This is most conspicuous in sport, where local loyalties and passions have gone down before the media commodity brokers like English backs before Jonah Lomu. In front of the eyes of fans the rules of the games are being rewritten - sometimes to the benefit of the sport involved, sometimes with unpredictable consequences. Commercial interests have even forced our parliamentary representatives to consider inventing a novel kind of human right - the right to watch Wimbledon without subscribing to a cable channel.
If the age of the amateur is still fading on the playing fields it is long dead in our theatres and galleries. The right to fail is as unfashionable and antique a notion as white-face mime. Directors and gallery-owners still protest that they direct more creativity to their accounting than to their art; they have become fluent in the language of invisible earnings and cost-effectiveness. This has made the culture of Britain more cautious, and the Lottery, at first seen as a life-raft for hard-pressed institutions, threatens to drag down the principle of publicly-funded culture.
It isn't an entirely gloomy picture. In fashion, theatre, music, architecture and the visual arts Britain has a claim to be as influential abroad as at any time since the war, exporting ideas with a success that many business leaders would envy. This bodes well for the new millennium. Even those who doubt that the arithmetical patterns of the Gregorian calender exert any influence on human activity might concede that, in Britain at least, civilisation has chosen a good time to throw a party.
Is there a British film industry?
The plot: the sight of Emma Thompson waving her Golden Globe award for her adaptation of Sense and Sensibility this week has prompted predictions that she is in line to pick up her third Oscar in March.
Memories were stirred, too, of Colin Welland's 1982 declaration, on accepting an Oscar for Chariots of Fire, that "The British are coming". It was a phrase that was virtually a kiss of death for the then burgeoning British film industry. It wasn't long before Goldcrest, Britain's flagship film production company, went under, sunk by the double whammy failure of Revolution and Absolute Beginners.
The perennial question since has been: can there be an indigenous British film industry? That is to say, one that comprises films made in Britain, made by British actors and technicians, the profits from which return to Britain. The answer has always been no - largely because the Government provides little cash or incentives for film-making - but three out of four criteria fulfilled isn't bad.
According to the latest BFI figures, only 35 of the 84 films with "British links" made in 1994 were wholly British-funded (to the tune of pounds 53.6m out of a total spent of pounds 458.7m). Scarcely any of the vast earnings from the worldwide success of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Britain's most successful film ever, came back into British pockets.
Characters: more and more British stars, directors and technicians are making a worldwide splash. Goldeneye brought James Bond back with a bang worldwide; the Brit director David Fincher hit box-office gold with Seven; the British director Mike Figgis's new film, Leaving Las Vegas (though made with foreign money, like Sense and Sensibility), is also up for awards. British directors such as the Scott Brothers and Alan Parker and British stars such as Jeremy Irons, Anthony Hopkins, Julia Ormond, Daniel Day- Lewis, Ralph Fiennes and Emma Thompson ensure that there is a thriving British film industry - but in Hollywood.
Prospects: there is no real prospect for an indigenous independent industry. Protectionism doesn't work and we're not a big enough country to go it alone. But we still have great technicians, performers and directors of genius, and, of course, an endless supply of source material in the Eng Lit syllabus, with Shakespeare and Jane Austen movies falling over each other on the production line.
How many TV channels will I be watching in 1999?
The plot: the world of multi-channel television has been promised for years, yet 90 per cent of British households receive the four main terrestrial channels and nothing more. While Americans and Canadians choose among 50 or even 100 channels, depending on the equipment they have and where they live, Britons usually have to make do with the two BBC channels, ITV and Channel 4.
For the 10 per cent in Britain who have cable or satellite, there is already a multi-channel universe. Sport, Hollywood films, old soaps, travel, even topless darts are available for those with a cable connection or a pounds 99 satellite dish and pounds 20 or so a month to spare.
The characters: multi-channel TV is coming for most of us, either in the form of the new Channel 5 or through cable, satellite and digital terrestrial. As with most things televisual, you do not have to look hard to find the bulky presence of Rupert Murdoch, who controls the only satellite broadcaster in Britain, BSkyB. If he gets his way, he will dominate the digital world just as he dominates analogue pay-TV. The BBC has guaranteed capacity on DTT (digital terrestrial television), and will be a major broadcaster in the era of the mass-market multi-channel. So will the ITV companies, which are finally waking up to the commercial attractions of pay-TV.
