The August cultural vacuum
Unless you're in Edinburgh or at a music festival, August is an artistic desert. In the age of the staycation, that's a disgrace, says Fiona Sturges
Wednesday 11 August 2010
So summer is upon us; the sun is mostly shining and, for many an office slave, work has wound down until September. It was with these giddy thoughts in mind that I consulted a What's On guide to my local area. Given the absence of a summer holiday, I decided it might be nice to book a babysitter and arrange some sort of evening entertainment over the next month. Nothing too crazy, I decided: maybe just a gig or two.
Fat chance of that. I live in Brighton, a place that prides itself in being one of the most culturally thriving cities in the country. But not, it seems, in August. Brighton Dome, one of our biggest and best venues, is pretty much closed for the month, as is its smaller sister venue, the Corn Exchange. At the Brighton Centre, land of teen idols, ageing crooners and political conferences, it's Ricky Gervais or nothing. (I'll take nothing.) As for the city's other venues, among the choice offerings in the next few weeks are Mercury, a Queen tribute band; Chris Clayton's Elvis show; and the early Eighties anarcho-punk band the Subhumans.
Just to give this poor turnout some context: this autumn Brighton will play host to Eliza Carthy, Goldfrapp, the Divine Comedy, Carl Barat, Marina & the Diamonds, Seth Lakeman, Gorillaz, Imelda May, Jonsi, Paul Weller as well as Mercury nominees I Am Kloot, Villagers and Foals. So many great names, in fact, that you couldn't hope to see them all without suffering serious musical fatigue. But right now there's nothing to see. Or at least nothing that wouldn't be best suited to a college reunion or a hen party.
So what's going on? Or perhaps one should ask: why is nothing going on? Where did everyone go?
For the dedicated gig-goer the answer, of course, is festivals. Throughout July and August every weekend is festival weekend, with many events running simultaneously and the bands du jour shuttling back and forth to play several at once. But, at the risk of coming over like a stroppy adolescent, what about the rest of us? Why, just because it's August and a small proportion of the music-loving population has opted to pay a fortune for the privilege of seeing its favourite bands in a field, must we suffer this cultural deprivation? With festival ticket prices being what they are, it's fair to assume that I'm not the only person sitting at home grumpily wondering what to do with my evenings.
Of course, the August slump has to do with a broader cultural trend in which the arts seem to slip into a collective coma during the summer months. Or, more likely, the reigning executives of our biggest cultural institutions are at this very moment sipping bellinis on the verandas of their beautiful Tuscan villas.
Certainly, late July and August is a period in which cinema gives up on anything offbeat or intellectually demanding and yields to wall-to-wall kiddie flicks and blockbusters. Currently on offer at my nearest Odeon is Toy Story 3; the pet animation Cats & Dogs; teen-pleasers The A-Team and Karate Kid; and the blockbuster Inception, a film which promises to tickle the grey matter, only to smother it in CGI. Granted, the nation's schoolchildren are on extended holiday and, given their need to be entertained, an afternoon in front of Toy Story 3 is unlikely to be passed up by harried parents. Meanwhile, Inception seems to have the stranglehold on adult cinema schedules. Having been cannily released in mid-July, it now looks set to enjoy an unchallenged, uninterrupted, money-spinning six-week run.
The idea of the summer blockbuster famously goes back to the mid-Seventies with Steven Spielberg's Jaws, a film that drew film-lovers back into the multiplexes in the industry's traditional low season, a time when people were meant to be on the beach, at the park or dining al fresco, not sweating away in the cinema. In what was then a revolutionary move, the marketing team behind Jaws made the most of the season, distributing Jaws-emblazoned beach balls, sun visors and toothy blow-up sharks. The film now shoulders the blame for inventing the blockbuster, films that value instant thrills over brain food for the sun-addled cineaste, and lowering the tone of summer movies in general.
Like cinema, television has proved wary of the dog days of summer, holding back its more thought-provoking, big-hitting shows until the autumn, and instead swamping the schedules with repeats, reality shows and so-called family films. The mind boggles as to what Channel 4 will come up with to replace Big Brother, television's version of bindweed and a series that for the past 10 years has combated the apparently sluggish summer months by showing footage of inert bodies sunbathing. The arrival of the excellent Sherlock and BBC's Norman season in mid-summer appeared to have bucked the trend. Then again, that might have been a clerical error since elsewhere on the terrestrial channels, and in between the protracted sports coverage, we have had to endure yet more MasterChef, assorted long-running traffic cop/property/cookery-based reality shows and interminable repeats of CSI. By contrast, this autumn we are promised a veritable smorgasbord of high-minded television entertainment, from Shane Meadows' follow-up to This Is England, We Were Faces, and the new William Boyd-written drama Homeland on Channel 4 to mouthwatering BBC dramas ( Toast, The First Men in the Moon, Accused, Lip Service, Hattie) and documentaries ( Faulks on Fiction, Renaissance Remastered, Armitage on Arthur, Stephen Fry's Planet Word).
The assumption behind this seasonal scheduling, it seems, is that most of us are away on holiday in July and August. Certainly, the wilting summer viewing figures would bear this out. But surely anticipating depleted viewers by serving up low-rent programmes makes this a self-fulfilling prophecy. Show me nothing but Big Brother and MasterChef and a no-frills holiday on the Costa del Sol begins to look pretty tempting.
Given that the world is in the midst of a financial crisis and that holidays are now, according to the travel industry, all about the "staycation", the summer hiatus would seem like a missed opportunity for those working in the arts. While many people will still have ventured abroad this summer, plenty more will have stayed at home. Add to that the thousands of foreign visitors who flock to the UK every summer and that amounts to a lot of people with a considerable amount of time on their hands. A perfect opportunity, you might think, to show off our greatest television dramas or to tempt them to a concert or a play.
While lovers of classical music are well catered for in London throughout the summer – the Proms, which run from mid-July to mid-September, see to that – theatre still broadly saves its big openings until the autumn season. Perhaps to accommodate holidaying critics as much as ordinary punters, theatre-lovers can look forward to Nicholas Hytner's Hamlet at the National, Trevor Nunn's Birdsong at the Comedy Theatre and Flashdance: The Musical at the Shaftesbury Theatre during September and October – just three of about 30 new West End openings. In August the big event seems to be Whoopi Goldberg joining the cast of Sister Act. Happily, however, there are signs that the emphasis on the autumn timetable is beginning to change. Longer-running success stories such as War Horse and Legally Blonde have seen no reason to slow down just because it's August. Meanwhile, this year has seen a spate of starry July openings including La Bête with David Hyde Pierce and Jeff Goldblum in The Prisoner of Second Avenue.
Where theatre and live music are concerned, indoor venues might well cite the warmer weather as a reason for dwindling audiences, and therefore fewer big-name bookings, in the summer months, an excuse which would be understandable if this were the south of France and air-conditioning hadn't yet been invented. As it is, we live in a country prone to wet summers and increasingly balmy autumns. Surely it's not beyond our venues to adjust their thermostats accordingly.
Apparently this is the "silly season", a phrase I've never really understood in the past. But now I get it. 'Tis the season when bands decamp to the country, cinema all but shuts down, cities turn into cultural graveyards and I'm marooned at home, madly cursing the cruelty of booking agents and wishing it were September.
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