Skip to main content

'The Audience', Media Convergence & Audiences

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II

Because I'm writing a play, I went to People, the National Theatre Live (NT Live) film of a performance of Alan Bennett's play, broadcast by satellite to 250 cinemas around the United Kingdom and to more than 500 cinemas around the world (trailer below). I went because I was curious; it was research. To my astonishment, I was enchanted.

Then I was invited to preview another National Theatre Live film, of a performance of The Audience, a play by Peter Morgan, who also writes screenplays (The Last King of ScotlandFrost/NixonThe Queen). Broadcast from the Gielgud Theatre, directed by Stephen Daldry (Billy ElliotThe HoursThe Reader and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and starring Helen Mirren (trailer below). I was again enchanted.

Margaret Thatcher (Haydn Gwynne) and Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren)

Some stills from the films, like this one, show how obviously they are 'stage' productions, so why did I so love them on film? Why did these fine examples of media convergence – plays on film – seduce me?

Some reasons are obvious: the plays are beautifully written, gorgeously produced, stunningly performed and well filmed. In The Audience, Helen Mirren and Hayden Gwynne (the first time I've ever seen her – she was also in Stephen Daldry's Billy Elliot and now I'm on the lookout for more of her work) are very special. So is Richard McCabe as Harold Wilson; Helen Mirren won Best Actress at the 2013 Olivier Awards for her performance and he won Best Supporting Actor. But I think that the plays work so well as entertainment because of the 'extras'.

What are the extras? Firstly, there's Emma Freud. In the films she introduces the plays with utter sharpness and charm, perching on the edge of what looks like the dress circle or a box. She also introduces the other extras. At the beginning, a PSA (public service announcement), about an initiative to educate children in India. I can't find more details online, but this project may be associated with  NT Live's corporate sponsor, the insurance company Aviva. We saw trailers for future NT Live films, too.

Later, in the The Audience's very long interval – the cinema audience sits through it in real time, as it did in People – Emma Freud interviews Peter Morgan and asks him exactly the questions I'd ask myself. So I learned (for instance) what he thinks about the difference between 'the truth' and 'accuracy' in the play. There's also an engaging short piece about Helen Mirren's costumes and wigs, featuring among others a woman from Vogue. These are short versions of the extras we're used to on DVDs. Totally entertaining.

The other extras are different from a DVD experience. At People, in the New Cuba Quarter Lighthouse (I love it as a venue) and at the Penthouse, where I saw The Audience, I felt I was at the theatre, an integral part of the theatre audience on the other side of the world, even though I knew that the broadcast wasn't simultaneous.  The buzz coming from the English audience, before and during Emma Freud's introductions, was the kind of excited buzz that rarely happens in a cinema and I felt excited too. The cinema lights stayed up during the introductions and dimmed only when the plays started; that added to the magic.

During the long intervals I again felt I was part of the theatre audience. At People I enjoyed watching trays of food being offered to some of the English audience in their English theatre-going gear and enjoyed watching others move in and out of the theatre. I didn't see the English audience being offered food at The Audience, but this time, in the most comfortable of its three cinemas, a Penthouse staff member offered us the opportunity to order snacks and meals ourselves.

Then, at the film's end, the theatre audience clapped. I joined in and so did others in the Wellington audience. Next time I go to an NT Live film, I might dress up.

Downside? Just one. Although women characters are central to both the plays I saw, I have yet to see a trailer for a woman-written NT Live play. This is an especially disappointing downside because the theatre audiences for the two NT Live films I saw (and the interviewees in the clip about NT Live below) appear to be predominantly female.

Professor Maggie Gale estimates that in the United Kingdom the numbers of produced plays written by women have declined from key times in the 20th century. Only around 8-12 per cent of today’s (produced) plays are written by women, compared with 18.4 per cent in 1923, 20.4 per cent in 1936, and 22 per cent in 1945. (Another article refers to women writers whose work is produced outside the National Theatre, though I'm not clear whether Professor Gale's figures refer only to plays produced at the National Theatre.) But I imagine that these figures are fairly accurate overall, regardless of the theatres excluded. Similar around the globe. No surprise.

So what does NT Live have to do with women who make movies, apart from an opportunity to celebrate yet another Helen Mirren triumph, and a moment to learn that women playwrights in the United Kingdom, like women who write screenplays and like women playwrights elsewhere, need our support?  Just this: NT Live renewed my interest in using media convergence to increase audiences for good films by and about women.

Specialist sites for women-directed films, large and smaller, have been around for a while. Busk Films, Tello Films, Herflix. More are on their way, often as part of a larger project: at the San Francisco Women's Film Institute and Women Make Movies for example. And a couple of years ago, at Grow Wellington's Activate course for entrepreneurs, I explored the possibility of an online film club for audiences for films by and about women (blockbusters – Bridesmaids was an example at the time; indie features; genres like horror and fantasy; classics; docos; shorts; animation). I thought that many people, especially women, would like to watch films at home with their mates, to contribute questions to  Q-&-As with some of the filmmakers (including the actors), and to discuss the evening's entertainment online as well. The idea had a lot in common with Tangerine Entertainment's new Movie Night (here it is on Fandor).

The presentation I made at the end of the Activate course referred to elements like those that NT Live uses to engage viewers socially, emotionally and intellectually. I hoped that the film club would be a hybrid commercial/non-profit entity, to generate funds to support films by and about women. To achieve the necessary scale, I think all these factors would have to be present:

1. Films with great writing, fine direction and performances, great production values (the quality factor – acknowledging the diversity of 'quality' and its definitions);
2. Corporate sponsorship (the 'branded' entertainment factor);
3. A community-oriented 'charitable' element (the 'branded' public service factor);
4. 'Extras' – a variety of associated special offers with each film, some created by advertisers (the 'insider' factor);
5. A pleasurable sense of belonging to a global special interest community, having a great night out (the sense of occasion and the overall 'feelgood' factor that I've experienced with NT Live).

