onsdag 4 september 2013

Behind-the-scenes dramas are great - but there are limits

Yesterday, I watched the - by now - no longer brand-new film Topsy Turvy (made 1999) about Gilbert and Sullivan and their creation of The Mikado. It was too inert for my taste and far too long, but I still enjoyed parts of it. I've never actually seen The Mikado, but I know some of the tunes pretty well: I've grown up with flowers that bloom in the spring - trala - and have nothing to do with the case and with people who shake hands with you, shake hands with you like that. More importantly, though, I've been stage-struck since as far as I can remember. When I was a girl, I wanted to be an actress (that or a lawyer - don't ask me why, this was before Tulkinghorn and Co.), and the dream stayed with me until I was finally convinced of its impracticability by a combination of lack of talent and other, more fruitful creative interests. But I have always been and always will be a sucker for anything connected to acting and the stage.

This makes me the ideal audience for behind-the-scenes dramas. I'm an avid viewer of those making-of featurettes that are now blissfully standard on most DVDs. True, they are a bit tame. You don't get people involved in a film or prestigious TV series rubbishing each other or admitting to tiffs on set - understandably, as that would make them look pretty shabby. But still, it's fascinating stuff. I must admit to a shamefully one-sided interest in the writing and acting part of things. When you think of all the people involved with making successful films and TV series and all the effort they've put in to make your experience as enjoyable as possible in unobtrusive ways - cameramen, the costume department, composers and sound mixers, the special effects department, those who cut the whole thing into shape and what have you - it really is too bad of me, but there it is. What I want to see is the director, producer and/or script-writer discussing the story and characters, the casting and the actors, plus the actors in their turn discussing much the same thing (and ideally displaying suitable Character Loyalty by talking about their particular character as if he/she were their best pal on earth). My interest is not wholly character-based: I also enjoy "deleted scenes" features, but only if there is a commentary by the director or similar explaining, firstly, why the scene was deleted and, secondly, why it is included in the DVD feature. It's the mechanism of storytelling that's the appeal in this case, and you get a healthy respect for those involved - I have seldom seen a deleted scene which I felt would have made the film/TV feature better if it had been included.

But, as I said, as to juicy gossip, there is none. Curious Georges like me are reduced to over-interpreting anything the least bit out of the ordinary in the friendly, gushing speeches of cast and crew. We have no way of knowing if our fantasies are correct, though. And here's where the fictional behind-the-scenes drama comes in. Here we get loads of gossip, and we can at least imagine that some of the backstage gripes and romances may have real-life counterparts. I just love the in-jokes about endearingly vain actors and writers, and the characters' commitment to putting on a good show despite all squabbling. Shakespeare in Love is an example of a behind-the-scenes drama that works beautifully. I still giggle every time I see Ned Alleyn taking it upon himself to criticise the performance of the actor who plays Tybalt ("Are you going to do it like that?"). What's more, he's absolutely right.

Topsy Turvy is no Shakespeare in Love, though. There are quirky characters and mildly interesting anecdote, but no real drama. You realise why the makers of Shakespeare in Love had to invent a completely fictional love story for its hero. And even then, that story still risked being upstaged by what is actually performed - Shakespeare and his Viola aren't a patch on Romeo and Juliet. In Topsy Turvy - though it's fun to see how Gilbert must have tailored the comic opera's parts to the talents of the actors of an existing troup - you sometimes wonder why they didn't just do a film version of The Mikado instead.