Book review: Torn curtain

Never Mind the Moon by Jeremy Isaacs Bantam Press pounds 20 In House by John Tooley Faber pounds 25

Jeremy Isaacs, the man who brought us Channel 4, had never failed at anything before he became general director at the Royal Opera House. This confident, clever but prickly Glaswegian ran Covent Garden for nine years before it closed for redevelopment. Both his successors, and a chairman, left after a few months in the job; the board resigned en masse. The Opera House became a laughing stock, a scandal, and a candidate for complete closure.

What no one has so far asked is how much Jeremy Isaacs was to blame for this catastrophe. He is, himself, rarely susceptible to doubt, and in this matter seems to harbour none. Towards the end of his convivial apologia, he says: "I am pretty clear that the financial governance of the House in my time was as good as could be managed, at least if we aimed at artistic excellence. On closure [for redevelopment], I know of no better scheme available."

John Tooley's memoir, In House, does not end with his own term as general director in 1988, but goes on to examine Isaacs' regime. Normally he is a man of exaggerated politeness, but not in this case. He declares Isaacs' regime an unmitigated disaster. Tooley's case for the prosecution is based on evidence of poor management. Manning levels rose after Isaacs' arrival, making serious increases in ticket prices inevitable. Isaacs did not always get on with staff, especially with Bernard Haitink, the music director. Tooley's conclusion is that, by the end of Isaacs' term: "Covent Garden had become a place of corporate entertainment, no longer a theatre primarily for opera and ballet lovers."

Isaacs reports Haitink's dislike of a provocative production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman: Haitink said that nothing like it should ever be seen again. "As a newcomer, I kept my powder dry, but I could not agree. Creative activity has a licence to fail," he writes. Isaacs had hoped to acquire a kindred spirit as a new opera director. He tried to hire Bryan McMaster, then at the Welsh Opera, and Nicholas Payne, then at Opera North. Isaacs says that both said no. Tooley, on the other hand, claims that Haitink had threatened to resign unless Paul Findlay, a veteran of his regime, was appointed. Isaacs rests his defence on the artistic quality of the work done while he was general director, and it is true that Covent Garden did finally discover Janacek, paid handsome tribute to Britten and Birtwistle, and did well by Verdi. But, with the exception of Die Meistersinger, they stumbled over Wagner, maybe because of the chilly relationship between the general director and the artistic director.

Tooley blames Isaacs for Haitink's disenchantment. Isaacs says that Haitink was a gloomy, uncommunicative figure. He thought the thaw set in when he showed Haitink episodes from his television series The World at War; many others thought the ice never melted.

Isaacs found the board could be hard work too. After a grisly period in their relationship in 1992, Isaacs and Bamber Gascoigne went together to the Department of National Heritage. "At one point [Gascoigne] brashly informed the meeting that all was now bound to be well, because from now on, Jeremy would be kept on a short leash and not allowed to act on his own initiative." Though Isaacs did not actually bite Gascoigne, he made his displeasure clear. Isaacs does admit to one serious error: "A development document I ought to have tackled immediately lay unnoticed at the bottom of my heaped in-tray. My colleagues wondered if I had too much on my plate." Though they decided he had, they did not ask him to leave then.

Episodes like these are evidence of a lack of confidence in Isaacs' management, and, like many more that are damaging to him, the source is Isaacs himself. Development plans were delayed because of bad relations with the local community association; Isaacs concedes that the Opera House was "perhaps too arrogant and aloof". He admits that his was the decisive voice in letting television cameras in for the riveting but immensely damaging six-part documentary The House.

Worst of all, Isaacs hopelessly mismanaged the closure of the Opera House during its redevelopment. He had hoped to move to Drury Lane. "It was so much the answer to our prayer that for a year I allowed myself to be strung along by a sweet-talk proposition." The easy decision would have been to move to the Lyceum, despite its deficiencies. But Isaacs plumped for a brand new, temporary building on the south side of Tower Bridge. His chairman insisted that there should be a fall-back position, but when planning permission for the building was not readily forthcoming, there wasn't one. Isaacs was asked to leave nine months early - and agreed, as long as he retained his title and his salary.

When the bad times rolled, the exclusivity of the House, its high prices, and its general air of superiority meant that it had few friends in any places, high or low. But Isaacs was gone by the time chaos degenerated into a nightmare - which may be one reason why the matter of his own culpability has been overlooked. It is, however, quite unnecessary to side with Tooley in order to decide how to distribute blame. Tooley's bitter, vengeful tone rules out his book as admissible evidence. No. All the evidence necessary to decide upon whether Jeremy Isaacs was deeply responsible for Covent Garden's descent into chaos is to be found in Never Mind the Moon.

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power