Rupert Murdoch, patron of the arts. It still has a most unlikely ring to it. But it has to be said that the investment of Sky television in culture is proving quite impressive. It now has four arts channels (OK, two are HD versions of the first two), but even just having two arts channels counts for something at a time when ITV is axing The South Bank Show and the BBC has insufficient arts strands.
Every night at 8pm, Sky now shows a full length opera, ballet or symphony concert. That leaves its rivals in the shade, so credit where it's due. Rupert Murdoch's belated interest in high culture (and son James in particular smiles on the arts channels, I hear) is reaping benefits for arts television, and the channel's controllers are now preparing two new developments which, they say, will take arts TV considerably further. And it is there that I am rather less overwhelmed. In the past week or so, I have been shown their plans for three-dimensional arts television, and for bringing plays to TV. On paper they are both exciting developments. With my 3D glasses on at a private screening, it seemed less exciting. A 3D version of Swan Lake, which channel executives say will bring more people to ballet, could not avoid the feeling of gimmick that accompanies most of the embryonic 3D broadcasts so far. As the year progresses we are going to hear more and more about 3D television, but it is more likely to be a mildly diverting and mildly distracting addition to arts on television than its saviour.
I was far more interested in the decision to start broadcasting live dramas. The season will be called "Theatre Live!" It is worthy of an exclamation mark because theatre has been absent from the small screen for a long time. The neglect of plays on all television channels has been a disgrace. It has led to both contemporary and classic playwrights being unknown to television viewers, as are the great stage actors of the day, the likes of Simon Russell-Beale and Clare Higgins. OK, the BBC has announced this week that it will broadcast David Tennant's RSC Hamlet, and I'm delighted that the name of Tennant can work such miracles. It is mighty hard to recall when the BBC last put on a Shakespeare play or, come to that, an Ibsen or a Chekhov, or a Pinter or a Stoppard.
At last, I hoped with Sky Arts's new commitment to live drama and "theatrical world premieres", this neglect might be reversed. It seems not. Despite publicity that says this is "a watershed for theatre on TV", Sky will actually be producing live half-hour dramas, all new writing for very small casts by novelists and others who have an urge to try their hand at play-writing. Interesting enough I suppose, though I'm not sold on this idea that nothing beats live drama. Nothing beats great drama, and there is plenty of that on stage at present, plenty of which can be re-created in a studio. Insiders at Sky tell me there is a reluctance on behalf of our biggest theatre companies to put their work on television. That theatre must be "a shared experience" is an article of faith among theatre directors.
But it's wrong; sharing with several million isn't to be sneezed at. Television is by sheer force of numbers the greatest outlet for culture that we have. If Murdoch can now spearhead a drive to have real plays put on TV, then then it really will be a case of "all is forgiven." Almost.
'Hairspray' comes unstuck
A reader writes to me with, sadly, another example of theatre managers treating ticket-buyers with less than common courtesy. This reader bought a ticket to see Hairspray at the Shaftesbury Theatre in the West End, largely because he was a fan of its star, Michael Ball.
He was dismayed to arrive and find that Ball was on holiday. This, he felt, he should have been told when he booked the ticket. When he raised this with a theatre manager afterwards, he was curtly informed: "This isn't the Michael Ball show."
That's odd. When I travel on the London Underground each day, I see posters for Hairspray with the words "Michael Ball" in very large letters. No other actor is mentioned, nor is the director or choreographer. It doesn't read like a poster for an ensemble show; it reads like a poster for the Michael Ball show.
Dasha splashes her cash to help the unfortunate
The party of the week at the Venice Biennale seems to have been the bash thrown to celebrate the opening of the Pinault collection of contemporary art.
Sir Elton John, Naomi Campbell, Jake and Dinos Chapman showed up, along with the Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich and his girlfriend, the Russian art dealer Dasha Zhukova, above. She told me she was going to present in her Moscow gallery The Garage, a virtual tour of the Biennale on screens for those unable to come to Venice. The recession was preventing people from making the trip, she said, so she wanted to share the experience with them. The girl's got heart.