David Lister: A false start for the Cultural Olympiad

If there is nothing ready to announce in March 2010, is a wealth of top talent suddenly going to be available for July 2012?
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The Independent Online

Viewers of the BBC News at Ten on Wednesday night will have seen an odd item. Huw Edwards announced at the start that the BBC would "reveal" details of the Cultural Olympiad. Later in the bulletin the corporation's new arts editor Will Gompertz, surrounded by trapeze artists and jugglers, gave his report on the Cultural Olympiad. It contained nothing about trapeze artists or jugglers and revealed absolutely zilch. Ruth Mackenzie, the new director of the Cultural Olympiad, did tell Gompertz that the 12-week festival must be "about getting absolutely fantastic artists to do extraordinary events".

Revelations aren't what they used to be. But I can cast a little light on how this surreal news report came about. On Wednesday morning there was a press briefing from the head honchos of the Cultural Olympiad, the chairman Tony Hall, who is head of the Royal Opera House, the director Ruth Mackenzie, who has held numerous high-profile arts jobs, and Alex Poots, who runs the Manchester International Festival. That must have given the BBC high hopes, as it did me. But in the event, they announced that there would be a festival in 2012, the London Olympics year, and it would be called Festival 2012.

One can't argue with the name, though I hope not too much time and money went into dreaming it up, as it isn't that amazingly original. They failed to give a single detail about what will be in the festival, apart from the fact that there will be "a commitment to Shakespeare". By way of explanation they said repeatedly that it is only week seven of planning for the Cultural Olympiad. It may be week seven for some of them, who are newly appointed, but the Cultural Olympiad planning began, as they admit, when the 2008 Beijing Olympics ended. It's actually about week 80, and a lot of public money has so far produced precious little in the way of concrete ideas, apart from commissions for a parallel cultural programme by disabled and deaf people.

More than £15m of lottery money will be going into the jamboree, and the Arts Council and British Council will also give cash at a time when arts funding looks likely to drop, so Festival 2012 and related events are really going to have to prove their worth anew. We should remember that while there is a tradition of having Cultural Olympiads, there is no law that makes them mandatory. The whole notion is debatable. People will be focusing on London in 2012 for matters sporting, and it could have been as useful as a cultural festival (and an awful lot cheaper) simply to highlight the wealth of culture already available in the capital and around the country.

It's also a pity that the Cultural Olympiad has no input into the Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, surely a key showcase for culture and watched around the world. I worry even more that the country's top artists tend to get booked up years ahead. If there is nothing ready to announce in March 2010, is a wealth of top talent suddenly going to be available for July 2012?

Still, let's be positive. The commitment to Shakespeare is encouraging, and we can all at least chip in with our own ideas of what other elements of British culture to show the world. It could work. It could be a new Festival of Britain that will be remembered for decades. But time is running out, and the start has not been auspicious.

Drag yourself into the 21st century, Irek

In an interview this week in The Independent, the great ballet dancer Irek Mukhamedov spoke about the controversial ballet The Judas Tree, which is being revived at Covent Garden. Mukhamedov danced the central role in the first production 18 years ago, and is now coaching Carlos Acosta in the role. The ballet features a gang rape, which follows the main female character teasing a group of men. Mukhamedov told the interviewer: "This is how I understand men. Most of the time if they had a chance, they would think about it. It's how the situation happens. She's making the situation come to that."

Er, what?! "Most of the time if they had a chance they would think about it." Is that really the philosophy expounded by the male dancers of the Royal Ballet? Mukhamedov was a wonderful dancer, but he should change his friends.

Lessons in keeping things private

The marriage break-up of Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes provoked the same reaction in me as the earlier split of Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise. I couldn't help but think how in Hollywood, New York and around the world, thousands of reporters, photographers and magazine editors have their sights on the comings and goings of superstars. Yet, in the case of Winslet and Mendes, just as with Kidman and Cruise, the marriage split of one of the most famous couples in the world takes everyone completely by surprise. Indeed, with Winslet and Mendes the couple actually separated some months ago, and no one seems to have noticed.

I don't know whether to be shocked that my ignoble profession has missed a story again, or relieved to learn that, for all the paparazzi and reporters, the biggest stars in the world can keep their private lives private any time they really want to. It's probably the latter.

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