Lighting rig for live theatre at Leeds Playhouse

Preparing for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory



I SPENT A FEW DAYS recently with one of my daughters and three of my grandchildren, all adult or nearly so. It was delightful. One sat beside me crocheting – she learned to crochet at the Feminist Society of her Cambridge College, was taught by a young man. Her finger-movements were expert. One spent several hours watching her phone’s screen. I asked if she followed TikTok. ‘Well, yes,’ as if I were speaking an alien tongue. ‘Do you get your news from TikTok?’ ‘I read what people post.’ ‘Do you believe it?’ I don’t really know.’ This from a highly intelligent young woman. I talk about fake news and how to trust what one sees online.


My questions had been prompted in part by following the harrowing interviews with Andrew Malkinson, released after seventeen years in prison for a crime he did not commit. They’d heard a bit about it, hadn’t followed the detail. I say something about the importance of becoming politically active (ie using their vote).


They agree about voting, don’t quite see my point. I spent four years of a PhD in researching online identity among young people. Safety lies in experience of the arts. It’s going to be their world, but the world is not virtual. I can’t preach to them, can’t win them over by argument. Stories change minds. Arguments rarely do, which is why our adversarial justice system throws up wrongful imprisonment of innocent people – and probably the release of the guilty.


Stories aren’t virtual, either, even though they are lived in the imagination. I buy many books on Kindle, including the complete Dickens, Trollope, Austen. I have these volumes on my bookshelves but I also want the safety of carrying them with me. I don’t buy as ebooks the new stories or poetry I will want to keep. Turning the pages of a first-rate novel is a tactile, sensuous experience involving the passage of time.  I listen to many audiobooks, though, and don’t think this is cheating myself of a sensuous experience. So many stories are written to be told, listened to, that I often rewrite sentences and paragraphs to meet the criterion of my inner critic: ‘Will the listener give up on this story, or stay?’


My daughter took us to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, performed by the Leeds Playhouse touring company, with a live band. It was joyous – a packed theatre, doubtless scruffy backstage but magnificent viewed from the gallery – with visual effects entirely computer-generated and entirely believable. Well, I suspended my disbelief for the duration. Live theatre is like live music, live sculpture, dance, art. Novels and poems are different, but only in that the theatre is within the human mind.