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Play by Stephen Poliakoff. Directed by Stephen Poliakoff.
Late 1930's. Broadcasting House, London
The red light flicks on.
Robbie begins to sing, the girls dance. "It's Friday night at eight and here we are again"
As the nation's favourite radio show goes on the air, the showgirls swirl into action, fully costumed for the benefit of all their listeners! But how can Robbie
use his influence, as a popular radio entertainer, to open the public's eyes to the terrible atrocities on mainland Europe?
Stephen Poliakoff's fascinating play explores media control in the early days of radio and television. Poignant, fast-moving and funny, the play is particularly
relevant as the BBC celebrates 75 years of broadcasting.
This production was originally seen at Stratford 29 April 1998 to 3 September 1998
YOUNG VIC Theatre Previewed 3 February, Opened 10 February 1999, Closed 27 March 1999
Extracts from the reviews from London opening:
"When Orson Welles presented H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds on steam radio, he famously sent crowds out in panic on to the American streets, thinking the Martians had really invaded. If the medium was as potent as that in the 1930s, couldn't it have been used to greater moral and political purpose by the BBC when Hitler's persecution of the Jews was becoming ever more obvious and violent? That is the question at the core of Stephen Poliakoff's Talk of the City and, despite several weak spots in its fabric, the result is a play which nicely illustrates that fine dramatist's knack for finding an unusual topic and fascinating you with it... Poliakoff, who also directs, has a terrific time evoking the youth of an Auntie who was never young, and, in particular, recreating the sort of variety show that then might have been permissible: songs, invisible dance, jokes, affable chatter with celebrities and, weirdly flung in, bits of detective thriller... But even though some characters are more rewarding than others - Kelly Hunter seems especially short-changed as a young woman working for that remarkable period enterprise, Mass Observation - Poliakoff's RSC cast transfers well from Stratford's Swan. And if the play has its inconsistencies and untidinesses, it remains engrossing, stimulating and, I'd suggest, timely. Television has brought the BBC still greater power. Does it use that power wisely, responsibly, constructively and well in the late 1990s?" The Times
"Though meticulously researched and morally forceful, Stephen Poliakoff's play about the BBC of the 1930s is a sprawling, improbable mess. Talk of the City suggests that the early Beeb acted like a pompous nanny, conspired with the Establishment to hush up Nazi atrocities, and ignored the power of radio to mobilise the masses. The first two points are incontrovertible, the third highly debatable. But it is Poliakoff's dramatic expression of these ideas, in a production which the RSC unwisely allowed him to direct himself, that really strains the credibility... Everyone on stage represents an opinion rather than a personality. Wright's Clive offers "unbending rectitude". Robbie's producer Daphne (Diana Kent) gives "complacent bigotry". Clive's girlfriend Isobel (Kelly Hunter) exudes "anguished concern", and glibly commits suicide to prove it. The play is full of laborious exposition, and its increasingly clumsy message is further diluted by jokes relating yesterday's Beeb to today's Birtocracy, attacking Walt Disney, or suggesting that TV will (ho ho) never catch on. Poliakoff gets better performances from his actors, especially Westhead, than this over-ambitious, underwritten piece of hokum deserves. While the meticulous historical atmosphere is absorbing, the dialogue is clearly absurd. Had Poliakoff trusted it to a suitably tough director, his script would have been returned with copious red-pencil demands for rewrites: and he might have had a better play to show for it, in the end." The London Evening Standard
Extracts from reviews from Stratford opening:
"Stephen Poliakoff always chooses fascinating subjects: his latest play deals with the failure of BBC Radio in the late 1930s to alert its listeners to the plight of the Jews in Germany. Even if the play would benefit from judicious cutting and the plot descends into improbability, there is still a driving moral force at work... You can easily point to the flaws in the play's concept and execution. While it is perfectly fair to accuse the BBC of an abdication of responsibility, it would be even more just to point out that it was not alone... Poliakoff's plotting is also a little suspect: the morally concerned Clive eggs Robbie on to ever greater, self-destructive risk-taking when it is clearly in the interests of his cause for his stalking horse to retain his privileged status inside the BBC. Where Poliakoff scores, however, is in depicting the fear, caution and bureaucracy of the thirties BBC: qualities still in evidence today. He stages the play very elegantly with the help of Tim Bailey's swivelling, transparent design... Not a flawless play but one powerfully motored by Poliakoff's just and humane anger." The Guardian
"...You can lie by suppressing the truth as well as by false suggestions. In his new stage play, Talk of the City, Stephen Poliakoff raises the question of broadcasting and its moral obligations... the focus is on a (then) monopoly institution, BBC Radio, two years before War broke out. Was its massed audience mislead by a "conspiracy of silence" about the plight of the Jews in Germany and by an undue guardedness in the BBC reports on the storm gathering in Europe? Poliakoff's play dramatises the struggle between the cautious and complacent institutional mentality (as characterised by the bow tied mandarin Head of the Spoken Word who fends off protests with the lofty "the fact is the Jewish people are prone to exaggeration") and maverick idealism, embodied pretty clangingly in Angus Wright's Clive, a young upper-class producer who yearns to brings the facts of Jewish suffering alive for English listeners... Talk of the City is, like all Poliakoff's work, alive with interesting ideas and speculation. However, I found it, for the most part unconvincing either as drama or as an attempt to enter into the moral difficulties of the period. The motivations of the main contenders are very thinly evoked. Initially reluctant to co-operate, the bisexual Robbie (all pacing, self absorbed showman's energy in Westhead's performance) is politicised with unwonted rapidity by a sketchy love affair with a visiting German Jew. From this latter, he gets the idea of inventing a new comic radio persona, Mr Curioso, an Italian detective who achieves enormous popularity with his foreigners prospective on secretive English life. But whenever Robbie departs from his script and heads off into free floating dangerous reverence the play itself seems to become unmoored from reality. Poliakoff needs us to believe that Robbie acquires a mass audience and potentially huge power so that he can show him going too far into self promoting relevance and jeopardising his chances of using his position to speak on behalf of the Jews. But it feels incredible that the BBC would have tolerated his unpredictability long enough for him to have reached that point... There's sometimes the suspicion that people are being judged here for not acting in 1937 in the light of our knowledge of the fully developed horror..." The Independent