Seen any good talks lately: Why on-stage discussions and lectures are the best shows in town

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What's going on? In an age where we seem addicted to special effects, perma-tanned airheads, and mindless daytime-television wittering, unashamedly intellectual live debates, lectures and discussions are pulling in the punters. Nick Duerden listens in

In a cultural climate where we are continually accusing one another of dumbing endlessly down, of X Factor addicts craving constant updates on The Only Way is Essex, thousands of people are regularly gathering in arts centres across the country to listen to discussions ranging from poetry to economics to global terrorism. They have paid for the privilege, too, and more often than not they sit in deliberately unadorned auditoria – though the speakers on stage are, it could be argued, presented in fashionable 3-D – and transfixed by nothing more gimmicky than the human voice, and an opinion aired.

Intellectually stimulating debate is nothing new, of course, but it does seem to be on a steady rise.

"Oh, definitely," says Martin Colthorpe, Senior Literature Programmer at the Southbank Centre in London. "There is an increasing appetite to watch, and listen to, authors and thinkers, and to see them in a live context." Colthorpe puts this down in part to the way the world has changed.

"Ever since the 2008 global financial crisis," he says, "there have opened up so many areas for discussion, and we have found that the appetite for serious debate on everything from finance to politics to science has increased exponentially."

The Southbank Centre, so loathed by Prince Charles for its lumpen concrete design alongside one of the more handsome stretches of the River Thames, nevertheless remains one of the capital's pre-eminent cultural centres, and has been drawing crowds for its talks since the late 1960s, when poets like Ted Hughes could pack them in to the rafters.

Today, in 2011, the backbone of its annual schedule remains highbrow literature, and they have been drawing full houses for much of the year. Back in January, for example, 2,500 people turned up to listen to the TS Eliot Prize Readings, quite a number for an art-form that many perpetually insist is dying out, while similarly-sized audiences attended the Great Thinkers and National Treasures series, which featured the likes of Tony Benn, Michael Morpurgo, John Berger and AC Grayling.

Highlights for the next few months include one of Britain's pre-eminent biographers, Clare Tomalin, discussing her new biography of Dickens, and the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy reading from her latest collection. Both are expected to sell out.

But, as Colthorpe points out, these events are much more than mere promotional exercises, an opportunity for people to meet and greet their favourite author, and snaffle an autograph; rather, they wish to interact with them.

"We are trying increasingly to develop models where the audience and participants are no longer quite so divided," he says. This is certainly true of their so-called Argument Room, a live, interactive forum which can be accessed via the web, and features seminars with architects, theatre directors and the Prison Reform Trust. "These are not so much Q&A sessions as discussions, encouraging a vigorous exchange of ideas."

The popularity of such events seems to suggest that not only do we continue to possess a buoyant enthusiasm for the arts, and for debating in general, but also that we wish to fully engage with it. "Look at the growth of literature and book festivals right across the UK," Colthorpe says. "I'd say that's one of the key artistic cultural phenomena of our times.

"Over the last 20 years, authors have become increasingly more comfortable in facing an audience, not merely reading from their work but also discussing it, and celebrating it. And rightly so. Hearing poetry or a scintillating piece of fiction can be an invigorating experience."

Its model is being mirrored in arts centres across the country. The Theatre Royal Bath, for example, has been putting on matinee debates for the past 15 years now, and has amassed quite a roll call, with acts from Peter O'Toole and Alec Guinness discussing their craft, to Alan Titchmarsh revealing the secrets of his green fingers. It recently featured the biographer Anne Sebba, whose new biography, That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, offers arguably a more comprehensive portrait of one of the 20th century's more over-documented women than Madonna's current biopic W.E.

Sebba, like so many writers these days, is taking full advantage of our current appetite for author/reader interaction. "Oh, I certainly never did these sort of things for my earlier books," says the biographer, whose previous works include the lives of Mother Teresa and Churchill's American mother, "but I've undergone a rather extraordinary change in my career. I'm more speaker now than I am a writer."

A late adapter to the wonders of PowerPoint presentation, Sebba has found herself much in demand of late. Due to the reignited interest in Wallis Simpson, thanks in large part to the success of the Oscar-winning film The King's Speech, in which Simpson's minor appearance left people wanting to know more, Sebba is now booked up on the lecture front until 2014, and will appear in places from libraries to women's groups to inner-city schools.

"If you spend several years researching and writing a book, which can often be terribly lonely," she says, "it's rather wonderful being set free at the end of it, when you are suddenly able to meet people and talk about it." Her audience numbers range from 50 to several hundred. An hour's presentation can take a full month to prepare.

"I did wonder whether I would find the whole process rather nerve-wracking at first, but actually I never did," she says. "When your head is full of four years' worth of research, as mine was after writing about Wallis, I find that you just want to share your knowledge. And, fortuitously, there are many people who want to hear it, professional, intelligent people who love to be stimulated by literature. I can tell you that, from a writer's point of view, it is enormously heartwarming."

Elsewhere, Matthew Hollis, a commissioning editor at the publishers Faber and Faber, is about to set off on a tour of his own in support of his new biography of the First World War poet Edward Thomas, All Roads Lead to France. He will be appearing at literary festivals as far afield as Swansea, Ilkley and Essex.

"Poetry always has been of the community and for the community," he says. "And audience members are swelling year on year."

