It is being described as the Booker for playwriting. That may be a bit premature. The award needs to build up a reputation before it earns that soubriquet. But it is certainly an anomaly that there are major prizes for novels, non-fiction, biography, poetry and children's books, but not for writing for the stage.
Braham Murray, of the Royal Exchange, says: "In the same way that the Booker is the public face of literature, we're hoping that this award can revitalise playwriting as a craft. We'll have a big team of readers and we're expecting anywhere between 2,000 and 4,000 scripts."
So the prize is to be welcomed; but the real glory of it, I believe, lies in one specific criterion. All entries are to be anonymous. Now that really tickles the fancy. The 19-year-old student will be judged on equal terms with the most famous playwrights in the land, should they choose to enter. The Royal Exchange believes they will. Perhaps this could be the competition that draws Harold Pinter out of his official retirement, though it might be a shock to the cultural system if the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature were beaten by a novice.
But that is the joy of it. For once in British cultural life there is a level playing field. Actually, that is not quite accurate. Entries for literary prizes at the Eisteddfod in Wales have been submitted under pseudonyms for centuries. But nearly all other awards avoid anonymity.
I wonder why. Could it be that anonymity might prove a little awkward for cultural truisms? How embarrassing if the Orange Prize were conducted under rules of anonymity and there turned out to be no women on the shortlist. How awkward if the TS Eliot or Forward poetry prizes were anonymous and Seamus Heaney were beaten by a precocious sixth-former. How devastating if the Turner Prize were anonymous, and the BritArt pack were thrashed by someone with a day job as a despised middle-England landscape traditionalist.
That is why our best known cultural awards don't dare to embrace anonymity. The result could be crushing to years of culturally correct beliefs. And that is why the Royal Exchange's new prize could be the most exciting arts award of the year. The prize has been timed so that the winning plays will have their premieres during Manchester's international festival, scheduled for summer 2007. But to ensure real excitement, the Royal Exchange will, I hope, guarantee to reveal eventually which celebrated playwrights failed to win.
And, while we're about it, let's extend anonymity to the financial awards that the Arts Council gives in grants to orchestras. The Council differentiates sharply when handing out the cash. One may be declared a "super-orchestra", another an under-achiever. I would like the Council to listen to all these orchestras "blind." Perhaps a partition could hide the players, so the Council would make its judgements purely on the music heard. Of course, other aspects of orchestral life, such as educational work and touring are taken into account when the grants are awarded. But in the case of the music itself, let's get anonymous.
The Council would have to pronounce not just on which orchestras were the most deserving for the quality of their playing, but also on which were which. No doubt, they would guess right. Probably. Perhaps.
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It is a silly to expect actors to be the same off screen as on. They do not have to stay in character at a press conference. And yet, and yet ... illogical as it is, with James Bond the rules are somehow different. The spell is broken if the actor is not cool and suave and witty. Sean Connery, even now, is all those things when one comes across him in the flesh.
The newest Bond, Daniel Craig, does not seem to have grasped that the public's expectation of an off-screen 007 is more or less the same as the public's expectation of an on-screen 007. He reportedly sputtered, muttered and swore when asked at a press conference which one of Kate Moss and Sienna Miller was his ideal Bond girl (he has been friends with both ladies). One feels that any half decent PR should have briefed him that this question would be asked. But worse, one feels that James Bond would have had a brilliantly charming and funny riposte. And, fair or not, the actor playing him should have had one too.
* Private Passions, the Radio 3 programme hosted by Michael Berkeley, is classical music's version of Desert Island Discs. The guests, usually involved in the arts, talk about their careers and choose their favourite pieces of classical music. Mr Berkeley has now produced a book of the music chosen by the worthies who have been on the programme in the 10 years it has been running. One thing Mr Berkeley said in his foreword to the book caught my attention. He recounted how Tom Courtenay was moved to tears while discussing his selections. I asked a Radio 3 source whether any other guests had been so moved. In fact, there was a whole host of lachrymose guests. Juliet Stevenson, Paul Bailey, Terry Waite and Oliver Sacks had all cried. Over at Radio 4 on Desert Island Discs, eyes tend to stay dry. It must say something about classical music's power to move the listener - or perhaps Michael Berkeley is just more of a tear-jerker than Sue Lawley.Reuse content