Prospects: broadcasters will be vying for our money, and will be offering films, sport, repeats, interactive banking, home shopping - whatever it takes to make us tune in. Digital satellite should appear first: Murdoch has reserved capacity on recently launched satellites.
By 1997, Channel 5 is scheduled to be launched, available to between 70 and 90 per cent of households, depending on the degree to which relevant frequencies can be cleared. Some 10 million households are forecast to have cable and satellite by 2000.
We are likely to get 18 new channels by the turn of the century thanks to the technological advances of digital terrestrial television (DTT). That should usher in a wealth of special-interest programming, from 24- hour BBC news to wall-to-wall sport.
Dwarfing DTT will be the true multi-channel experience - the 200 stations offered by digital satellite.
For these extra services, we can expect to have to pay. You'll need at least pounds 400 for the set-top box; individual channels could carry a subscription fee. Whether this multiplication of choice will deliver quality programmes is a moot point.
Is the Internet a waste of cyberspace?
The plot: the Internet was set up by the US Defense Department in the 1960s as a way of exchanging information down telephone lines between key military and academic computers. It remained the province of specialists until the World Wide Web was developed at Cern in Switzerland in 1990. The WWW enabled ordinary computer subliterates to use the Net to find information, send messages, and create documents for others to read. In 1993, transmission of pictures as well as text became possible and the whole thing took off.
Anyone with a computer, a modem and an account with an on-line service can exchange information with the 40 million or so other Webbers. Most use it primarily for e-mail, the electronic mail system that enables messages to be sent immediately to anywhere at the cost of a local phone call. An estimated 3.5 trillion bytes of data were sent over the Web in one month of last year.
Characters: the 8 million or so around the world who use the Web for more than just e-mail divide into three groups: academics, who find it a much easier way to share research findings than waiting for publication in journals; companies, who see it as a cheap and effective way to promote and sell their products; and nerds, who discuss the finer points of Terry Pratchett and ask each other if they can post nude pictures of the pink Power Ranger.
Prospects: there is too little information of high quality available on the Net, and retrieval times are too slow, to justify talk of an information superhighway. However, the number of subscribers is said to grow at 10 per cent a month, which will ensure that the Net becomes popular among advertisers.
A division into premium products (for which extra payments will be needed) and freely accessible chat lines (bring your own anorak) seems the most likely development.
Will I have to pay to watch Match of the Day?
Well, you do at the moment. A colour television licence costs pounds 86.50 for a year. But soon that will seem peanuts compared with the cost of plugging into your sporting addiction of choice.
The plot: the Premier League, when it signed an enormous pounds 200m, five- year contract with Sky in 1993, struck one of the more imaginative deals between a sport and a television station: the live matches and endless hours of analysis went to Sky (subscription pounds 300 a year) while the traditional Saturday night package of highlights remained in the possession of Des and Alan, Trevor and Gary at the BBC.
It was a clever balance to strike. Attendance at matches has increased exponentially since the deal was made: those Saturday night highlights served as a smart advertisement to those unwilling or unable to pay for Sky that the real thing was available at a football ground near them.
The characters: things have changed since Sky first brokered the deal. As the number of Sky subscription holders soared, the governing bodies of most sports realised that they had a valuable commodity to sell. Thus Freddie Fletcher, commercial director of Newcastle United, predicted that the next round of bidding for rights to football would start at pounds 800m, well beyond the means of the BBC.
The prospects: to recoup that sort of investment any broadcaster would be loath to give anything away. The future, then, looks to be pay-for- view, for which the subscriber pays an additional fee via some sort of smartcard to watch cherry-picked events. This has already proved a success in the United States: Mike Tyson's comeback farce netted $96m in pay- for-view fees alone, and something similar has been mooted for the Tyson/Bruno fight later in the year. It doesn't take a genius to appreciate the pay-for-view potential of the FA Cup Final.
