David Lister: The minister's gone native, but the cuts will still hurt

The Week In Arts
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The Independent Online

Sooner or later every Culture Secretary goes native.

Those First Nights, private views and celebrity hobnobbings can turn the iciest politician into an honorary member of the arts lobby. That lobby must be praying that Jeremy Hunt has indeed gone native, as he completes his negotiations with the Treasury over the extent of the coming cuts.

Chatting to Mr Hunt in his office at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport this week, I saw some signs of this. It's not just the two Mark Wallinger canvases on his wall (to the irritation of the artist, apparently). It's more the passion with which he enthused about the young audiences flocking to see contemporary art, and his delight in some of the more radical work he saw at the Edinburgh Festival. Of course, it might be of even more use to the arts if the Chancellor, George Osborne, goes native. Well, he has a Grayson Perry on his wall, so there's some hope.

It's also true that Mr Hunt is putting the worst of the cuts on his own department. The DCMS is being cut by an astonishing 50 per cent. The day I was there it was like a ghost town as most of the civil servants were on an away-day to work out how they were going to cope with this. The minister is trying to ensure that the "front line", as he calls it, suffers less than his department, various quangos and, I suspect, the Arts Council. But the omens are not great. A 40 per cent figure is still being talked about. Mr Hunt will try to sugar the pill by encouraging all arts institutions to turn more to philanthropy and endowments (though his idea of 100-year endowment plans may leave arts institutions that are worrying about how to get through next month a little bemused).

Still, he is a thoughtful man, determined to find some ways of helping the arts in the face of the worst cuts most institutions will have ever seen. He will give the sector for the first time a four-year settlement with more time to absorb the pain, possibly with a gentler lead-in and the worst of the cuts to come later. He will also definitely not tell the national museums and galleries to start charging for admission again.

He is convinced by the argument that the arts do boost the economy, though equally unconvinced by the argument that we are talking about a small amount of money here in global terms, so why cut? Too many departments are using the "small amount of money" argument. The Treasury no longer has time for it.

Put that alongside the fact that departments such as Education and Defence can expect to get less than the maximum cut, and the outlook for the arts is financially bleak. Mr Hunt may have gone native to some degree, but the Treasury looks more and more unlikely to give the arts special treatment. What Mr Hunt does think, as do I, is that this must now be a time for a major rethink of the way the arts are funded and run. There will be a need for a lot of fundraisers. It's the one area of the jobs market likely to expand.

Complaints from some older actresses...

Much has been made in recent weeks of complaints that older actresses fail to find roles, particularly on television. Equity, the actors' union, has launched a petition calling on broadcasters to put more women in TV dramas. More than 8,000 people have signed the petition, with performers including Juliet Stevenson and Lesley Manville speaking out on the subject.

But now two other older actresses, Felicity Kendal and Patsy Kensit, have complained about the complainers. Ms Kensit, 42, says that TV is in fact "kinder to women" of her age, adding that she has been working solidly for six years. Ms Kendal, 63, told The Stage newspaper that while the classics feature mostly men, "we are getting many more series and many more plays about women running businesses, because that is what our society is like. Women are playing a stronger role in society and that is being mirror-imaged in the work we do."

This is very confusing. Which older actresses are we to believe? Equity, rather than launching petitions, should research the number of parts in TV dramas given to actresses over the age of 40 across a year's broadcasting and how this compares with, say, 10 years ago. Then we'd know which alliance of older actresses is right.

...and one older comedienne

Also unhappy is the wonderful comedienne Victoria Wood. She has complained this week about BBC executives not treating her or her work with the respect they deserve. She is perplexed that they screened her Christmas special last year on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day, and the person who made this decision had never even met her. She said this week she feels "not trusted and not valued".

One's instinct is, of course, to side with the brilliant Victoria Wood against some faceless BBC bureaucrat. But actually I'm with the Beeb on this one. Ms Wood's job is to deliver her show. It's then up to BBC schedulers to schedule. And does the scheduler really need to meet the talent? Surely the show should be judged on its merits, not on any personal relationship between a BBC exec and the show's creator. Besides, Christmas Eve isn't a bad slot, and the show did get 7.5 million viewers. A case of performer paranoia, I suspect.