All over Britain, arts centres are devising and diversifying their talks programmes. The ICA's new head of talks, Alan Read, plans to banish its esoteric image and boost audiences with a regular spot on Greater London Radio; and now, on the advice of its marketing department, the Royal Court Theatre, home of new playwriting, is starting a series of talks by authors - including Will Self. A public service maybe, but also, as Alan Read acknowledges, it's the fastest - and cheapest - way of 'breaking a new audience'.
Read's background is in experimental theatre; he thinks the audience is growing because, he says, 'Live talk is the most contemporary art, the most immediate kind of improvisation there is.' He plans to leaven the ICA's rather academic and occasionally insular talks with an emphasis on accessibility and explanation. 'Talking is about persuasion; the performance aspect of it has tended to be sublimated.'
And there's another good reason why audiences are turning up to talks. Real, unpredictable conversation has all but disappeared from the airwaves. On television and radio, political debate has all but been killed off by media-coached politicians who have learnt never to answer a question straight; the talk show has become a book- and film- plugging farce. Actress Fiona Shaw, recalling an appearance on Wogan, says: 'It's not being interviewed, it's acting being interviewed.'
What the talk claims to offer is the thrill of live experience combined with the promise of some kind of truth or revelation. Fiona Shaw has been on both sides of the questions at the National Theatre's Platform Performances. 'There is nothing hotter than the performance of it, and nothing more stultifying than when there's embarrassment on both sides.' The idea is that the combination of a sympathetic audience and the uniqueness of the moment should produce something special.
According to its deputy head of talks, Helena Reckitt, truth does sometimes alight at the ICA. The room is cosy (OK, small), and speakers appear seized by a compulsion to talk frankly because their work is being seriously discussed, or simply because people have bothered to turn up. 'You get questions that nobody would dream of asking on TV or even at a dinner party. A lot of our talks do have a sexual content, and someone in the audience will stand up and ask, 'So do you have sex with baboons?' And they actually answer the question.'
Good interviewers are crucial to good talk, especially in a large auditorium. Last week in the Lyttelton, at the National Theatre, the Radio 4 broadcaster Sue MacGregor questioned Sir Ian McKellen. She is a model interviewer, a favourite of National talks organiser Amanda Saunders. McKellen is not exactly a hard person to draw out, but she made him think. The result was uncontroversial, but engaging and suprisingly intimate. She was like an on-stage director, lobbing in short, quiet, directional questions, while making herself as functional and transparent as possible.
The playwright Nicholas Wright, another National interviewer, sees his role as this: 'I try to reassure them, but ask questions that might catch them slightly off-centre, nudging them into a spontaneous performance. It's more difficult with people who are used to being interviewed. And I hate those prompt-the-anecdote questions that TV interviewers use.'
The TV producer at least has the advantage of an interviewer with a smooth delivery that comes with experience or clever editing; live talks organisers take more risks, and an interviewer who looks good on paper can all too easily crumble. Last week at the ICA, Elizabeth Young, a writer on contemporary fiction, made her interviewing debut with Will Self. Young, full of confidence on the page, rambled and stammered on stage, unable to formulate questions or to guide the conversation. To make matters worse for interviewer and audience, the room was hot, and those at the back couldn't see because the dais wasn't high enough. It was just saved by Self who manfully (and with some difficulty) wrested the conversation around to himself.
Things can also go badly wrong when live talks commit the sins of their TV fathers, when they purport to be debates but are really just disguises for marketing, usually sold upon on the celebrity of the speaker. Writers, for example, who are good on stage find themselves becoming regular fixtures on a fast- developing circuit of bookshop 'events' and literary festivals. They become hooked, in the words of literary critic James Wood, on a 'publicity high', repeating their anecdotes over and over and, quite often, being highly entertaining in the process.
There's nothing intrinsically wrong with live appearances on book tours, but it's a shame if they fail to be anything more than sales pitches. The American feminist Naomi Wolf is an expert at the book promotion disguised as discussion, and who can blame her for exploiting it? For her new book, Fire with Fire, she has appeared at, among other venues, the National Theatre and the Sunday Times Forum, an event criticised for its poor debating and heavy book-promoting in the Sunday Times itself, as well as in the Guardian. On the Royal Court stage, she appeared alone. Guy Chapman, the Court's marketing manager, enthuses: 'Naomi Wolf is so magnetic she simply doesn't need anyone else with her on the stage.'
So why make her talk in the first place? Why not just let her stand there oozing celebrity? You see, it doesn't really matter that the people speaking on the stage or on the dais are never doing what they actually do (or are supposed to do) best - acting, writing, singing or dancing. Still we turn up. Some of us may do so in order to take part in a debate or to learn something - something the ICA and the National strive to provide; but most of us turn up simply to gain access to our heroes, to bask in their presence, maybe even exchange a word or two with them.
And why not? As Martin Amis said of interviewing his literary heroes, 'As a fan and a reader, you want your hero to be genuinely inspirational. As a journalist, you hope for . . . a full-scale nervous breakdown in mid-interview. And, as a human, you yearn for the birth of a flattering friendship. All very shaming . . .'
And true. Don't you wish you'd been at the ICA to see Camille Paglia burst into tears? Or at the West Yorkshire Playhouse when a member of the audience lambasted Alan Bennett as he told cruel but funny stories about a relative? 'Your aunt was my grandmother's best friend and she was a perfectly nice woman]'