David Lister: An alternative guide for the cultural all-rounder (aged 11)

The Week in Arts

Why is it always books? Whenever there is talk of how much schoolchildren should achieve culturally, it is invariably in terms of reading. This week was no different, with the Education Secretary Michael Gove urging that all 11-year-olds should read 50 books a year.

I don't know how they feel, but it makes me feel pretty inadequate. I'd make a rubbish 11-year-old, dismally failing to reach the half-century of books. Getting through the classic children's books is certainly a vital pre-adolescence requirement. But I'm not sure that I want cultured 11-year-olds to be shut away in the bedroom reading all of the time. They should get out more.

The Education Secretary seems to have forgotten that literature is not the only art form. So here's my hit list for the 11-year old cultural all-rounder. The movies need no special pleading, so I won't give any. But what about six theatre visits a year?

It doesn't just have to be A Midsummer Night's Dream in Regent's Park, though that's not a bad way to start. Right now in London alone, an 11-year-old would enjoy the frights of The Woman in Black, the magic of War Horse, and the quasi history lesson by stealth of Les Misérables, or they could have the real history lesson with drama, poignancy and excitement of the First World War play Journey's End, now touring the country. The seeds will be sown for later years.

Opera for 11-year-olds may sound too ambitious. It isn't. The grandeur can be infectious, and Carmen is not just an opera; it is probably the greatest musical ever written with plenty to fantasise about for girls and boys. Ballet often tends to be limited to The Nutcracker, one I've always found a little twee. The fights and passion in Romeo and Juliet are a better bet for the 11-year-old with a bit of spirit.

A classical concert itself is also too little associated with an outing for 11-year-olds, but the massive success of the Doctor Who prom in the past few years shows how the mixture of famous classical works with TV characters and special effects lays valuable groundwork, as does a dose of the 1812 overture with fireworks on a summer's evening. And let's not be too "high arts" here. A rock festival visit with parents brings the chance to hear great music, take part in a communal activity and laugh at said parents.

With his 50 books a year Mr Gove wants to help literacy rates, but what about visual literacy rates? I'd urge a visit to any of the great art galleries around Britain just to see a few great works, then maybe go see the zaniness of the British Art Show currently at the Hayward Gallery to make that 11-year-old mind confused but exhilarated.

But individual recommendations are not the point. We can all make them, and they will probably all be different. The point is that the message should be that every art form is important, and Mr Gove has missed a trick.

Injecting profanities misses the point

Talking of books, a Radio 3 adaptation of Wuthering Heights is going to contain four-letter words. I feel a little queasy about that. Emily Brontë was no doubt a feisty character and harboured strong emotions, but there's no record of either her or her masterpiece letting rip with expletives.

I'm even more surprised by the reasoning given by the man doing the adaptation. Playwright and theatre director Jonathan Holloway said: "For me Wuthering Heights is a story of violent obsession, and a tortuous unfulfilled relationship. This is not a Vaseline-lensed experience. The F-words are part of my attempt to shift the production to left field, and to help capture the shock that was associated with the original book when it was published."

That's a curious logic. Many great works were shocking when they first appeared, but the way to re-create that shock is not simply to throw in a few swear words. Violent passion still shocks, all by itself, without any gratuitous swearing. I wonder what else Radio 3 has in store. That mouthy Jane Eyre is surely ripe for a John McEnroe style-outburst.

The hardest word, even on stage

The star is off; the understudy is on. Yes, it happens a lot, but your heart has to go out to one visitor to the National Theatre who wrote to The Stage newspaper to say he went to the National in the afternoon to see Frankenstein, and Benedict Cumberbatch was off ill. He returned in the evening to see Season's Greetings, and Catherine Tate was off ill. Two absentee stars in one day.

Meanwhile, I went to see the Wizard of Oz, Andrew Lloyd Webber's enjoyable new production. It is the culmination of a reality TV series to find an actress to play Dorothy. But when I saw it, the winner Danielle Hope was off. An announcer at the start merely said: "Tonight, the part of Dorothy will be played by ..." No explanation, no apology, nothing.

Stars are sometimes absent. But it's a shame that the word "sorry" has gone awol from theatre too.



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