend, the historian Robert Hughes, who said he should write a book first in order to get his ideas into shape.

"When I realised what a mammoth endeavour it was I approached a friend - Nicholas Wright - and asked him to write the book with me," he says.

The finished product is a book subtitled "A View of British Theatre in the 20th Century. He insists it is not a history, because that would imply objectivity.

"It's me, a theatre practitioner of 30 years, saying this is what interests me, these are the things that I've been influenced by," he explains.

"Sorry if I don't deal with the things you're interested in. It's a subjective view."

Dame Judi Dench
Dame Judi Dench: Won a Tony Award for Amy's View - directed by Eyre on Broadway

But it seems few major players have been left out in their passionate and comprehensive study.

It commences well before 1900 - with Shakespeare, "the spine of British theatre" - and extends far beyond the shores of Britain.

It takes in three centuries of Irish drama, American and European playwrights infusing the at-times moribund national scene with added vigour, before coming to modern theatre's biggest challenge.

"I try to tell a story of an art-form gradually finding its own confidence during the 20th century because it was threatened by so many other media - film and television recordings. So it had to reshape itself," he says.

TV star

Eyre, who dislikes the use of his knighthood, also found television a challenge.

Eyre's career
Started out as the assistant director of the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester in 1966
Was artistic director of the Royal National Theatre between 1988 and 1997
His credits include Guys and Dolls, The Beggar's Opera, Macbeth, The Absence of War, and Amy's View
He also directed the opera La Traviata at Covent Garden
On TV, he headed the BBC's Play For Today team between 1978 and 1980, and directed acclaimed drama Tumbledown in 1989
"Television is much more journalistic. You've got to tell a story, simply and clearly and make assertions. There's no time for detailed qualification of what you say.

"The other difficulty about presenting is it's like being an actor playing yourself. You have to fix on a persona - a TV self. I found talking straight to camera and talking in this distilled way very difficult," he says.

"When you see people do it really well, like David Attenborough, you think 'how brilliant - all these ideas are coming as he's crouching in the long grass watching gorillas'.

"But of course it's very highly crafted. You have to rehearse a lot and present it flawlessly, as if you're thinking it up on the spot."

Aside from Eyre's performance, there is an abundance of archive footage of memorable productions, and interviews with many stage legends, including one of the last ever interviews given by Sir John Gielgud.

Also interviewed are Dame Judi Dench, Arthur Miller, Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Peter Hall, Sir Tom Stoppard, Vanessa Redgrave, Fiona Shaw, Stephen Daldry, David Hare, Harold Pinter, and Alan Bennett.

The future

Eyre is confident about theatre's future - despite its tendency to concentrate on its glorious past.

"The British theatre is a marvellous invalid. It is dying - but then everything else in life is dying - and then renews itself."

He is also sure electronic media will be no match for the traditional stage show.

"Secondary contact shouldn't replace face-to-face contact because it doesn't have the ambiguity and potential for joy that people have when they're face to face," he explains.

"We will value more and more a medium which depends on human contact and scale in performance."

As he and Nicholas Wright comment in the book: "People will continue to come to the theatre if it's more intense than ordinary life, if it's ambitious in form and content, and if the seats are cheap."

Changing Stages starts on BBC Two on Sunday, 5 November.

The book accompanying the series written by Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright is published by Bloomsbury.

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