Arts notebook: No popcorn, please, we're British
A founder member of The Independent David Lister joined the paper in 1986 as Assistant Home Editor. He became the paper's arts correspondent in 1988 and is now Arts Editor and writes a column each Saturday. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Saturday 06 September 1997
Barbican filmgoers are indeed a serious bunch with intense powers of concentration. They have to possess those qualities to find the entrance to the cinemas. But their hostility to popcorn is more intense than even their concentration. Barbican MD John Tusa has commissioned, at some expense, a survey of cinema patrons at the Centre, and found that a staggering 85 per cent of them would not come if popcorn were sold, sweet or salted. One chills to think of the torments they must suffer at virtually every other cinema in the country. I do share some of their distaste for popcorn, sweet rather than salted, but less over the munching and more because of the way the discarded pops of corn on the floor stick to the soles of one's shoes.
But such niggling is as nothing to the venom of Barbican cinemagoers. Chris Travers, head of marketing, who conducted the survey, says people come from across London, and one customer even from Devon, to avoid popcorn- infested cinemas. His research also discovered that a bucket of popcorn costs one penny to make and is generally sold for pounds 1.50. A case for investigation by the Culture Select Committee perhaps.
The other dislike found in the survey will not be so easily remedied. Adult cinemagoers wanted to see PG and U certificate movies but did not want to be surrounded by children. 101 Dalmatians was a particular example named. "We might have children-free screenings of family films," says Mr Travers, "but it's a bit of a tricky one." Not necessarily. Sell popcorn at the entrance to the Barbican Theatre and send the kids off to see Cymbeline.
Mary Allen has just completed her first week at the helm of the Royal Opera House, spending some of the time preparing her evidence to the House of Commons select committee inquiry next month. I suggest she takes a highly radical line. Pressed as she will be about making Covent Garden "The People's Opera" and taking both opera and ballet to the people, she should read out the advance ticket sales for both opera and ballet at their new temporary London venues. They are, to put it mildly, poor; and in the case of the Royal Ballet at the Labatt's Apollo, Hammersmith, pitiful, at under 30 per cent. A company as brilliant as the Royal Ballet currently is has been taken to the people, at a pop venue, and the people don't want to know.
Part of the reason is that, in all the clamour against supposed elitism, one key point has proved too politically incorrect for anyone to mention. Both opera and ballet need an atmosphere of grandeur; plot, costume and the raw emotions can all seem uncomfortable in downmarket settings. Deprived of that pomp, opera and ballet can look artificial and anachronistic. And there is no pomp in a converted cinema. For similar reasons, the plan by the opera house chairman Lord Chadlington to relay performances to multiplexes is also doomed to failure. The way to beat elitism is not to take the wares to pop show venues or cinemas, but to keep them in plush surroundings and lower the ticket prices. Keep the prices down and keep the venues upmarket, and the audiences will come.
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