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UK Politics

Maureen Lipman laments arts ministers’ lack of competence


Maureen Lipman has described Culture Secretary Maria Miller as a “nightmare” and complained that most recent arts ministers know nothing about art.

In an interview with The Independent, the stage and screen actor – known to millions as the ology-obsessed Jewish grandmother from the 1980s BT adverts – claimed that governments preferred to invest in buildings rather than the people who actually create art.

“We never seem to have an arts minister who knows the slightest thing about it. They seem to pick someone on the grounds that they were in a school play. This woman [Ms  Miller] is a nightmare,” Lipman said.

“Who was the last arts secretary who actually bothered to go to the theatre I wonder? Lord Gowrie or someone. So we always fall foul of the cuts.”

Lipman is the biggest name on the bill at London’s newest theatre – the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park. Challenged about the virtues of opening a new playhouse when so many other arts ventures are struggling, the 67-year-old said: “Do we need new theatres? That’s a good point. I have a theory that you can always get money for buildings, but not for people. That applies to hospitals and schools. Or The Shard.” Cue that oh-so-familiar, slightly mocking voice: “A very useful addition to the City. But can you get money for people? No.”

As if to illustrate her point, she insinuates that even designers of swanky new theatres have to be prodded to remember the needs of the people actually using them. “I had to insist on having a window installed in my dressing room because I thought I was going to be suffocated in there. They’re taking grants away from all the existing companies… There are more places to work, but no reps: nowhere to learn your trade.”

Not that the new Park Theatre has had to worry about penny pinching from Ms Miller. Jez Bond, its artistic director, tapped wealthy luvvie luminaries for the £2.5m he needed, with donations from the likes of Sir Ian McKellen, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Celia Imrie.

Lipman said she was “probably” among those who stumped up some cash, adding: “What I give is purely instinctive and on the spur.” Much like her comments on the state of the arts, she said, but that doesn’t make them any less interesting.

“Art is essential in a society but it’s the easiest thing to cut because, as you see from Czechoslovakia and everywhere, if you cut it down, if you repress it, it will come out at the sides, like a pressure cooker. So there will always be art.”

The same goes for fundraisers:  “There’ll be more excerpts from shows packed in on Sunday nights. More Barry Manilow. Liza will fly in and Michael Ball will compere, and they’ll somehow raise the money.” Again, that same droll, slightly nasal tone that is indisputably Lipman. Pressed on whether those who have made it big have any sort of duty to cough up – something Lord Browne, the chair of the Tate, thinks is a given – Lipman was blunt. “Should we have a sort of Bill Gates Fund for rich actors? Oh God, no… The problem is, actors are so surprised by success and they know it’s so temporary. They know that it’s Monday and Tuesday, and by Friday they’ll be happy to get a fried onion commercial.

“Even if you’re Gary Oldman or Kate Winslet you’re looking over your shoulder because nowadays Andy Warhol got it right: 15 minutes of fame. So you can’t ever really relax and say I’ve earned enough to help this theatre out, although we all do. But you couldn’t make it compulsory – there would be uproar.”

You could say she’s doing her bit simply by taking on the roles. Her turn in Old Money at Hampstead Theatre earlier this year was a sell-out. And the auditorium was packed for the first preview of Daytona, which opens officially today. She insisted all the line learning is hard work these days, although having well-written prose is a boon. “A lot of the time in television you’re forced to say things that you can’t even learn because they’re so badly constructed.”

Arts ministers under fire

Maria Miller

Lipman is far from the first to criticise the culture minister, right. Sir Timothy West said: “I can’t remember the last arts minister who really knew anything about the arts or cared - it seems to be a sort of parking place for them before they get moved on to something else.”

Jeremy Hunt

The previous holder of the title came under fire for his handling of library closures. Children’s author Julia Donaldson said Hunt, below left, refused to respond to letters and invitations from campaign groups.

Tim Renton

Conservative arts minister Tim Renton had a David Hockney piece displayed in his office and asked the artist if he could provide another to make up a set. Hockney refused on principle, saying he was not particularly enamoured with the government of the time.

Lord Gowrie

The exception: the  1980s minister was an intellectual polymath  who in his various incarnations was author, poet, cabinet minister, chairman of the Arts Council and chairman of Sotheby’s who had the respect of more of the art world than his successors.