'A pitiless portrait of crisis'

The Royal Opera House documentary re-opens old wounds, says Anthony Everitt
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The Independent Culture
When I joined the Arts Council in 1985, a wise old colleague took me on one side and asked if I had ever seen the movie In the Heat of the Night. The Council and its leading client, the Royal Opera House, he said, were like the two escaped convicts, one black and the other white, who find themselves chained together on the run. They often want to go in different directions, but can't. They are in the same boat and share common interests, but out of sheer frustration beat each other up from time to time. And the outside world is their enemy. There is no way of breaking the manacles.

Michael Waldman's astonishing fly-on-the-wall documentary series about a year in the life of Covent Garden, The House, the first part of which will be screened on BBC2 tonight, shows that little has changed since.

The manacles were put on half a century ago as the Second World War came to an end. This was when the Arts Council was founded and the Royal Opera House, then a dance hall, was reborn. In those days there was hardly a drop of blue sea between the two institutions, for many of the same people sat on the two boards and for a while they shared the same chairman, the great economist John Maynard Keynes.

As the years passed, the relationship went from good to bad to worse. The Arts Council, faced with rising demands from the regions, found Covent Garden an embarrassment. It consumed oceans of money, tended to promote overweight canaries in its gilded cage and was to efficient management what Quentin Tarantino is to nuclear physics. From the ROH's point of view, their paymasters were nosy, second-rate bureaucrats. Governments, which like to divide and rule, were quietly pleased.

In the sixth and last episode of The House, Jeremy Isaacs, the Royal Opera House's general director, and his team meet a high-level Arts Council committee to discuss the planned redevelopment and refurbishment of the opera house. The building will have to be closed in 1997 for three years' construction work and the ROH needs an extra pounds 6m a year, on top of its regular grant of pounds 20m, to allow the opera and ballet companies to play in other theatres.

The encounter is a moment of truth. The apparatchiks are civil but non- committal and ask for more details. The mercurial Isaacs loses his cool and hints that he would like to by-pass the bureaucrats and be directly funded by the Government. In a post-mortem, an Arts Council board member sighs as if to say, here we go again. Stalemate.

It is all a great shame. The House is a pitiless portrait of crisis and occasional spectacular incompetence. But it also shows wonderful artistry and makes it clear that the management has listened to its critics. Isaacs is balancing the books and improving efficiency. The bad old days, when waste was wed to arrogance, have gone.

The key to the future is the redevelopment, but the suspicion is growing that both the great hospital-closer Virginia Bottomley, now the Heritage Secretary, and the Arts Council may prefer to see the ROH shut down during the closure rather than cough up the extra cash required. That would mean dismissing the ballet company, the orchestra and the chorus (not to mention the production staff), whose excellence has been carefully nurtured over five decades. The misery and sheer waste of mass redundancies may count less in the balance than the chance to make some savings.

One of the most delightful vignettes in The House shows us two long-serving bartenders who don't get on and haven't spoken to each other for decades. But they work together in the crush bar as a highly effective team. "There's a sea of tranquillity between us," said one of them.

The moral is that Covent Garden and the Arts Council don't have to like one another. But not hanging together means being hanged separately. It will be a scandal if they don't join hands to squeeze the necessary funds out of Mrs Bottomley and keep the shows on the road. When the chips are down, the two cultural convicts face the same enemy.

n 'The House' starts on BBC2, 9.30pm tonight