David Lister: No rhyme or reason to booking fees

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The Independent Online

Few arts issues attract more discontent from audiences than booking fees. There is widespread and justifiable anger at West End theatres and rock concert venues adding a charge to the ticket price for reasons too linguistically obscure – handling charge, transaction fee – to understand.

But now I realise that I had perhaps been a little unfair in concentrating on the commercial sector. The venues that we as taxpayers already fund are also putting extra charges on the price of a ticket. This week I booked by telephone to see the always unmissable dancer Sylvie Guillem at Sadler's Wells in London, and was told by the box office that a £2.50 charge would be added to the price of the ticket. This was actually more than 10 per cent of the face value of the ticket.

Sadler's Wells is not alone. The Barbican and South Bank Centre add similar charges for telephone bookings, and lower charges, but charges nevertheless, for booking online. The South Bank stresses that these are not booking fees, they are "transaction fees", but the extra syllable makes little difference to my pocket. And how strange it is that, when the heads of these institutions boast about their inclusiveness and apparently low prices, they never, but never, mention these booking/transaction fees.

I asked why on earth they were being added on and was told by the Barbican that it was "to meet financial targets while offering a diverse artistic programme", and by Sadler's Wells that it was for "the costs of running the ticket office, which includes the cost of staffing it". The South Bank said similar things, mentioning also the cost of envelopes. And there was me thinking that we already paid for all of this through the Arts Council grant of public money to these organisations.

And here's the strangest thing of all. Bang next door to the South Bank Centre is another arts venue, also publicly funded, the National Theatre. It charges no booking fees, not a single transaction fee. When I asked why not, a spokeswoman replied: "Because we don't see a good reason for charging people for booking tickets. Why not also charge them for the cost of cleaning the actors' costumes, the electricity in the foyer? We believe that should all be included in the cost of the actual ticket. And also, booking fees are similar to regressive taxation, in that a flat booking fee proportionately amounts to a much greater levy on a low-price ticket than a high-price ticket."

Make that spokeswoman minister for the arts forthwith. Booking fees are indeed regressive taxation, punishing people in the cheaper seats more than the wealthier audience members in the stalls. And it's our publicly funded national venues that are doing the punishing. If we have to pay a booking fee to cover the costs of running a box office, then how long before we are charged a costume fee, a choreography fee, a lavatory fee? Do the South Bank Centre chiefs never stop to ask themselves why they charge these fees, and the publicly subsidised venue next door thinks it iniquitous to do so? Does the Arts Council, which is funding both bodies, not see a lack of logic in two of its neighbouring clients taking diametrically opposite approaches in their treatment of audiences? Perhaps it could do something to redeem its floundering reputation by instructing all the venues it funds to stop charging booking fees immediately.

Meanwhile, can I suggest that the chairman and artistic director of the National Theatre take their opposite numbers at the South Bank Centre for a stroll along the Thames, and teach them how to sell tickets without adding these wretched fees?

Parents should know their place in rock'n'roll

Amy Winehouse, arrived back in Britain after a two month stay in St Lucia to face a public, verbal barrage, not from her estranged husband, even though he is now out of prison, but from his mother. Previously we have heard a lot from Ms Winehouse's own mother and father. Also this week, Rihanna's father was talking in the press about the singer's future with the boyfriend who allegedly attacked her.

It does strike me that one of the changes in celebrity culture is the rise of the parent. In the early days of pop, parents were classed alongside children and spouses as things you never mentioned, if you had any aspiration to be a rock star. You didn't have Mick Jagger's mum battling it out with Paul McCartney's dad over which band was better on stage, any more than a decade later you would have had a senior Vicious arguing the toss with a senior Rotten.

In the 1980s and 1990s too, parents were kept at a distance. Only recently have they become part of the story. I think I prefer my celebs to have sprung fully unformed from nowhere.

Rocked by Amadeus

At the memorial service for the former BBC executive Bill Cotton, it was recalled how Mrs Thatcher, when Prime Minister, came to a BBC dinner and reprimanded the corporation over its "subversive" coverage of the Falklands War. When Cotton answered back, she replied: "I have said all I intend to say."

Actually, Mrs Thatcher was even more defiant, and brooked contradiction even less over an artistic matter when she made a rare visit to the theatre to see Amadeus at the National in the 1980s. She dined afterwards with the NT's then director Sir Peter Hall. He tells me that Mrs Thatcher said it was "disgraceful" that the National Theatre should do a play in which Mozart, the composer of such elegant music, utters four-letter words. When Sir Peter told her that Mozart's letters confirmed this, and the composer had a penchant for the scatological, she replied "impossible" and ended the conversation in characteristic style, glaring at him and saying very slowly: "I don't think you heard what I said. It could not be."