David Lister: Censorship secret is out of the bag

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What a great scene it would have been in a movie. Sir Christopher Frayling, the outgoing chairman of the Arts Council, told this week how after announcing a series of cuts to arts organisations including the National Student Drama Festival last year, he went to New York to stay in the Algonquin Hotel.

He got into the hotel lift and who should walk in but the celebrated film director Mike Leigh. "What are you doing to the National Student Drama Festival, you shit?" said Leigh. I don't know what the bellboy thought. He probably muttered something like "Gee, you don't mess with the British arts establishment".

Sir Christopher was not impressed. He used his valedictory lecture and an interview to bewail the standard of debate about the arts in Britain today. It was not only Mike Leigh who had offended him. He said how hurt he was by a speech from Nicholas Hytner, head of the National Theatre. "When Nick Hytner said the Arts Council talked bollocks and is bollocks, and launched a tirade, that upset me."

Indeed, that took the biscuit for Mr Sir Christopher. "We had just uplifted the National's grant," he exclaimed, before going on to say how low standards of cultural debate had fallen since Plato, Kant and Orwell. Three of the finest, but I actually prefer the Mike Leigh approach. It took that and a number of similarly full-frontal attacks to get most of those ghastly decisions last year reversed, and I suspect that reasoned debate might not have achieved that.

As for Nick Hytner, is he really not to be allowed to voice criticism because his own grant has been increased? What kind of democracy is that? Not one that Orwell would have approved of, I suspect. Anyway, how is it possible to have a proper debate about the arts when £400m-plus of arts funding is decided, not by Parliament, but by an unelected quango, the Arts Council? I don't know what Plato would have said about that. But I suspect he wasn't big on unelected quangos.

Actually, when it comes to the art of debate, I was more interested, fantastically interested, actually, in a throwaway line in Sir Christopher's valedictory lecture. Enthusing that there was no government censorship of the arts in Britain, he added that there had nevertheless been "a surprising amount of self-censorship in the arts since 9/11 – usually involving the Koran".

What a pity that the Arts Council has not seen fit to shout about this, to condemn it unequivocally, to draw the nation's attention to where it has been going on, where perhaps it is still going on. That surely would raise the temperature of cultural debate.

Sir Christopher, who is an interesting and erudite man, gave an interesting and erudite lecture. But for me nothing in his lengthy overview of arts governance since the Second World War was as interesting or as important as that throwaway line about self-censorship. It deserves an entire lecture to itself. Can anything in our cultural affairs be more important than the fact that we are living in an age of self-censorship and, presumably, fear by those who put on plays and films, write comedies, and publish books?

It probably needs someone with the robustness and linguistic vigour of a Leigh or a Hytner to get the debate started, rather than someone in the more restrained Frayling/Plato mould. But Sir Christopher could help by making his farewell gesture a public statement of all the information the Arts Council has on this self-censorship. His successor, Dame Liz Forgan, can then tell us what she intends to do about it.

To DVD or not to DVD?

I questioned on this page a few weeks ago why the Royal Shakespeare Company had neglected to make a DVD of David Tennant's triumphant 'Hamlet'. He did, after all, complete a whole season doing the play in Stratford before injury kept him off the stage in London. Not only would a DVD go some way to satisfying those who couldn't get tickets to see him on stage, it would also make the RSC a lot of money.

'Independent' reader Margret Best tells me she has now organised a petition to have such a DVD made, and has collected a staggering 5,000 signatures to present to RSC artistic director, Michael Boyd. Mr Boyd really ought now to bring Tennant and the rest of the cast back for a day's filming. Tennant's magnificent performance must be preserved for future generations, and as a Shakespeare DVD that schoolchildren would actually love to see. And, surely the RSC can't be totally opposed to making some money.

Just following orders

It's no secret that interviews with Hollywood stars are not always all that they seem. But it's a while since I have seen conditions quite as rigid as those for interviews with the film star Michelle Williams (right). Ms Williams was the partner of Heath Ledger, who died last year. Her publicist and Soda Pictures are telling would-be interviewers and their editors that they must sign an agreement that "1. There will be no conversation about Heath;" 2. "For headline you are not allowed to use any 'exclusive first interview with Michelle Williams since Heath's death' or anything that mentions him;" 3. "Any mention of Heath must be contained to one paragraph only." They add that as The New York Times has agreed to all of this, other newspapers should do the same.

I have sympathy for Michelle Williams, but if she is to do interviews, she could refrain from dictating what they say. Meanwhile, I shall be more sceptical in future when I read The New York Times.