David Lister: Screening live performances is of value but it's no substitute for the real thing

The week in arts

It doesn't happen often, but how I love it when it does. Occasionally, just occasionally, a leading mover and shaker in the arts utters a heresy.

John Berry, artistic director of the English National Opera, did just that when he told The Stage newspaper that he didn't much rate the trend for showing opera – and by extension other live performances – in cinemas. Only, he put it better than that. He said: "This obsession about putting work out into the cinema can distract from making amazing quality work. It is of no interest to me. It is not our priority. It doesn't create new audiences either."

How they must have gulped up the road at Covent Garden, over the bridge at the National Theatre, down the motorway at Glyndebourne, and even across the ocean at the Met in New York. All these institutions have been claiming that creating new audiences is precisely what putting their work on screen does. And here it was being rubbished, not by some ignoramus journalist but by one of their own, a fellow artistic director.

I rate John Berry rather highly. He has brought some great productions to the ENO, and we have been at meetings together about trying to find new ways to bring those elusive new audiences to classical music. I'm pleased that he has started a debate about cinema screenings of theatre, opera and dance – it's an orthodoxy all right, and orthodoxies should be challenged.

What is beyond doubt is that such screenings allow many people to see – albeit not in their original form – fine productions and fine performances. Many more people saw Helen Mirren's Phèdre at the cinema screenings, for example, than could have fitted into its run at the National. It also allows people who can't get to London (or New York) to see productions staged in those cities. And, of course, it allows great performances to be immortalised and kept forever, in contrast to the thousands of stage turns that only exist in memory.

So, John Berry may be overstating his case. What is true, though, is that seeing a theatre or opera production on screen is not the same as seeing it live. It lacks the thrill, the electricity, the tension of being in the same room as the performers. It follows that it is also no substitute for touring in the UK, too little of which takes place by our national companies, and none at all, actually, by Mr Berry's ENO.

Do the screenings attract new audiences? I hear that in Scunthorpe, of all places, people dress up for regular event screenings of opera and dance. I suspect Scunthorpe, in this respect, is not unique. But whether the cinema attenders are new audiences or merely existing fans who couldn't see the shows on stage, I'm less sure.

What I am sure of is that all lovers of the arts surely have to be pleased that multiplexes as well as arthouses are showing some of our greatest actors, singers and dancers in treasured performances that will be preserved. But they are not a cause for complacency, or a reason to forget about touring, or an excuse to allow seat prices in theatres and opera houses to creep ever higher. They are a valuable addition to live performance, but never a substitute.

Cineworld closes the book on online fees

Now here's a rarity: some good news on booking fees. Following my long campaign – and no end of reader emails expressing irritation – major cinema chain Cineworld has decided to drop all online booking fees. The decision was taken after customer research showed that over three quarters (77 per cent) of all cinemagoers said that the removal of booking fees would encourage them to book online. Justin Skinner, a vice president at Cineworld, says, "This is a game-changer for the leisure and entertainment industry; booking fees are disliked by customers." True. It's also true that they are disliked by theatre and music customers, and indeed by other cinema chain customers. But I will have a week smiling now that one major entertainment outfit has seen the light, before continuing to point out how the others still insist on ripping us off.

Even the king of chat comes up shortagainst Welles

A guilty pleasure on TV at the moment is the series of vintage Parkinson interviews being run on Sky Arts. Kenneth Williams, Peter Cook, et al, are just as funny and fascinating 30 or 40 years on. But I was particularly intrigued this week by an interview with Orson Welles. The great auteur discussed bullfighting at great length and then told anecdotes about famous friends, such as Hemingway and Jimmy Cagney. One sensed, though, that something was missing in the conversation. After quite a long time, Parkinson helpfully told the viewers en passant that Welles never discussed his own films. So there he was, the director of Citizen Kane not mentioning Citizen Kane. Fascinating and frustrating in equal measure.



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