David Lister: How poor planning turned the capital into a cultural desert


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The Independent Culture

If Boris Johnson fails to become leader of the Conservative Party, he can always be a Tube station announcer.

He sounded the part before his announcements were axed earlier this week. Each morning we heard the London mayor warning us to plan our journey carefully to avoid the likely crowds on the transport network during the course of the Olympic Games. He did the job better than the average Tube announcer – one could actually hear him for a start – but how nice it would have been if he had gone on to tell travellers: "And golly, absolutely don't worry, trains will be able to take you as normal to London's world-famous museums, art galleries and theatres."

The people who run those venues would certainly have been grateful, as it was revealed this week that many of them are a third empty or worse, and part of the blame is being attributed to all those warnings of travel chaos. The chaos hasn't happened and the West End has been unusually empty, including its theatres and galleries.

Last week on this page, I wrote how sport and the arts should not be pitted against each other, as one can be passionate about both. And it is not sport, I still maintain, that is causing people to avoid cultural evenings out. If we were all glued to our TVs for the entire Olympics, then the events and venues at next week's Edinburgh Fringe, would also be empty. But they won't be, they will be heaving with people.

Theatres, galleries and museums in London are suffering, not purely because of sport, but because of greed and a lack of joined-up planning – greed by hoteliers who thought they would make a killing and put their prices up dramatically, and a lack of joined-up planning that would take into account the needs and problems of sport, tourism and culture. What it needs is one government ministry to look after sport, tourism and culture. But wait a minute, we have exactly that. So did Jeremy Hunt, minister responsible for all three areas, work out a plan that would address the problems of London's cultural scene during the Olympics? Did he sit down with hoteliers and theatre and museum managers to work out a joint strategy? There's not much sign of it, any more than Boris Johnson gave culture a moment's thought when enjoying his moment as a Tube announcer.

West End producer Nica Burns, Mark Rubinstein at the Society of London Theatre and a source at the Photographers' Gallery all told this paper that the constant message about transport difficulties had made their problems much worse.

But never look for logic in these things. While most venues are suffering empty seats and a drastic fall in summer profits, Mr Rubinstein tells us that Les Mis and The Lion King are doing extremely well. So there are two possible ways to solve the empty West End conundrum. Look at what's being successful and put on a show about a plucky young lion taking to the Paris barricades. Failing that, perhaps Messrs Hunt and Johnson could use a few seconds in one of their numerous television appearances to remind the public that London also has an arts scene, and it's open for business.

Return of the great rock'n'roll swindlers

What happens to anarchic, punk rockers when they get older? Is that anarchic spirit still there? Do they still hold two fingers up to the exploitative music industry? I merely ask because I have received a press release announcing the release of a "35th Anniversary 'Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols' limited-edition super deluxe box set". It will incidentally include a hitherto unreleased studio track called "Belsen Was a Gas". Perhaps that might have better stayed unreleased. I was most struck, though, by the price of this punk box set. It's £94.99. There's anarchy for you.

Why high-minded Lee's got to be having a laugh

Today, Radar prints a list of the best shows to see at the Edinburgh Fringe. On the eve of this wonderful festival, a note of controversy was injected by comedian Stewart Lee, who said earlier this week that the Fringe wasn't what it was, it had become too commercial and profit-obsessed. Myself, I feel one of the more depressing developments of recent years, betraying the original spirit of the Fringe, is the habit of famous comedians to ban critics from their shows saying that the show, for which punters still have to pay to gain entry, is merely "work in progress." One famous comedian who has banned critics for precisely this dubious reason is, oh let me see now, ah yes, Stewart Lee.