David Lister: Nice festival. Shame about the city

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The London Film Festival started well this week. Frost/Nixon was a first-rate film to open with, showcasing as it does one of our finest actors, Michael Sheen. The gala opening in Leicester Square was followed by a suitably glamorous party in the ballroom of the Hilton Hotel. It was only when I stepped out of the Hilton to go home that I felt something wasn't quite right.

I no longer felt I was at a film festival. That may seem an odd observation to make in the small hours. But at most arts festivals, you know you are in the middle of one, whatever time of day or night. You can't be in Edinburgh in August and not know you are in the middle of a festival. You can't be at Cannes in May without living and breathing movies in every street you walk down. The posters, the parties, the people – all reek of the industry.

But in London there are an awful lot of other things going on. I haven't done any sort of scientific survey, but I do wonder how many Londoners know they are currently in the middle of a film festival. Five per cent? One per cent? I'd guess it's rather less than that.

It boils down to the question: "What is a film festival?" In Cannes it is a mixture of market, celebrity and overview of the best forthcoming movies from across the world. London's festival does not have much of a market for buying and selling as few of the Hollywood moguls seem to come. There are some visiting celebs, but not as many as in Cannes or Venice. Certainly, it does have a fine range of international films, ranging from the new James Bond (though not the royal premiere) to the best in international art-house cinema.

But a fine range of films in a city not exactly short on films, and not even short on art-house cinemas, is not really enough. A film festival has to be more than a festival of films, odd as that may sound. A film festival has to be a tight unit of people eating, breathing, talking and seeing films. It has to be a period of a few weeks when nothing else seems to exist but film. It has to have key meeting points in which those film fanatics can gather and have the usual film festival discussions – show off their film buff knowledge, agonise over a director's change of direction, deplore the amount of Hollywood fare.

In Cannes I can name precisely the venues where people gather after a screening. But there's no pub, no coffee house near Leicester Square that can be called a film festival haunt. Festival-goers would be vastly outnumbered by Londoners and tourists doing a hundred other things.

Stage a festival outside the capital and you not only put another town or city in the international spotlight and bring it visitors and jobs; you also have a cultural destination, with easily identifiable meeting points wherefestival-goers gather. The Sheffield Documentary Film Festival is one such example. There are many others. A festival needs, above all, to be a shared experience. It needs to keep people together afterwards to discuss and relive it, rather than disappearing into the big city night.

I can't fault the selection of films for the London Film Festival. I just wish the event was the Torquay Film Festival, or the Durham Film Festival, or the Chester Film Festival. London would survive.

Better late than never

The new arts minister Barbara Follett, pictured, mentioned something rather interesting in her first meeting with the press. She says she is a member of a small club of female Labour MPs who spend their Thursday nights going to the theatre or opera. The other members of the club are Harriet Harman, Patricia Hewitt and Margaret Hodge.

This is good news. Ms Harman is deputy leader of the Labour Party, and rarely has such a senior government personage taken such an interest in the arts. It's only a shame she never seems to mention it in any of her speeches. Let's hope she reports to Cabinet on her weekly outings.

Ms Follett says that, because of the needs of the House of Commons, the club members often miss the start of the show, and have to come in late. I hope they sit in a box. Having these four easily identifiable women disturb audiences as they find their way to their seats could lead to some rather ribald comments, and disturb the performers.

Every time we say goodbye...

So farewell, Alfred Brendel. The great pianist, who is now 77, has given his farewell performance in a concert with orchestra on London's South Bank. It was an emotional occasion, and there was a rousing standing ovation.

It was also an emotional occasion three years ago at the Proms, when Brendel gave what was billed as his farewell performance. There was a tribute from the Proms director from the stage and a rousing standing ovation. Technically, this was farewell to live broadcast performances.

Earlier this year there was an emotional occasion and rousing standing ovation for what was again billed as Brendel's farewell concert, also on London's South Bank. But technically this was farewell to recitals without orchestra.

There was also an emotional occasion and rousing standing ovation at the Edinburgh Festival this summer, and a standing ovation, for Brendel's farewell. This was farewell to the Edinburgh Festival, I suppose. Anyway, farewell to Alfred Brendel. Until the next farewell.

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