(NB – Links to the various programmes mentioned will take readers to the BBC’s IPlayer where programmes are available for a further 20 days at time of publishing this post)
It’s Bank Holiday, it’s somewhat grey and miserable – no surprise there. Time to catch up on some BBC Bard telly missed while Dreaming at the Barbican. First The Hollow Crown with our old mucker Mr Cumberbatch (excellently done); then, at the other end, a second viewing of the Russell T Davis Dream (still have reservations). And in between, like the fancy filling in a Shakespeare sandwich, it was The Best Bottoms In The Land the set of TV programmes that recorded the process of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation. These programmes were devised as part of the BBC’s 2016 Shakespeare Festival and set out to show the story of nine of the teams who auditioned, trained, rehearsed for and ultimately played the characters of the Rude Mechanicals in their local partner theatres as part of this mammoth enterprise. In case you’ve being paying close attention over the last year and have worked out that there were fourteen teams in all let me explain the discrepancy. Filming only took place in England (therefore, sadly, Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast were not represented) and in both Stratford upon Avon and Newcastle only one of the two teams was featured. Each half hour film was made by the relevant regional BBC team. In a recent blog, overall series producer Ed Barlow explained how the BBC got involved (click here).
Now, I know I’m relatively late to this particular party but at the time of the live broadcast I was just a little bit busy appearing on stage at the Barbican. I then deliberately let things settle for a week to put some distance between the live experience of being in the play and looking at the recording of our progress– for one thing I thought it would just stir up too many emotions to have sat down and watched a recording straightaway. Anyway, the BBC’s IPlayer meant that I could now access all the different versions with relative ease. How best to approach them? Alphabetical? Numerical? The sensible route seemed to be to follow the order of the theatrical tour which would mean the added advantage of building up to and finishing with our own programme.
So first it was off to Stratford upon Avon. When we went and saw the show in Stratford we had seen the Bear Pit team so it was interesting seeing the same venue with a different set of players – the Nonentities. The recorded clips demonstrated how the Mechanicals scenes were, at once, both the same and yet different. Next it was Newcastle where perhaps the biggest dramatic moment took place – though not on stage. Graham Fewell of the Castle Players, playing Snug, broke a bone at the technical rehearsal and has still yet to get on stage. Blackpool and Bradford came next and reiterated the, by now, familiar scenario of amateurs overcoming obstacles to rise to the challenge of the professional world. As Ed Barlow admits in his blog: “The key to any successful story is conflict and jeopardy and at first it seemed we were going to struggle – everyone was having too good a time”. Well, sorry about that Ed but, and here I hope I speak on behalf of all the amateurs, we were focused on getting as much out of the process as possible and remaining positive and upbeat; who wouldn’t when such a wonderful prize was waiting at the finish line?
Halfway through and the next programme, which featured Canterbury, was one in which I took particular interest as this was the version/venue I had visited in April. Heavily featured was the concern which Lisa Nightingale had about being the first woman to play Bottom for the RSC. As I can personally attest she had little to worry about. Norwich was next and I was suddenly surprised to see my name on screen when Owen Evans, the Common Lot’s Bottom, showed the camera the label inside his dungarees – which we evidently shared. Nottingham featured lady Bottom number 2 in Becky Morris and Truro the youngest Bottom in Pete Collett (our own programme tactfully – thankfully – neglected to mention that I was the oldest!). Eight versions in and I was struck by how diverse the groups were – I’d met all the Bottoms and a couple of the groups in full but (other than online) there were whole swathes of people I’d never been fortunate enough to encounter. What was patently clear though was that we were all united by the idea of helping to create the best version of the play possible, all passionate about what we were doing and fully aware of and grateful for the massive opportunity we had been given. If these were common themes I was pleasantly surprised to find a great deal of diversity in the actual content of the documentaries. I had expected a lot of repetition and shared footage to be used but the programmes took a rather more individual tack than that becoming more individualised as each one progressed.
Finally it was time to watch our own London programme. I guess seeing yourself on screen is always a bit of a painful process (not that I’ve had that much experience, it has to be said) but the editing didn’t seem to paint me as a congenital idiot so that was a bonus. I was pleased to see my fellow players receive a good amount of coverage which I hadn’t felt was always the case with some of the other versions; despite the title of the programme what we had been through was very much a group experience and I was grateful that this had been acknowledged. What watching the programme certainly did was to provide a whole host of memories from the experience going right back to the beginning of the process. The auditions, the various tasks, workshops and online meetings we had participated in, the rehearsals at Clapham and the Barbican and the first night performance were all featured. All of this provides a very welcome souvenir of a very happy time.
The TV programme was always (in my mind anyway) very much a side show to the main event of the theatre production but it is great that someone took the time and trouble to record the event for posterity and my thanks go out to producer/director Andy Richards and journalist Oana Marocico who treated us with respect and patience and provided a true record of our fantastic journey. Andy had this to say about working with us:
I first became involved with the BBC’s ‘Best Bottoms in the Land’ project last September, when I was began filming the Tower team’s first workshops for ‘Dream 16’. During the months that followed, it was a real privilege to follow them so closely during the rehearsal process – as they shaped their characters into some truly memorable comic creations. I was struck by how much enjoyment the group got from the process of acting and rehearsing together, and how dedicated they were to creating the very best ensemble work that they could. All their hard work paid off with a tremendous opening night at the Barbican, which was great fun to film. I was rooting for them to bring the house down, and they duly obliged! The finished programme was very well received, and I hope that we succeeded in offering some real insights into what makes actors tick, as well as exploring the value of teamwork and the satisfactions of the creative process. I very much hope that I will be able to work with the Tower Theatre Company on other BBC projects in the future.
Andy, I hope so too.
To read reviews of Tower Theatre at the Barbican please click here
This week the production is at the Grand Opera House in Belfast– click on the image below to reveal full details.