Although I believe that an online women's film club could be run from anywhere, including here in New Zealand, there were challenges I could not meet – time and investment and access to 'product'. The time one is obvious; I didn't want to spend my writing time on an all-consuming project with what felt like a tiny chance of success. The investment challenge: I didn't have the resources or the  networks to access them and developing the networks felt daunting – I'm an introvert! The access to product – film rights can be complicated to obtain, especially for 'Hollywood' films. (The research I did told me that many women (and men), even feminists, tend not to care about whether a woman writes or directs a film, so the film club would need regular access to new studio-type films to draw them to the site.) Again, I didn't have the networks.

But the factor that convinced me that I couldn't manage the project was identified by one of my long-standing mentors, when I showed her my draft presentation and asked for her feedback. As a professional woman who wasn't a filmmaker, she wanted someone stellar and authoritative to introduce the films, to tell her about them and their makers, to introduce those makers and the actors they directed. Someone like Meryl Streep. Angelina Jolie. Oprah. Or Helen Mirren. It was a brilliant suggestion and seemed vital to drawing in a significant audience. It  also underscored my inadequacy for the task. It was the final straw.

Now I've seen Emma Freud in action I think that someone like her could introduce the films and interview their makers, in the context of an experience as exciting as NT Live. And after seeing NT Live I also wonder whether an online film club could be enjoyed in cinemas around the world as well as at home.

A slightly embarrassing admission here. Unlike many of my mates, I'm reluctant to watch movies online, even if a director generously sends me a private link, as happens from time to time. Even if it's a feature I long to see. I've watched only one complete webseries ever, Roseanne Liang's Flat3, because it's the first women-directed webseries in New Zealand and because I'm so interested in her work as a New Zealand filmmaker and director of the romcom My Wedding & Other Secrets. My reluctance may be something to do with my limited access to screens. I haven't got a television. My cellphone's primitive and my only other screen is my laptop.  I watch stuff on my laptop all the time, at length. But it's mostly YouTube and often raw footage about things that interest me, like the full speeches parliamentarians give on significant occasions, as they did after Parekura Horomia's death. Or because I'm following a minor obsession, like backing singers Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla on tour with Leonard Cohen in 1988 and 1993. Or interviews with women directors and talks like the one that Jill Murray (who wrote the French Creole female protagonist Aveline de Grandpre in Assassin's Creed III: Liberation) gave recently, about writing diverse characters for video games.

I suspect my viewing practices are now quite common and that there are others who don't watch films at home because there's so much other interesting content available online. Could a women's film festival screening and Q & A, broadcast into a cinema, be a beautiful way for women like me to see outstanding films as well as for women who do watch movies at home? To see and hear the films' writers, directors and actors talk about their work? Or to watch women-directed films and debates about them at general film festivals like Sundance, which focus on women filmmakers? Would it also be a beautiful way for women filmmakers to further build our global community and audiences? Would members of the International Women's Film Festival Network (which I welcomed here) and Women Make Movies have some good suggestions about how to proceed? Could some of the other big women's film organisations work together on making a truly global enterprise – Women in Film & Television International, the Network of Asian Women's Film Festivals, the European Women's Audiovisual Network and the Red de Mujeres Iberoamericanas de Cine y Medios Audiovisuales?

What films might be shown by a women's film club, online or in a cinema? Tangerine's first selection was a classic: Sleepless in Seattle. But there are lots of possibilities. Last week, I wrote about my sadness that Pratibha Parmar's Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth is not part of this year's New Zealand International Film Festival (#nzff). I thought that – because women directors' participation in many major general film festivals is problematic –  #nzff programmers could offer a more gender-balanced selection to their audiences if they also searched for women-directed films shown at women's and queer film festivals.  And as I think about NT Live as a model for a women's film club,  Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth also seems like a good example of a possible women's film club film.

Alice Walker is a poet, and the celebrated author of novels like The Color Purple, adapted by Menno Meyjes for a movie directed by Steven Spielberg, as a Broadway musical and for radio. She is also a visionary and an outstanding human rights activist. Pratibha Parmar, another visionary, is a fascinating filmmaker. The film's had packed screenings to enthusiastic audiences in various festivals and was the Outfest Fusion Centerpiece Gala Screening in Los Angeles on Thursday. Mariella Frostrup interviewed Alice and Pratibha (clip below) after its London premiere. And yes, there's a shorter version of Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth already broadcast by the BBC. It might soon be available on other channels round the world. But wouldn't it have been more fun to watch the long version of the film on the night it premiered, accompanied by the interview, in a cinema near you? Or with your mates at home? To dress up and feel part of the London premiere audience with its buzz? Or the Gala Screening audience, in Los Angeles the other night?

I've shared my Activate presentation with individuals whose work online could embrace a women's film club. So far no-one's run with the idea. But if you'd like a copy, just let me know!

National Theatre Live
mailing list

Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth


  1. Please tell me how I can get a copy of the Beauty in Truth. I was at the Southbank Centre Premiere during WOW and was very moved. I have been trying to get a copy to share with friends and family.

  2. Hi Tim, So great you were at our SouthBank screening. It was a super special screening for us. The DVD will be released in Spring 2014.


Post a Comment