ARTS / Cries & Whispers

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A FEW months ago, following the death of Freddie Mercury, I remarked on the tendency of people who don't follow popular music to see pop as a single phenomenon, all equally threatening, rather than as the broad church it really is. Now I hear of another, more damaging case of the same syndrome.

Last year plans were set in motion for a gala concert which would raise funds for Oxfam and mark the charity's 40th anniversary. It was to take place in the grounds of Eastnor Castle, a stately home near Ledbury, Herefordshire, which would have provided both a spectacular backdrop and a new pop venue in an area which misses out when leading bands go on tour. The show was set for May with a bill topped by the Stone Roses, but they pulled out when they fell too far behind with recording their second album. The Cure were booked to replace them, and the show was rearranged for 4 September.

Just as the first ad appeared in the NME, a large number of New Age travellers pitched up at Castlemorton, a few miles from Eastnor. The travellers were peaceful and they moved on after a few days, but there was natural resentment at the litter they left, the music they played, and the way they had invaded this beautiful backwater. The council licence for the show, which had been granted for the Stone Roses, was refused.

A stream of letters then appeared in the Ledbury Reporter, from teenagers and a few enlightened adults, arguing that the travellers had nothing to do with the concert. It would have cost pounds 20 to get in; security would have been tight; and the promoters, in 20 years of staging open-air shows, had never known one attract travellers. The local worthies, led by a verbose policeman, were not to be swayed. To them, it looked like more of those dirty noisy vagrants. So the show never happened, the pop fans of Herefordshire still have to go to Birmingham to see anyone well-known, and Oxfam is about pounds 150,000 poorer when it could have been pounds 1m richer.

THE OTHER NIGHT I caught up with Someone Who'll Watch over Me, Frank McGuinness's play about hostages in Beirut. It closed last night at Hampstead, but transfers to the Vaudeville on 8 September, and you can see why. The jokes are good, the sympathy flows, and the acting is unfailingly excellent - although Hugh Quarshie is unable to accompany Alec McCowen and Stephen Rea on the journey across town, and I rather wonder if the claustrophobic intimacy of Robin Don's set will work on the proscenium stage. The show has just one weakness: it's a bit slow. The first half takes 90 minutes. But is this a legitimate complaint? Is the theatregoer, sitting comfortably, with the companion of his choice, free to leave at any moment, entitled to complain about a play that dawdles a bit, when the men whose misfortune supplied its subject spent long months and years in darkened rooms with shackles on their legs? If anyone can offer guidance on this ticklish question, perhaps they could get in touch.

AT A quiet time of year, the record business is putting its promotional back into the Mercury Music Prize, the would-be Booker for albums (C & W, 19 July). The winner will be announced on 8 September. In the meantime, to introduce us to the 10 contenders, a CD has

been released, featuring one track from each album. The cost? A very reasonable pounds 3.99. Which, to my sceptical ear, sounds like one more reason why we should not be charged pounds 13.99 for other discs. So please - don't pay full price if you can help it.