In that world of pay-for-everything, exclusivity is all; allowing highlights to be released to a virtually free-at-source broadcaster makes little economic sense. The big problem the BBC faces is that every sport has learnt to appreciate its market rate. In short, in five years' time, if we want to watch Match of the Day, or its Sky equivalent, it will cost us almost as much as going to watch a game in the flesh. Pro-celebrity log-rolling, however, will be free.
Terry Venables: who's suing who?
The England coach abruptly announced a fortnight ago that, given the interest surrounding his business affairs, he would not be continuing in the job beyond this summer's European Championships. In other words, England need a new coach to steer them towards the 1998 World Cup.
Current litigation involving Venables includes:
l A libel action brought against him by Alan Sugar concerning passages of Venables's book, The Autobiography, which deal with the pair's relationship at Tottenham Hotspur.
l A libel action brought by him against the BBC's Panorama for a programme detailing his business dealings.
l A separate libel action by him against the Daily Mirror.
l His case for wrongful dismissal against Tottenham Hotspur.
l DTI proceedings seeking to disqualify him as a director of a company. The charge concludes: "It appears to the Secretary of State that your conduct as director of the above named companies [Scribes West, Eden-note, Tottenham Hotspur plc and Tottenham Hotspur Football and Athletic Club] makes you unfit to be considered in the management of a company and that it is expedient in the public interest that a disqualification order be made against you."
In the most recent of his cases to be concluded in court, against Jeremy Fugler, who brought a suit claiming unpaid debts involving public relations work for Scribes West, the judge told Venables that his evidence was "not entirely reliable, to put it at its most charitable".
Is state funding for the arts decreasing?
The plot: in cash terms, government awards to the Arts Council have fluctuated over the past few years, but in real terms spending has fallen. In 1994/5, the Arts Council of England received pounds 186m, pounds 3.2m down on the previous year; but an increase for 1995/6 took the figure up to pounds 191.1m. For 1996/7, the council's grant has been unexpectedly cut by pounds 5m, which has led to a delay in announcing allocations. In real terms, said a spokesman, this represents a drop of around pounds 12m in arts funding.
A Department of National Heritage spokesman pointed out that while the past few years had indeed seen freezes and falls in government awards, arts spending has risen by 38 per cent in real terms since 1979. With the situation as it is just now, however, this offers scant consolation: the National Campaign for the Arts believes that to balance the books next year, the Arts Council will have to cut allocations to between six and 10 regional theatres and remove its support for two symphony orchestras, up to 10 contemporary dance companies and all funding for youth arts, education and training.
The characters: most notably the Heritage Secretary, Virginia Bottomley, whose department makes awards to the Arts Council and appoints its members. Lord Gowrie, chairman of the Arts Council, has been in crisis talks with Bottomley over the cut; in December, Jennifer Edwards, director of the National Campaign for the Arts (NCA), described the cut as "an absolute betrayal which will lead to the wholesale destruction of the arts in every part of the country".
Prospects: the NCA's protests might seem impertinent at a time when the lottery is pouring millions of extra pounds into the arts, but it has to be remembered that lottery money is earmarked for buildings and facilities only. The Royal Opera House in particular been much criticised after being given pounds 78.5m from the lottery towards its redevelopment. Its director, Jeremy Isaacs, points to the gulf between France and the UK in arts spending. The NCA says that as a rough guide, France spends 0.9 per cent of its gross domestic product on the arts; the UK less than 0.3 per cent.
Has the establishment got it in for Richard Branson?
The plot: Branson is still fighting British Airways through the US courts, having already successfully sued the "world's favourite airline" in 1993 over a dirty tricks campaign aimed at undermining Virgin Atlantic. Now Branson is being sued by Guy Snowden, director of the US company G-Tech, which has a 22 per cent stake in Camelot, operator of the National Lottery. Late last year, Branson claimed that Snowden had offered him a bribe to drop Virgin's 1993 bid (no profit, all proceeds to charity) to run the Lottery. Back on the offensive, Branson is currently mounting a legal challenge to the Independent Television Commission's "unfair" dismissal of Virgin TV's bid to run the new Channel 5.
