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Leading Article: The West End is an international asset

THE PLAY'S the thing to catch the conscience of the King. Or, in this case, the knight, in the person of Sir Ian McKellen. Like Hamlet, Sir Ian is concerned not so much with the play than the audience. Declaring his intention to leave the London stage, he argues that the West End has neither the repertory troupes nor the community to give life to the theatre.

Now before his views are dismissed - and if there were to be one single move to improve the standard of public cultural debate it would be the banning of that ridiculous and unhelpful word "luvvies" - two points need to be made.

One is that Sir Ian will be a considerable loss to the West End. He is deservedly a world-renowned actor. More than that he is an artist who gives of himself, both in his acting and to society in general. The second point arises from the first. Sir Ian is an actor who cares. He clearly feels that theatre should arise out of the community it serves. On those grounds, the West End and its audiences are an irritant, if not an aberration.

Where Sir Ian is wrong is in expecting otherwise. Indeed, he is like all too many people in public life in misunderstanding London and its role. The city is not just the capital of England or the South-east. It is one of the half-dozen cities which is a genuine global centre.

More than a quarter of Greater London's employment is related to its position as an international financial centre. Over half of the country's tourist income is centred upon it. West End theatre-goers spent pounds 250bn last year on tickets alone. If restaurants transport and hotels are taken into account, the figure is at least double that.

Theatre audiences do contain many people outside the community and tourists without the devotion to theatre which actors of the calibre of Sir Ian might wish. But that is part of being an international centre. London's problem is not the audiences but the refusal of the various authorities to accept that its transport, its facilities and its hospitals need to be nourished in their own right. An assumption has grown up that London is overindulged compared to elsewhere. As an international city, the opposite is the case.

As a conurbation, London has community theatre. Sir Ian, who has spent a decade largely working on films abroad, should visit Battersea, Kilburn or Notting Hill Gate if he wants to see that. But as a global village it has the West End and it should be proud of it. Long may we welcome tourists visiting the land of Shakespeare to see his plays performed by actors of the calibre of Sir Ian.