If Labour wins the next election, Jack Cunningham will be running the arts in Britain. But is he the right man for the job? And is it even a job he wants? Marianne Macdonald finds out
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The Independent Culture
Jack Cunningham, Labour's heritage secretary, is the man most likely to have Britain's art, theatre, literature, museums, opera, dance, television and film laid at his feet like a Glyndebourne picnic next year. Yet - shame - people are very down on the 57-year-old MP from Durham. BBC employees mutter darkly that he doesn't seem interested in them; political types call him a dinosaur; and journalists have been known to roll their eyes at the memory of sitting next to him at dinner.

The impression he seems to have created after his first year in the job is that he doesn't know a great deal about it (shades of Stephen Dorrell here, that famously uninterested minister of fun). So I went to discover the truth. Could it be that the man tipped to take charge of film hardly goes to the cinema? That the future arbiter of broadcasting doesn't watch TV? That the boss of Britain's drama is hardly seen at the theatre?

Genial and good-humoured, he clears up one point right away - that he hadn't wanted to be heritage secretary in the first place. "Well," he corrects himself with rather devastating honesty, "I once made a joke, which has been misused against me ever since, that it wasn't part of my career development to be in this job. I was shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and I was quite happy there, but I lost the shadow cabinet election. And Blair wanted me to stay in the shadow cabinet and he asked me to take this job.

"But I took this job with great pleasure," he continues, his blunt Northern vowels rising defensively over the clatter of cranes building the Jubilee Line extension outside his office. "What I'm saying is, I'm here rather by accident but I'm enjoying this job so there's no problem with that at all. The fact is, if you think about what I've got to deal with..." (and here I begin to wonder if he is trying to convince himself, or me) "...arts and cultural industries, the Lottery, the Millennium Exhibition, sport, multi-media industries and tourism -a pounds 36bn industry - we're looking directly and indirectly at a department with a budget only slightly less than that of the DTI. The two biggest projects in London in the next few years, the Tate at Bankside and the Millennium Exhibition, are both Department of National Heritage issues. We're dealing with a huge industry of vital importance to our economic as well as our social well-being."

He subsides at this point and cheerfully begins telling me which of the arts he likes. "I love the theatre, particularly the RSC, but the theatre world generally. Maureen [his wife] and I are going to see the Kirov Ballet in a couple of weeks' time; we go to the opera from time to time - I've got to listen to music everywhere. So, I like music, I like the theatre, I read a lot of books, I like poetry in spite of the fact that when I was small..." he laughs at the memory "...and in trouble, my father's requirement as a kind of penance was I should learn a poem. But," he adds before I can get the wrong idea, "fortunately, it didn't switch me off poetry, it switched me on to it."

I'm dying to know what kind of poetry this fatherly politician might like, but he won't be hurried. "I'm just giving you a kind of thumbnail sketch, so I'll go on for a while. I like fell walking, I'm a soccer nut, I've supported Newcastle United all my life, which is part of the culture of the area I grew up in, I like angling, and all of those things have been part of my life, all of my life - so if you say, do I feel I am dealing with things I have some feel for, or contact with, the answer is Yes!"

This is encouraging, but when I ask who his favourite poet is, he sighs gloomily. "Well," he says. "I like Yeats, I like Oscar Wilde, I like Shakespeare's sonnets."

Which Yeats poem would he pick out as his favourite?

"Well, he says, "I don't have a favourite poem, or a favourite writer."

Does he like "Sailing to Byzantium" - or his early or late period?

"Now look, I'm claiming no expertise," he tells me sternly, "so when you're talking about early periods or late periods, you would be beyond me."

THERE'S NO reason why the shadow heritage secretary, who is after all a scientist by training, should be an expert on Yeats. So we move on to literature, which Dr Cunningham loves: he says he has three books on the go all the time. Well, he will, it seems, soon be in charge of the publishing industry. So: this year he has read Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson, Ken Follett's new book (Ken gave him the proofs) and The Horse Whisperer. Nick Evans's bestseller about a horse doctor seems to have gone down best. "Oh, I loved it. I really loved it," he reports.

"What else have I read in the last three months?" he ponders. "Well, on holiday I read a James Lee Burke thriller (these are books I read over the summer, ones I just had lying around). Things I've got to get my head around - I haven't got to, but I want to - include George Walden's book on education, We Should Know Better, which is a rather clever title for it. I buy books, books come in all the time, and I hope to get round to reading them all, but it's impossible."

Television, then. This morning the front pages carry a picture of Caroline Aherne, who plays the chat show host Mrs Merton, caught in a fight between her husband and boyfriend. Does he watch her show? "I've seen it a couple of times." And Men Behaving Badly, recently voted the BBC's all-time favourite sit-com? "Again, I've seen, you know, odd episodes, but I cannot honestly say to you I am a regular, consistent watcher of programmes on TV," comes the depressing answer.

So not much telly. What about drama? Which plays would Dr Cunningham like to see at the moment?

This elicits another sigh. "By way of drama, you mean? Well, I've got two engagements coming up in theatres, but neither of them are drama. One's the Kirov ballet. And my wife and I are planning to take my mother- in-law to Riverdance for her birthday, which is what she's asked to do. [Laughs.] But at the moment those are the only theatre dates I've got in my diary this side of Christmas."