The characters: principal devils in Branson's demonology are Lord King, former chairman of British Airways, Guy Snowden, litigious director of G-Tech and Camelot, and Sir George Russell, chairman of Camelot and ITC; two days after Branson's appearance on the BBC's Panorama, in which the bearded and bejumpered tycoon slagged off Camelot, the ITC rejected Virgin TV's pounds 22m bid for Channel 5. Coincidence? Absolutely, old boy, says Sir George; no way, says Branson.
Prospects: Despite setbacks, Branson's empire has been going from strength to strength. Virgin Atlantic Airways is expanding into the Far East market and, from this month, has undercut British Airways' cheapest return flights to New York (pounds 196) by pounds 17. Virgin Cinema has just earned a quick pounds 70m selling some of the MGM cinemas it bought last year. Virgin Megastores has 25 per cent of the UK home entertainment business, and Virgin Cola a handy 8 per cent of the supermarket cola business.
The boss, despite writs and counterwrits flying in both directions across the Atlantic, is in typically buoyant mood, trying to break the round- the-world ballooning record. His enemies at BA, Camelot, ITC and elsewhere must surely use this as an opportunity to say that their flamboyant rival is propped up by little more than hot air.
Is commercial radio failing?
The plot: commercial radio was launched in earnest a scant five years ago, with the licensing of scarce airwave capacity. It was seen by many as a gold mine, a licence to print money every bit as valuable as the early ITV licences awarded in the Fifties. Since then, there have been some serious teething pains. Viva, the lifestyle station, could not find an audience, while Talk Radio suffered under its American management, eager to replicate the success of "shock jock" presenters in the US and finding audiences unimpressed.
Talk Radio is now recovering, following an ownership shake-up. Meanwhile, mainstream rock stations such as Virgin FM and Heart 106 have quickly found a following, emboldening their owners to queue for another licensing round to be launched this year.
Commercial radio, despite a few celebrated cases, has been a runaway success. Its share of the total advertising market in the UK has doubled to 4 per cent in just four years, and revenues are growing by 15 per cent this year, far outrunning television and the print media. The licensing authority has tried to introduce some variety, encouraging different formats such as jazz, classical, talk, all news, and so on. But it is the rock- and-talk concepts that seem to do best.
The characters: there are roughly four big radio groups emerging in the UK, corresponding to four geographic areas. Emap, the big media company, rules the East Midlands, while Capital, London's most profitable station, dominates the country's biggest city. In the West, GWR is emerging as a serious force, while Scottish Radio rules north of the border. But all these players may find themselves the target of takeovers before the year is out. The new Broadcasting Bill, due to be passed by the summer, will give large newspaper groups the right to control radio licences for the first time.
Prospects: while the British market will never see the plethora of local stations that characterise the US, it is clear that commercial radio is a success and will grow. There are now 30 stations, and the number is set to grow to at least 40 by the turn of the century. There is likely to be a role for the public service broadcaster, the BBC, no matter how well the commercial sector does.
Is Salman Rushdie safe?
The plot: the famous author promoting his new book had a busy round of engagements in New York last week - dinner with Tina Brown in a downtown restaurant, a book-signing engagement on Madison Avenue, a reading at the New York public library, a clutch of television appearances. Anyone wishing to get his autograph would have had little trouble tracking him down. Likewise anyone wishing to put an end to his life.
The only reason the latter, morbid thought occurs is that the writer in question was Salman Rushdie.
Rushdie has slowly emerged from hiding over the past months, determined, in the words of one of his supporters, "to reclaim the life of a writer". But this is nothing to do with his safety, which would appear to be as fragile as ever.
A year ago the situation did not seem so bleak. In 1993, Britain, during its EU presidency, initiated what it called a "critical dialogue" with Iran, and Rushdie and the fatwa were regularly on the agenda. Steady progress was made, sources said; the edict could not, of its very nature, be revoked, but the government would take no steps to carry it out.
The characters: last summer the dialogue hit the rocks when Iran refused to sign a statement promising not to pursue the fatwa; meanwhile Iran's Revolutionary Guard declared that the government and foreign ministry must "continue their active collaboration" to bring about Rushdie's death, or "face the wrath of angry Muslims".
Prospects: Rushdie's portrait, painted by the Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar, now hangs permanently in the National Portrait Gallery. But the seventh anniversary of the fatwa's promulgation, which falls on 14 February, is likely to be a gloomy affair and suggests that his rehabilitation is far from complete.
