The real Sir Les

Australian cultural attache Michael Lynch believes his artists are not a joke. And he loathes that old lush Paterson.
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The Independent Culture
Call me old-fashioned but isn't that dear old Les Paterson sitting there in the corner? The Aussies are, somewhat surprisingly, under the kosh in the cricketing arena but the time may soon be arriving when even we Poms have to do a spot of cultural reframing about the former colony that gave us Kylie, Clive James and slobby cultural ambassadors.

To Michael Lynch, real-life Australian cultural supremo, the name of Barry Humphries's salivating alter ego is enough to make even his usually smooth features collapse into something close to a wrinkle of disgust. Poms may have found Sir Les a side-splitting sop to our deepest-held prejudices about Down Under. But to his countrymen, he's clearly something far less endearing.

"I think it's all a bit out of touch now," says Lynch carefully. "My teenage kids have no idea who Les Paterson is. Australia is now a much more complex and diverse place than Barry or Les Paterson could ever have imagined it to be."

Lynch is sitting in the Groucho, a strangely civilising presence amidst the raucous bellows and afternoon cigar smoke of our own, home-grown media and cultural moguls.

Lynch is suffering mild jet-lag. In London for the opening of LIFT - which this year includes at least four Australian artists in its line- up - and en route for the Venice Biennale where Australian artists - aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike - are exhibiting, Australia Council's general manager cuts a thoughtful, reflective figure, the very picture of international cool in dark green, Paul Smith-ish summer suit.

LIFT and Venice are however only part of a sustained Australian assault coming our way over the next six months. And in Lynch, now 46, a member of the organising committee for the next Olympic Games in Sydney and solid experience behind him as arts and theatre administrator and film producer, Australia could hardly have found a less Les Paterson-like, more persuasive emissary.

"I take great pride in opening up Australia to the world," he asserts - and you believe him. Oozing self-confidence, not of the blustering kind, but of one who sees advantage swinging his way, he's refreshingly trenchant on old guards giving way to the new - "the babyboomers, the 40- to 60- year olds have had a stranglehold in Australia for the past 20 years." He also gives every impression of a man who knows what he wants and how to achieve it.

Britain however, at least insofar as the performing arts are concerned, remains, according to Lynch, a notoriously difficult market to crack. His major complaint is our lack of reciprocity. Most major British theatre companies, he complains, have visited Australia without invitations being served the other way. Notoriously, he tells of one recent experience with an Australian production, Two Weeks with the Queen, put on in Sydney and scheduled for performance at the National here. "We tried and tried to get The National Theatre to buy our production. They just wouldn't. Instead, they bought the play, got Alan Ayckbourn to direct it and imported our lead. We were displeased," he says in tones prickly with hurt and censure.

Ancient injustices, perceived snubs clearly still run deep. But as luck and the ironies of history would have it, it is precisely the British establishment which is about to provide Lynch and Australia with its best opportunity yet to kick away the traces.

On the back of the British Council's 50 years in Oz, and with the last government's blessing, a six-month exchange programme, New Images has been set in motion of which LIFT is but the beginning. Covering dance, literature, a massive display of contemporary visual arts, at Oxford's Museum of Modern Art, appearances in Cardiff, at the Edinburgh Festival and culminating in visits from the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Ensemble at the Wigmore Hall in the autumn, New Images should, thinks Lynch "shake out a few coarser prejudices".

For Lynch, art is still the best way, the spearhead by which cultures can learn and adapt their views about each other. "There'll always be a close relationship between Britain and Australia despite our differences," he says. And he's looking to a time when we see them, as they are now, not as pre-conceptions learnt from a few select voices. Les Paterson is dead. Long live New Images

LIFT runs to June 29; `New Images' runs to Nov. Info: Australian High Commission, Australia House, Strand, London WC2B 4LA

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