What would you like to see if you had time?

Silence - or rather, the sound of banging from the Jubilee Line. After a think, Dr Cunningham says: "I think it's... Well, if I had more time between now and Christmas I'd love to go and listen to Simon Rattle and his symphony orchestra. I think he's got a performance coming up round about the end of this month."

At this moment the photographer knocks against the neglected television. As he seizes on this interruption, I say: "So no theatre! Poor London theatre!"

"Oh!" he exclaims. "It's not no to London theatres! I mean, I'm going to two London theatres, but I'm just not going to see any drama in them! I love going to the theatre! But I'm not going to sit here and pretend that every week from now until next year I've got a theatre date in mind. Because I haven't."

But what would be your dream date if you weren't so busy? "Well, I, I don't have a kind of dream event in my mind that I'd particularly like to see. I'm looking forward to going and seeing the Kirov, for example, but-" And here the conversation collapses again.

IT TURNS OUT that he hasn't been to the Royal Opera House - at all, as far as I can make out, but he is planning a meeting to discuss the issue of seat prices, which he thinks should be kept down. Also, he has told the National Gallery that it should not impose admission charges because they cut the number of visitors.

"Is that true of the V&A?" I enquire.

"Well, I don't know whether it's happened or not at the V&A, but it's certainly happened at the -"

There is a pause.

"Oh, the other - what am I trying to say? The Natural History Museum! And I think that if people are paying to fund these institutions then they shouldn't also then have to pay when they want to go and see them. So access is important. I think institutions like the Royal Opera should be ensuring that a reasonable percentage of seats are priced within the means of most people."

I say they might argue that they are already.

"Well, they may, but we'll see. Anyway, we're going to have a meeting about it, because if the public are paying through their taxes and also through Lottery money, which is after all the public's money, and they find that they can't afford tickets, then it's a pity."

Time is marching on, so I turn to Jane Austen. Which of the Austen adaptations has he seen? "Well," he says promptly, "I've seen them both: Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility ... and I've read a number of her books too. So there you go. I enjoyed them both. I thought they were pretty good. But if you wanted me to really focus on something, it would be the RSC. I would do almost anything I could to see an RSC production.

And what was the last one you saw?

"I saw all their productions in Newcastle last year."

And what were they?

There is another pause, so I prompt him: "Did they do Coriolanus ?"

"No, I don't think so," he says, frowning. "Oh no! You may be right! And they also did the period comedy, didn't they. Was that last year?"

A Shakespeare one?

"No, no, no. No, er, just let me focus on the Shakespeare... [Sotto voce.] Just shows, I haven't been swotting up! [He laughs.] What I did notice was, it occurred to me while we were talking, they've changed their annual programme. Normally they do Newcastle upon Tyne and the Theatre Royal in February, March for about four or five weeks, but next year it's in the autumn, which is rather disconcerting for me because I hope it's not round the time of the Labour party conference."

Well, even theatre critics can forget plays. But film, too, proves a little disappointing. Jack Cunningham has not seen Trainspotting - the most acclaimed British film in years - nor Shallow Grave. The Turner Prize, a fortnight away when we met, was also rather hazy ("I haven't, to be honest with you, looked at all the contestants").

So I say mildly: when we started the interview you said you wouldn't have chosen this job.

"That was being perfectly honest with you!" he exclaims. "Everyone knows that is the case. But when I tried to make a joke about it everyone was: `Oh he's whingeing about it.' As though I said something outrageous. I had a choice, and I chose to do this job."

And would you rather do trade and industry?

"No! What I said to them at the time and what is still the case, is that I said, I'll do the job on the understanding - this was in November 1995 - that I continue at least until the general election. And what I set out to do a year ago was to pick five key policy areas of the portfolio where we had no policy documents, which was the situation I inherited, and within roughly 12 months produce five key policy statements."

So that is where Dr Cunningham's energies have been going. He reveals that he has produced policy documents on the future of soccer, on tourism, and on the Lottery, and is finalising three more on cultural policy, sports policy and broadcasting policy. "So there you go," he says. "From a standing start, in 12 months, we've done a hell of a lot of work on policy, and as is often the case with these things, deadlines slip and we haven't finished them, for a variety of reasons, as quickly as we'd hoped and intended."

And what will he do when they are done?

"Why, sell the ideas!"

THE NEXT DAY, I get an unexpected call from Dr Cunningham. He says: "By the way, I've looked it up, and this year the RSC had Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, Richard III and The Taming of the Shrew, and I saw all of them. And the play I was trying to drag up from the back of my mind was The Relapse by Sir John Vanbrugh."

After I thank him, he adds: "Sorry I wasn't very together yesterday. I would have preferred to sit down and have a quiet half hour's think before you arrived, but as you could see I sadly didn't have time for that."

That's okay, I say. And I don't doubt it's true. But his haziness about what is actually happening in the arts strikes me as a bit like a Chancellor not knowing the interest rate. This man could come into amazing power next year. Maybe he should get out a little more. !