Are rugby players rolling in money?
The plot: rugby union, amateur in name at least for all of the last century and a quarter, has finally bowed to the commercial pressures the game itself unleashed when it began accepting sponsorship. Since August it has been "open", an all-things-to-all-men description which has meant straight professionalism at the top end and no change at almost every other level.
The metamorphosis of the only big box-office sport to have remained amateur has happened smoothly in virtually all the main rugby countries. The notable exception is England, where the broad mass of smaller clubs do not appreciate being railroaded into "openness" by their governing body, the Rugby Football Union.
The characters: the England players, headed by their captain, Will Carling, finally got round to agreeing contracts with the RFU last month. At around pounds 38,000 per season for a player who retains his place, these are lucrative by comparison with those enjoyed by the other home countries but small change for Carling, who is thought to make a six-figure annual sum from delivering management seminars on the subject of leadership. And anyway, courtesy of the tabloids, he has had other things on his mind in recent months.
The English figure also compares unfavourably with those of the southern hemisphere. Francois Pienaar, South Africa's captain in last year's World Cup, makes around pounds 150,000 per season from playing internationally and for his province, Transvaal.
Prospects: professionalism, however unpopular among the rank and file whom it will never actually affect, is taking big-time rugby into uncharted territory - not just in terms of playing standards, which are bound to rise in proportion to the amount of time players are able to devote to preparation, but commercially. With BSkyB having created a benchmark by unofficially bidding more than pounds 200m for the television contract for the next Five Nations championship, a game that needs every penny it can get to finance the new professionalism is about to be awash with the stuff.
What does the Millennium Commission do?
The plot: Camelot, organiser of the National Lottery, splits 28 per cent of the proceeds between five separate bodies: the Arts Council, the Sports Council, National Heritage, the Charities Board and the Millennium Commission.
In June last year the commission unveiled a short list of 83 applications for funds for projects marking the year 2000. Among the most high-profile schemes were a pounds 106m modern art gallery for the Tate on the site of the Bankside power station, a pounds 100m redevelopment of Cardiff Arms Park, a pounds 60m public square within the British Museum, and an pounds 86m Cardiff Bay Opera House. None has yet received any cash. Grants have, however, gone to a pounds 42.5m national network of cycle routes and a pounds 21m seed bank for the Royal Botanical Gardens.
The characters: Virginia Bottomley, the Heritage Secretary, heads the commission and lines up the contenders for the pounds 1.6bn available. The other members are Michael Heseltine, Michael Montagu, Sir John Hall, owner of Newcastle United, Patricia Scotland QC, Dr Heather Couper, Gresham professor of astronomy, Lord Dalkeith, Lord Glentoran, and the journalist Simon Jenkins.
Prospects: anything to do with the Lottery is a national talking point, but nothing provokes as much controversy as the proceeds. The tabloids lambast awards to "toffs' interests" such as opera or theatre; the provinces attack the granting of funds to London-based projects; Scotland, Ireland and Wales complain that the commission is Anglocentric.
When Mrs Bottomley refused money to the Cardiff Opera House project, Lord Crickhowell, the opera trust's chairman, argued that if the scheme had been English the funds would have been granted. The Lottery, instead of offering the solution to many of society's ills, seems to have delineated British class divisions and regional rivalries more sharply. London is locked in a fierce battle with Birmingham to host the planned Millennium Exhibition, a modern equivalent of the Victorian Great Exhibition; a decision is expected soon.
Is the Royal Family entitled to privacy?
The plot: when an emotional Princess of Wales was pursued by journalists on leaving her house of her therapist, Susie Orbach, earlier this month, the nature of the relationship between the press and the royals was questioned yet again.
Criminal laws to protect individuals from unfair press intrusion were urged by the Calcutt report of 1993, but the Government rejected statutory regulation and announced the establishment of an ombudsman to handle complaints.
After the publication of the Squidgy and Camillagate tapes, and of topless pictures of the Duchess of York, claims of excessive press interest in the Royal Family reached a peak with the appearance of photos of the Princess in a gym in the Sunday Mirror.
