David Lister: Get off screen and into the provinces

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There's a small revolution taking place in the British arts scene at the moment. Our national powerhouses are filming some of their productions and releasing the "movies" in cinemas across the country. The Royal Opera House has been experimenting with this for a little while now, but this year it will be doing it with a vengeance, bringing at least six operas and ballets, not just to the art-house cinemas but also to the multiplexes.

And this week Nicholas Hytner spoke of how the National Theatre will for the first time do the same. It will film some productions and play them in cinemas, starting with Phèdre starring Helen Mirren, right. This will go live by satellite to around 150 cinemas. Mr Hytner is no fool when it comes to marketing. The name Helen Mirren outside a cinema will bring in quite a few more film-goers than, well, some of the National Theatre's other leading lights.

I'm the last person who should find fault with this. I have been arguing for years that it is shameful that our leading theatre companies do not film their productions for posterity. It means that some of the leading stage performers of the age, the likes of Simon Russell Beale, will leave little record for future generations.

But I have to say that stage to cinema was not quite what I had in mind. I wanted the great stage productions introduced to a television audience. Surely it cannot be beyond the wit of our national broadcaster, the BBC, and our National Theatre to get together to produce an annual season of the best of the NT on TV.

Cinema is better than nothing, but I suspect it will only bring in the devotees, and not catch a new and unsuspecting audience who just might have switched on the TV. And I'm afraid that I'm far from convinced that opera and ballet on film are remotely comparable to the experience of seeing the two art forms in live performance.

But, of course, one can understand why Tony Hall, chief executive of the Royal Opera House, and Nicholas Hytner of the National Theatre are keen to shout about cinema relays. They satisfy one of the key criteria of their funding, that they bring their productions to new audiences and truly national audiences.

But there's another way to bring the productions to audiences outside London. One could always bring the productions to audiences outside London. Tour them, so that audiences can see them as nature intended, live, on a stage.

Why is it so difficult for our national companies to tour? The English National Opera never gets out of London (though at least with the help of Sky Arts it has now shown a new production on TV), the Royal Opera and National Theatre all too rarely. The Royal Ballet can get to Japan and China, but not to Liverpool or Newcastle. Nicholas Hytner said this week that when he was a boy in Manchester he saw a National Theatre touring production of The Merchant of Venice starring Laurence Olivier as Shylock. It was the only time he saw Olivier on stage, and he would have really welcomed something like the stage to cinema initiative he is now introducing, so that he could have seen more of Olivier's performances.

It's a slightly odd logic. When Hytner was a lad there was plenty of Olivier on film to be seen. Had Olivier's National Theatre done a short season in Manchester, then the young Hytner and other young Mancunians could have seen the real, incomparable, thing.

Hytner said this week that his "NT Live" relays from stage to cinema is "5,000 times better than nothing", Maybe. But regular stage to TV is 10,000 times better than nothing. And that, allied to regular touring by our national companies, is 50,000 times better than nothing.

Not a damp eye in the house

A male colleague tells me how he was tapped on the shoulder by a woman sitting behind him at the opera to ask: "Could you please not sob so loudly?" Opera critics tend to dwell either on the production techniques or the quality of the singing, playing or conducting. But you should never underrate the sob factor. I have certainly shed a tear or two during Rigoletto and, until this week, La Bohème.

Sadly, Jonathan Miller's disappointing production of La Bohème at the English National Opera left me and many others dry-eyed at Mimi's demise. Perhaps it was a lack of chemistry between the two lovers, Rodolfo and Mimi, played by Alfie Boe and Melody Moore (above). But for me it proved that however fine the singing, an audience demands something more from a tragic opera. It has to pass the sob test.

Anarchy at the Fringe falls flat

You have to feel for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. There it is, famously anarchic, famously experimental, famously cutting edge. And now, following a failure of its box-office systems last year, a report by Scottish chartered accountants Scott Moncrieff has condemned the running of the Fringe unequivocally.

"The Fringe Society's governance arrangements are weak," it says. "In particular there is a lack of strategic direction and transparency in decision making. The directors need to strengthen their procedures to reflect their ultimate responsibility and accountability for the society's affairs." It adds that there was "poor project management" and "no effective contingency planning".

This all sounds rather bureaucratic language for the anarchic old Fringe. I think two of the leading lights in the Fringe Society should dress up in clowns' costumes and parade outside the offices of Scott Moncrieff, kicking each other in the bum as a gesture of atonement.