An eminent Victorian

Andrew Lloyd Webber can take bad reviews, but hates losing a Pre- Raphaelite painting. By Robert Winder
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The Independent Culture
The announcement that Lord Sherfield's pounds 60m collection of Pre- Raphaelite art will be exported to America will have annoyed no one more than Andrew Lloyd Webber - the Baron Lloyd-Webber of Sydmonton, to give him his full name. A keen and persistent collector of Pre-Raphaelites himself, he has long been preoccupied by the rules governing the migration of his favourite paintings. In the weeks before this week's announcement he was already agitating in the House of Lords for an overhaul of the system that allows national treasures to fly the coop.

On the morning I met him, he arrived pulling off the tie ("There - I can get rid of that now") he had worn to visit the Lords. He'd been trying to raise interest in this very subject, arguing for a more serious and patriotic regulatory framework to govern such exports. Almost the first thing he said was: "It would be good to have a serious debate on what the criteria are for export licences on works of art." It was easy for a moment to forget that this was the man behind the music to: "All through my wild days,/ My mad existence,/ I kept my promise,/ Don't keep your distance."

In talking for a moment like a merchant banker, Lloyd Webber was revealing only the pragmatic extent of his approach to the arts. The news about Lord Sherfield's collection merely confirmed his worst fears. "All these great work by Millais and BurneJones," he said. "There needs to be some sense that can't simply slip away. When I wanted to take one of my paintings to my apartment in New York," he said, "the government did an eminently sensible thing: they gave me a licence for three years, renewable. Now that's fair enough. But that's what should happen in all these cases. Though with the new EEC regulations coming in about VAT on art sales, well, that's another nightmare."

In one sense the controversy might be a welcome distraction from the hubbub surrounding Lloyd Webber's new musical, Whistle Down the Wind. The debate had a familiar shape. The composer's Really Useful Group had a financial success on its hands even before the first night: a production that had been carefully costed at pounds 2.3m swiftly raked in pounds 3m in advance bookings. One of the songs from the show, covered by Boyzone, stands proudly at number one, having sold 277,564 copies last week: nearly 200,000 more than the first-week sale of Boyzone's last hit. And Whistle Down the Wind's run at London's Aldwych Theatre has just been officially extended beyond October, owing to the pressure of the demand for seats over the Christmas period.

The critics, of course, were anything but keen. A few were polite - "By Jove, they did it!" thundered the Daily Mail - but most were crushing. Lloyd Webber has become something more than a popular musician; his extreme success has made him seem more like a corporate brand, and the critics saw him as a fat target for their most venomous invective. This newspaper was no exception. It took a long-range look at Lloyd Webber's musical style and found it brutal, raw and hopeless. So there.

Lloyd Webber has had plenty of practice when it comes to putting a brave face on bad reviews, and in private he has usually been able to retreat to one of several stylish properties (in Belgravia, Berkshire, Ireland, New York or St Jean Cap Ferat) and console himself with his paintings. In public, he has repeatedly affected a world-weary shrug over the unfathomable gap between popular success and critical esteem. It is, as it happens, hard to see exactly why, in a world filled with people who earn more than they deserve, Lloyd Webber attracts such disdain. He has become something like an aesthetic litmus test: he is an easily available benchmark against which we can advertise our own superior sensibility. He is often accused of triumphing through pastiche; yet no one seems to mind Oasis becoming millionaires on the back of Beatles parodies. He is accused of being ugly, or - an even worse crime in new, grit-free Britain - a Tory. Either way, a month after this latest onslaught on his artistic credentials, Lloyd Webber was trying hard to sound phlegmatic, while remaining vexed. "Well, it was a bit over the top," he said. "But in the end, you know, it evened out. There were some positive reviews as well. But I don't know. I hate saying this because it always sounds so awful in print, but the songs for the show are hits. Bookings are good. We've got people wanting to cover the songs, which is always a good sign. So I don't know where it comes from really."

