The arrival of Les Misérables in the West End some 25 years ago was a good news/bad news deal for ticket touts. On the up side the demand for tickets was stratospheric; on the down side it wasn't the easiest title for an East End gouger to mutter out of the side of his mouth. In Les Mis at 25: Matt Lucas Dreams the Dream, Nicholas Allott, a senior executive for Cameron Mackintosh, recalled walking to the theatre one day and hearing a burly man pitching tickets for a show he could only pronounce as "Lesbian Rebels".
Personally I think I might have enjoyed the musical more if that had been an accurate account of its contents, but along with quite a few members of its early audience I wasn't a big fan. The reviews after the opening night of the RSC production at the Barbican were catastrophic, giving Cameron Mackintosh, who'd brought the show over from France and reworked it intensively for British audiences, just 24 hours to decide whether to pull the ejector-seat handle. His peers thought he was mad to proceed. One big Broadway producer advised him, "If you've got a stiff, bury it." But, all credit to his nerve, he went ahead anyway and now everybody on the planet, barring a few Mongolian tribesman, have seen the show. Shockingly, the National Theatre of Norway effectively closed itself down for 15 months so that it could host the Norwegian version, the run only ending because somebody pointed out that it really might be time to do some Ibsen.
Matt Lucas is a big fan and this 25th Anniversary Souvenir Programme (a Cameron Mackintosh co-production, just in case you were wondering about its nakedly advertorial status) offered both a history of the most successful musical ever and an account of Lucas's preparations to appear in a gala concert performance at the O2, in the comedy role of the tavern-keeper. It wasn't exactly a demanding lead up, amounting to not much more than trying the costume on and making sure he didn't stumble on his way to the microphone, but his enthusiasm for the experience provided a useful counterpoint to the showbiz nostalgia from Michael Ball, Herbie Kretzmer and Colm Wilkinson.
Matt Lucas, incidentally, did very well in a show that looked like a cross between an unusually bombastic rock concert and a performance by the Red Army Choir, but which nonetheless stirred the attendant faithful to raptures. One woman who'd turned up was so devoted to the musical that she'd even had the Bayard urchin from the poster tattooed on her shoulder. It's just a guess, but I think she will have enjoyed this programme too, which only acknowledged less than devoted accounts of the musical in order to demonstrate how snobbishly wrong they had been all along.
The friction between an élite definition of great art and what people actually like was also palpable throughout Arena: Rolf Harris Paints His Dream, a peculiar conceit in which the Michelangelo of house paint had been invited to depict four contemporary young women as Titania, declaring her love for Bottom. In between times he was seen performing at Glastonbury, to a vast audience of affectionately indulgent rock fans, and painting the Queen, who looked distinctly put-out when she discovered that Harris had spent the whole of one session doing the details of her jewellery.
It wasn't very clear what the programme was about for at least an hour, which gave you another 30 minutes to try and work out whether the director, Vikram Jayanti, had actually brought it off. I think – and it was so odd I'm reluctant to be definitive here – that we were being encouraged to think of Rolf as a metaphorical Bottom: hairy, slightly comical and, in his own words, "a peasant", while the women, attractive and lissom, were Titania types. But the moment you tried to elaborate this connection it stopped making sense – or seemed to swerve dangerously towards the lubricious. There was a distinctly creepy moment of flirtation between the 80-year-old artist and Emer Kenny, her own unhairy bottom barely veiled from the camera's over-eager inspection by a thin gauze.
Rolf had underpowered conversations with his models – about modern art, national identity, being recognised in the street – and occasionally we would cut away entirely, as during an inconsequential section in which his wife, Alwen, told us about her dyslexia and showed off the mosaic lamps she makes from old bits of stained glass. Lizzy Jagger pitched up to pose – a nice girl with a giggle that would probably drive you out of your mind within a day – and Dervla Murphy chatted to the artist about the black depression into which he'd plunged after Rolf's Cartoon Club had been cancelled by a new controller. Harris also shared his wounded feelings about the reaction he'd got when he offered the National Portrait Gallery his finished portrait of the Queen. "We have numerous portraits of Her Majesty, you know," he was told. Harris seemed to feel this was a hurtful example of élitist snobbery. I just thought his distress made him seem a little greedy. Popular affection, huge crowds at his own private view, an invitation to Glastonbury, an audience with the Queen – but he wants establishment recognition too. I bet Lucian Freud doesn't moan about the fact that he's never been invited to present Animal Hospital.