Monday, February 26, 2007 by

The speech given by the announcer heralding More4′s presentation of Harold Pinter’s play Celebration couldn’t have been more disheartening. Beforehand, in one of their conversational station idents, star Michael Gambon had described how he loved Pinter’s work because of the deep subtext. That he liked the fact the characters never said what they really meant. That there were “two miles of other thoughts” underneath.

Then the man from More4 delivered his warning: “And you can enjoy those layers of thought right now on More4 as Michael Gambon amongst many others delivers a very thought-provoking and at times challenging script. Expect strong language from the start and throughout for …” In other words, there’s some swearing and stuff. Has commercial broadcasting now reached the point that when something more substantial than the norm is dropped into primetime, it has to effectively warn the viewer that they’re going to need to use their intelligence?

The play took place in a single setting, a restaurant, and for much of its duration cut back and forth between the inhabitants of two tables. In the first Lambert (Michael Gambon) and Julie (Penelope Wilton) were celebrating their wedding anniversary with his brother Matt (James Bolam) and her sister Prue (Julia McKenzie) who were also married to each other. At the second table, Russell (Colin Firth) is discussing his future with his wife Suki (Janie Dee).

Periodically they were interrupted by the staff of the restaurant, the owner Richard (James Fox), his assistant (Sophie Okonedo) and a waiter (Stephen Rea) who appeared to be afflicted with a false memory syndrome which meant that depending upon their topic of conversation, be it TS Elliot or the Hollywood Studio system, he would describe to the patrons the various random famous people grandfather was apparently acquainted with.

The subtext highlighted by Gambon was evident throughout, as for all their airs and graces, the three couples lacked some fundamentals of civilization and used their words sharply as weapons to cut each other to shreds. Though Suki was obviously trying to boost her husband’s confidence, she still found time to tell him he lacked a clear personality. Meanwhile, just as Julie remembered how she and Lambert met on the top of deck of a bus, he undercut her reminiscence by describing a walk he took with a very pretty girl by a stream. Unctuous characters all – the old men were apparently gangsters and Russell was a banker who at one point describes himself as a psychopath.

But even though the dialogue was often very funny, it needed a genial cast to keep the audience interested – and that’s exactly what it got here. Presenting the work with such a stellar line-up gave it a real sense of occasion with Gambon and particularly Firth clearly enjoying the chance to speak lines a cut above the fare they will have become used to recently in film. Rea was touchingly humble, but the best turn was probably from Janie Dee who conveyed a life spent fighting to become something more than a secretary with just a few looks.

The entire production was a perfect demonstration of how well theatre plays can work on television. Filmed on location in the ravishing atmosphere of The Aster Bar & Grill in London, it still retained a certain theatricality in its staging but, possibly because this production originated for television, displayed a rare intimacy. It was somewhat like BBC3′s strange early reality TV experiment Diners, in which the viewer eavesdropped on the chat of the likes of Roland Rivron and Paul Ross while they were having their dinner; here the viewer could almost be sitting at each table possibly getting pissed on the wine.

One of the reasons sometimes given by commercial broadcasters when discussing the appearance of theatre on television is that it’s difficult to know were to put the ad-breaks. Shakespeare is fine because there are acts – but what of the likes of Pinter who generally, as with Celebration, sets everything in one space in a single scene? Potentially the biggest pleasure of this piece was that More4 decided to broadcast it without any interruption, allowing Pinter’s writing to breath. More please, 4.


Comments are closed.