Lloyd Webber talks fast and with a certain busy relish. It would be unfair to accuse him of constantly returning to the theme of his bad reviews, since that is precisely what I, like all interviewers, kept prodding him to do. In fact, he returned obligingly to the theme with a not very wounded earnestness. "It's not as if it's anything new," he said. "I was lucky enough to meet, late in his life, one of my heroes, Richard Rodgers - as in Hammerstein. And I asked him: What one thing most upset you or pissed you off? And he said: The King and I. And he got out his cuttings book and without exception, all the reviewers said that it was a wonderful spectacle - all those Thai silks and things - but you know, they said: there isn't a song in it. Well. And the curious thing about The King and I actually is that none of the songs did become classics until the film: that surprised me, too. But you do find it hard to believe that anyone could sit through "Whistle a Happy Tune" or "March of the Siamese Children" and not notice that they were songs. But there you are. It's quite extraordinary, and it really got to him."

There is more. "We bought this house in Ireland. And the person who lived there before, she'd been a magazine editor. And she had this amazing collection of magazines she'd left behind - all kinds of things, dating from 1953 to about 1970. And if you looked at the reviews, say, of My Fair Lady in those magazines: well, you'd be very surprised. They said the ending was terrible, they'd tampered with Shaw, all that sort of thing. A lot of them said that Rex Harrison couldn't act. And one of them, Variety, said that it had been a perfectly attractive evening of theatre: but again, you know, it hadn't got any tunes in it. That's just the way it is. One thing I do find is that if I ever read about this wonderful tuneful show which has this magical tuneful score, then 99 times out of 100, in my experience, it means that it's only got one or perhaps two tunes, skilfully repeated throughout the evening. And when, in contrast, you read that a show has no tunes, often this means that there's an awful lot of them.

"What people perhaps don't understand is that everything depends on the dramatic context. Put it this way: you could write "Some Enchanted Evening" and have it in the wrong place in the wrong show in the wrong part of the structure, and the song would be lost. I once made an album years ago called The Songs that Got Away. Sixteen songs that hadn't worked. And if you listened to it right through, you'd have said, My God, this is the best. But each of them was in a show that for some reason had gone out of the window.

Now that Whistle Down the Wind's run has been extended, it is certain that it will help revive the fortunes of the Really Useful Group, which a few years ago, almost drowned in a rising tide of overindulgence. Lloyd Webber stepped in to take the wheel himself, but these days he is not by any means a single-minded crusader for his own production company, let alone the cause of musical theatre in general.

The previous evening, he had been addressing the Lambeth Conference, the once-in-a-decade convention of Anglican clergy, on another matter close to his heart: his Open Churches Trust. This is a pressure group that grew out of his lifetime fondness for Victorian art and architecture: a neat response to the sad modern irony that most of Britain's churches are locked. "I mean, it's a contradiction in terms, really," he said. "A church shouldn't be locked. But then you pick up the paper and read that somethings been stolen from a church in Bodmin or wherever. So you can see how it's happened. But were trying to get these churches open. We've concentrated on London, Liverpool and Suffolk to start with. Liverpool was interesting, because the city caught on quickly and organised bus tours of the open churches, all six of them. And a lot of people wrote in and there was one who actually went on to technical college to study Victorian art, partly as a result of going to St Agnes's in Central Park."

It is a warming point in Lloyd Webber's favour that he should remember the name of the church that inspired the young art student caught up in the Open Churches scheme. He is a busy man not too busy to keep up with the details. And he is almost touchingly eager to be uncool: only the very brave, or very successful, dare brag about their enthusiasm for the mid-19th century. But Lloyd Webber, much perceived as an Establishment man himself, quite enjoys cocking a snook at rival establishments. "One of the exciting things about London at the moment," he said, "is the level of orchestral players we're able to attract into the pit. In the past they all wanted to join the Academy of Something or Other." This is a snub calculated to bring the expletives out of the most sober connoisseur of classical music, but Lloyd Webber is unrepentant. "I want to start the Academy of Ancient Synthesisers," he said. "Back to 1971. Marvellous."

He's a bit of a politician, an art-and-architecture nut ("I keep vowing to write a book about art - must do it soon"), a restaurant critic, a family man with small children and horses, an entrepeneur, a wannabe film- maker, a wine collector (he recently sold his collection at Sotherby's for a record pounds 3.5m), and an electronics geek. This is an unusual collection of attributes, most of which take some affording. He's a strange mixture of the ancient and the modern, the everyday and the lofty, and has earned, in most people's opinion, more money and more honours than can be good for anyone. But he is also, don't forget, a composer. And of all his strange qualities, perhaps the one most aggravating to his critics is this: people actually like his music.