Coping with small numbers

Keeping things in perspective

Many people who love the theatre know Mark Rylance.  He’s won Tony and Olivier awards for Jerusalem but is mainly associated with Shakespearean roles.

Mark Rylance (from the Guardian). Stunning actor





And people who love comedy – especially the one-person stage performance type – should know Daniel Kitson.  To know them is to love them.  They are both astonishing, one-off, British artists.  I’m among their fans, having seen Mark Rylance in Richard III, and Daniel Kitson in Regents Park Open-Air theatre on successive nights this weekend.


Daniel Kitson. Actually, the hair and beard are FAR shorter at the moment





The strange thing is that to the wider public, these two geniuses are almost unknown.  I recall with some embarrassment that Rylance was once a ‘pointless’ answer on the eponymous quiz, because no-one recognised him from a photo.  Kitson would probably do even worse.

But they’re out there performing all the time – I’ve seen both of them three times in London in the past year or so, each performing three different shows – and they also crop up in New York (and Kitson in Australia).

And it’s hardly surprising that their recognition among the general public is so low.  The two audiences for the shows I saw would have added up to around 3,000 people.  Perfectly respectable, of course, but it’s not the time they spend in theatres that’s creating their relative anonymity, it’s the lack of time on TV.  They’re barely on TV at all (their own choice, of course).  Rylance, it’s true, won a BAFTA for a rare TV appearance playing David Kelly, but Daniel Kitson… far less than that.   And TV delivers numbers on a different scale to the theatre. That woman on Dictionary Corner will have had more people seeing her on Channel 4 on a single quiet afternoon than will watch Mark Rylance in a whole season at The Globe.

This is not a complaint.  While this blog celebrates television, and I think it’s a shame that their genius isn’t shared with a wider crowd, there is also something wonderful and memorable in being able to see something exclusive, in the flesh, in a modest venue.

It’s easy to get confused about numbers based on personal experience.  TV is so big, but its audience is largely invisible, consuming at home in secret.  At the BBC, it was a moment of personal triumph when I calculated that if the weekly audience to BBC World News, the World Service and the websites (around 240 million, at the time) stood on each other’s heads, they would stretch past the moon.  Moreover, if you assumed average length (counting zero for female audience members); the collective penises of audience members, laid end to end on the ground, would stretch from London to Christchurch, New Zealand.  That’s a lot, no?

If 200+ million people do this, you get to the moon

I’ve cheated a little, because that wasn’t only TV, and it includes anyone consuming anything across a week.  But still, audiences to TV programmes are reported in millions – at least on terrestrial channels – or tens of thousands, while theatre is measured in thousands.

A million people is a scarily large, almost unimaginable crowd.

And then there’s the internet, where, at times, it feels like the thousands turn into dozens.  Part of the power of the internet stems from its personal nature, but its relative size is hard to grasp, and appears in different guises.  It’s been reported that 80% of branded apps have been downloaded less than 1000 times, but that doesn’t mean that a few don’t attract millions of downloads (a similar equation can be applied to films looking for cinema release).  But most of all, the internet feels big and powerful when a handful of people on Twitter start sending you stuff.  Salman Rushdie attracted a number of haters recently when he spoke out against guns, and responded to a few of them.  Most celebrities have had this.  And no-one wants to attract unfair abuse.  But the numbers of responders would have been vanishingly small, in the big scheme of things.  They just feel big because they’re right there in your FACE.  It’s upsetting because we get to hear from them, but we’re dealing at the extreme end.  That lovely lady from Dictionary Corner would shudder if she could see some of the people who were watching her on TV.  And Salman – a tiny proportion of the readers of your fine books (just as a proportion of any population) are absolute shockers.  But they fester in secret

Humans are trained to think about individuals – it’s how we fall in love and talk with people.  And our survival over millennia has depended on how we deal with the people nearest to us.  We respond to people who are in our immediate space.

And in a theatre, seeing a wonderful performer, it’s the thousand people around us that helps to make it such a special occasion.

But TV… that’s where it gets massive.  They’re out there: millions of people, watching.  We no longer find this special, but it is.

And talking of special – I’d like to see Daniel Kitson and Mark Rylance working on something together.  If it’s not on TV hardly anyone will know about it, and that’s fine, secrets are fun.


TV audiences are BIG. But they’re hiding in people’s homes.  The internet is small, but you’re looking right at it


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