A White Paper on the matter published last July lacked teeth as far as many MPs were concerned, not even daring to propose the anticipated legislation against the use of bugging and long-lens cameras. This means that control over the press continues to lie with its self-regulatory body, the Press Complaints Commission.
The characters: Lord Wakeham, chairman of the PCC since 1994, tabloid editors and over-scrutinised members of the Royal Family.
Wakeham's speech last August on this thorny subject proclaimed that Prince William, when installed at Eton, "must be allowed to run, walk, study and play ... free from the fear of prying cameras." However, when the Princess voluntarily brought her private life into the public domain in November's Panorama interview, Wakeham claimed that she was compromising her right to privacy (even before having seen the programme).
Prospects: a privacy law is certainly a possibility. A survey by the Association of British Editors in late 1994 found that the vast majority of MPs believed that the national press failed to provide honest, responsible journalism; more than half were in favour of replacing the PCC with a body with statutory powers, or an ombudsman, or both. Even some Labour MPs have rejected the government line that a privacy law is unfeasible.
Lord Wakeham, though, has defended the right of the press "to report and comment on issues relating to the institutions of the monarchy", and has stated his preference for self-regulation.
Why are England so bad at cricket?
The plot: defeat is one thing the English cricket follower has long been programmed to accept. The humiliation in South Africa, however, at the hands of a nation of limited recent international experience, is of a different order.
The problem runs deep. As with many sports, English cricket has suffered from an arrogant assumption that, because we gave the world the game, we do not need to invest in it. Thus while in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand money is available to nurture the best new talent, in England, school playing fields are sold off to pay for the next term's books. In Australia, South Africa and New Zealand new academies spring up every year to coach and to help promising players, but in England only two primary schools in London play cricket in the summer. In Australia, South Africa and New Zealand a young player of talent is encouraged into the national team at the earliest opportunity, but in England the county system, with its endless round of pointless games, exhausts the bright long before they have a chance to blossom.
The characters: every time the national side are beaten the inquiries are swift and condemning. The latest, following slaughter in South Africa, has focused on Raymond Illingworth, the cantankerous and single-minded team manager. But the departure of Illingworth, however counter-productive his Thatcher-style man-management techniques might have proved, will not alone provoke a renaissance in English cricket any more than the departures of Ted Dexter or Mickey Stewart before him.
The prospects: the most pressing problem facing the English game is how not to come last in the World Cup in India, starting on 14 February. To prevent that, a change at the top might have some short-term effect. Send the boys in to bat with Ian Botham as their manager, the last man to make an effective fist of English cricket, and there might be enough of a boost to morale to make a difference. Beyond that, we have to ask a more fundamental question: do we want to be effective in world sport? And if so, are we prepared to pay for the changes necessary to become so?
Britpop is dead. But didn't it die years ago?
The plot: every few years the cyclical structure that both haunts pop music and sustains its economic momentum throws up a pair of Union Jack underpants. The conditions that obtain during these periods are consistent. First, the British pop media spot that there is more than one pop group in Britain whose work could not have come from any other country. Second, the groups and their managements spot this. Third, everyone agrees that British pop music is such an idiosyncratic (not parochial) thing that it should be sent to America immediately, conventionally wearing its Union Jack underpants outside its trousers. The Americans then either have a good laugh or ignore it altogether, at which point everyone agrees that British pop is in terminal decline.
The characters: the past year was largely dominated by the marketing campaigns of two groups, Oasis and Blur, who managed to remind everyone of the Sixties (when everyone was happy) while behaving like badly brought- up children of the Nineties (when, clearly, everyone is much more realistic about their prospects). A cast of supporting popsters - Pulp, Supergrass, Elastica, Sleeper, etc - meanwhile contributed a surrounding white noise of bratty rhetoric, most of which centred on the burning issue of the era: who is the sexiest one of all?
The prospects: Britpop is last year's thing. Fact. Oasis, Blur and Pulp are far too big and famous to be constrained by crass marketing rhetoric; besides, marketing slogans are for cults - we're in the big league now. Everyone else, meanwhile, has to go back to being an ordinary geo-non- specific pop group, with all that that entails, such as being laughed at in America and then being dropped by your rec- ord com- pany.Reuse content