As well as heading up Faber's poetry division, Hollis writes his own verse. And, like any realistic 21st-century poet, he too has become a performer of late. Twenty years ago, he suggests, it was not uncommon to hear those poets who did leave their garrets give public readings often murdering their own work.

"They weren't the best advert for their poems, it's true," he smiles, "but we have a very different attitude to such things now. We've realised, I think, that readings are one of the few ways of really being able to road test our work. A new poem isn't fully alive until it is read in front of an audience, so these events can often act as essential to the drafting process." It is true that more people attend poetry readings than actually buy volumes of poetry, but it would be remiss of any writer to automatically expect their performances to constitute hot tickets.

"Oh, everyone has their horror stories in that respect," Hollis says. "I remember appearing at a festival a few years ago. It was in the middle of a field on a Sunday morning at 10 o'clock, and it was pouring with rain. The only person who came to listen to me was a woman in a cagoule." But he remains confident that his current tour will reach greater numbers. One reason is the aforementioned ever-swelling appetite; another is the fact that most autumnal festivals take place under a solid roof, and are immune to adverse weather conditions.

In the past, HG Wells and Charles Dickens were among famous writer/readers. But, in recent times, London's National Theatre got here first. Its Platform series, running for four decades, is the daddy of them all, bringing together people from the world of arts and frequently way beyond in pursuit of fruitful discussion. Speakers from Enoch Powell to Jack Lemmon, and Germaine Greer (just last week, talking about her new work) to Arthur Miller have graced its stage, and its remit is increasingly broad, as likely to feature Julian Clary and Jo Brand as it is Philip Pullman and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

London's Criterion Theatre, meanwhile, has just launched Critics at the Cri, a monthly review show which brings together art critics discussing the latest West End shows in front of a paying lunchtime audience, while, across the capital, in Clerkenwell, an operation called Free Word runs more pronouncedly esoteric weekly debates.

"Speaking up for what people believe makes us feel human," runs its credo. "We need words not just to live but to flourish, [and we aim] to promote, protect and democratise the power of the written and spoken word, nationally and internationally." Its space is far more modest than must say, the National's – the average room seats 90 – but Free Word thrives, says interim director Stephen Escritt, because London is a global capital, "and so there will always be a specific audience for a specific subject. The people who attend our talks crave intellectual activity, thinking, doing and debating. It improves the cultural landscape."

It held 180 events last year, and its current programme touches upon subjects from censorship in Palestine to how we can help popularise literature in translation. The objective is to encourage action. "The world is full of very motivated individuals," says Escritt, "and we encourage them to harness that." And so, while our television screens remain dominated by former members of Parliament either taking cumbersomely to the dancefloor or enduring European coach trips alongside erstwhile WAGs, elsewhere there can still be found pockets of intellectual stimulation to which many others flock, keen to listen, and also even keen to make themselves heard.

Over in south-west London, the Kingston Rose Theatre has run its own series of weekly debates, Time to Talk, for the past three years now. Creative Director Stephen Unwin thought that he would struggle in booking anyone to appear.

"After all," he points out, "we don't pay them, we just send a car, a bunch of flowers, a bottle of scotch. But they've kept on coming." Among them Dame Judi Dench and Sir Peter Hall and Downton Abbey's creator Julian Fellowes.

"What's more, we have an extraordinary number of audience members, a really fascinating cross-section of people. And all of them are full of opinions, and a perfect ability to express them." Which ultimately offers proof, Unwin suggests, that not all of us live in quite so dumbed-down a world.

"I was invited to the Cheltenham Book Festival a couple of years ago to give a talk on a book I'd written about Brecht," he says. "I expected the hall to comprise of me and a dog because, let's face it, I'm hardly JK Rowling. But 200 people turned up, and they were full of insightful, and penetrating questions." He smiles. "I cannot tell you how encouraged that made me feel. I suffer from lots of profound gloom about where English culture is headed sometimes. There are indications that all we really care about these days is celebrity and reality TV, but that is not, I think, the whole picture.

"There are just as many of us, and more perhaps than you would necessarily think, who are just as fascinated in theatre, art, culture and ideas. That brings me great joy, and also relief."

Word up: Five talks designed to stimulate and entertain

Black Voices

National Theatre, London SE1

Actor Paterson Joseph (Alan Johnson from 'Peep Show') chairs a discussion on the identity of the modern black voice in British theatre today.

17 October ( www.nationaltheatre.org.uk)

Diplomatic Incidents: The Pitfalls of Translation

Free Word Centre, London EC1

Linguist Dr Biljana Scott discusses how our choice of words, metaphors and stories concerning religion history and myth have the power to frame the way in which we see the world, and to determine the way we act upon it.

27 October ( www.freewordonline.com)

Small Is Beautiful

Southbank Centre, London SE1

The leader of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas, and Professor Victoria Chick discuss EF Schumacher's influential book 'Small Is Beautiful: a Study of Economics as if People Mattered', to celebrate the centenary of Schumacher's birth.

2 November ( www.southbankcentre.co.uk)

Lady Antonia Fraser

Manchester Literature Festival

Revelations from the author about her late husband Harold Pinter, the subject of her book 'Must You Go?'

19 October ( )

Heroes with Ranulph Fiennes

Theatre Royal Bath

One of the world's greatest explorers on people who have inspired him.

11 November ( www.theatreroyal.org.uk)

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