Book review: The influence of perverts

ARTIST UNKNOWN: An Alternative History of the Arts Council by Richard Witts, Little, Brown pounds 22.50
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The Independent Culture
EVERY YEAR when the Public Records Office releases secret political documents from long ago, we should have a similar operation for cultural policy papers, speeches and correspondence. If they are all as gobsmacking as some of the gems that Richard Witts has unearthed, they would eclipse the revelations of Cabinet meetings.

Take this cri de coeur made in 1955 by Sir Steuart Wilson, the deputy general administrator of the Royal Opera House. "The influence of perverts in the world of music has grown beyond all measure. If it is not curbed soon, Covent Garden and other precious musical heritages could suffer irreparable harm. Many people in the profession are worried. There is a kind of agreement among homosexuals which results in their keeping jobs for the boys."

The heart sunk a little at the prospect of a 550-page history of the Arts Council, even written by a man who was a former Halle Orchestra percussionist, new-wave band musician and youth TV presenter as well as arts administrator. The mountain of reports (usually not followed up), committees and bland conclusions that constitute an average year in arts policy-making in Britain threatened to be extremely wearying multiplied by 50. What one could not have dared to hope was that Witts could make the story so riveting, witty and iconoclastic as well as meticulously well researched and thoughtful. But he does, convincingly presenting the birth and often continuance of such institutions as the Royal Opera House, the National Theatre and South Bank Centre as results of Machiavellianism, treachery and incompetence by the great and the good, who emerge from this book considerably diminished.

The book is rich in personal conflict, some of it surprisingly contemporary as interviewees opened up to Witts for his supposedly academic study in a way they don't always open up to journalists. Tony Field, the former finance director, recalls how he had to use subterfuge to persuade the Council to fund revivals by the young Cameron Mackintosh. It is perhaps a little far-fetched when he claims to have had to explain what My Fair Lady and Oklahoma! were. But it is all too credible when he reveals that the Council turned down a part-share in Mackintosh's next effort, because they were appalled by the idea of a musical version of T S Eliot's cat poems.

There are delightful vignettes too from Joanna Drew, the long-serving head of the pioneering modern art Hayward Gallery, drawn from her stormy relationship with Nicholas Snowman, the still-serving head of the South Bank Centre under whose remit the Hayward was to fall.

Suddenly she was asked "to run up shows to fit in with musical themes. It started when Peter Hall was leaving the National Theatre and wanted to direct some late Shakespeare. Snowman thought this would be a way of linking bits of the Centre, having us all tackle late works. Could I put on some late Titian or Rembrandt, I was asked. No I bloody well couldn't ... Everything became a marketing concept."

But often merely the bald presentation of facts bring home the debilitating inertia of the Council. It has commissioned no fewer than 19 key reports on orchestral provision in Britain. Eleven looked solely at London and half of those recommended reducing the number of symphony orchestras in London. Only one recommended keeping all four. What happens? We still have four, with three perennially short of money, and all four short of audiences.

Witts sets out to be an iconoclast and succeeds. He is even unfashionably, and unfairly, critical of Sir Richard Eyre, claiming his policy was to turn the National Theatre into the National Theatre of America with his large number of American plays. But iconoclast though he is, even he goes native in the end. He seems too attached to the 50-year tradition of arm's- length governance of the arts to urge the abolition of the Council and the handover of its duties to elected government. Neither does he consider the two changes I believe are crucial: firstly, that ticket price and safe, efficient transport to venues be recognised as the supremely important factors in determining audiences and consequently Arts Council policy; and secondly that people as well as buildings and companies be funded. Had that been the case we would not have lost Peter Brook to Paris. It's a pity too that the tendency of the Council's expert panels to hand out money to their own members escapes Witts's scrutiny.

We do, of course, desperately need a national arts strategy. As Witts points out, the Council appallingly appears to have no policy at all on any of the art forms it funds.

Witts recommends that the big six companies - the Royal Opera, Royal Ballet, English National Opera, English National Ballet, National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company - should be made to appear on a television programme presented by Anthea Turner or Mystic Meg to plead their cases before a Lottery audience.

Actually, I think five of the six would make resounding cases. For all the chaos that Witts chronicles, there's not a lot wrong with the arts. There's plenty wrong with arts administration.