David Lister: Great writers don't need a helping hand

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There's an unusual story about the new Alan Bennett play, The Habit of Art, which opens at the National Theatre next Tuesday. I gather that the National's artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, found the manuscript just pushed through his front door at home. Bennett had worked on it alone without telling anyone and, shy man that he is, just delivered it unannounced and unexpected – and departed without ringing the bell.

What's so special about that, you might ask. Surely established playwrights would work on a play on their own. Well, not if Mark Ravenhill has his way. Ravenhill, author of the hugely successful play Shopping and Fucking, has complained to The Stage newspaper that theatre is failing playwrights because it is obsessed with new writers.

The worms are turning. After years of everyone in the arts (rightly in my view) wanting to encourage, nurture and stage new writers, the established mob is becoming a bit envious. Ravenhill says the industry considers it "sexy" to find a new writer and produce his or her work, but complains that there is no support network for these writers once they have had their first work staged.

Ravenhill thinks that theatres should start a relationship with a writer that "is going to extend over time and will result in a number of plays". He adds: "What you find when you are starting out is that everybody rushes at you and offers you schemes and workshops and all sorts of things to write your first play, but then they disappear, and the second, third and fourth play you have to come up with all by yourself."

I think that last phrase is worth repeating: "You have to come up with all by yourself."

All by yourself! What an appalling position for a writer to be put in. To have to come up with a piece of writing all by yourself. Indeed, to quote Ravenhill, to have to come up with your "third or fourth play" all by yourself. Theatres can be cruel taskmasters.

My own view – and forgive me if it is wrong, but I have come up with it all by myself – is that it is correct for the arts to find, encourage and help new writers, but that once they begin to develop a body of work, it is more than fair for theatres, artistic directors and funding bodies to move on to other first-time playwrights, and assume that the successful ones have mastered their craft, their style and their technique.

Some of the greatest art is collaborative, but that does not mean that all art has to be collaborative, and it does not mean that one has to be helped to produce art well into one's career. A culture of help has developed in the subsidised arts, which can have fantastic benefits, such as the exciting, young, female playwrights that are filling theatres at the moment. The downside is that a culture has also developed of expectation that this help, financial and collaborative, should continue for years.

We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the art of writing can be, perhaps should be, a solitary occupation, and is often all the better for that. A great or potentially great writer shouldn't be looking for help on their fourth play. I go for the Alan Bennett approach.

The real Michael Caine story – what's it all about?

Michael Caine's new film Harry Brown is a tale of appalling violence and intimidation (or anti-social behaviour as it is euphemistically known) on an unnamed estate. By all accounts, it is rather melodramatic. But I was interested to learn that the Heygate estate where it was filmed was the same estate in Elephant and Castle in south London where 76-year-old Caine grew up. He says that during the three weeks of filming, the youths on the estate were a bit suspicious of him, and asked him where he came from. "Actually, just there," he said, pointing at a tower block which was once his childhood home.

"After that they trusted me," says Caine. "They wanted to know how I got out. They all asked me that. They're not bad kids. They just need a better chance. Those flats on the estate are appalling."

The film may or may not be much good. But I'd have loved to see a documentary film of the shooting of Harry Brown and the world-famous actor revisiting his boyhood home, engaging with the people living there now, and returning to his Chelsea Harbour flat sadder and wiser.

Mother Courage goes on

The production by Deborah Warner of Brecht's Mother Courage at the National Theatre is more than three hours long, and you might expect audiences to head quickly for the late train home when it ends. But on the night I attended, there was a free performance in the foyer afterwards by Duke Special, the popular and quirky band that provides the music for the show.

In the middle of their free set, Fiona Shaw, Mother Courage herself, who had been on stage for the whole evening, ran to the platform where the band were performing, and caused them and the audience to go silent as she gave a poignant reading of a Beckett poem.

There was hardly time to catch breath before the band started performing again. One can criticise, and often deservedly so, the high prices charged for some events. But I had to rub my eyes to believe that I and this packed crowd were revelling in a late-night performance full of verve, surprise and spontaneity, and all absolutely free.

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