David Lister: The Week in Arts

Are there any signs of life in Stratford?
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The Independent Online

There was a large, conspicuous signpost for a butterfly farm; there were no fewer than three signs directing one to the racecourse, even though there was no racing that day. But I couldn't see any that might help the tourist to find the places for which Stratford is famous around the world. More famous even than for its butterfly farm.

Clearly some of the critics who did find the main theatre this week may have wished that they hadn't. The RSC was none too smart in opening the festival with a much disliked production of Romeo and Juliet. It can't be often that a festival's opening show is described by its media partner (The Daily Telegraph) as "tiresome", "lousy" and "dreadful". But I'm not too worried about the odd flop on stage. That will right itself.

Indeed, the second play in the festival, Antony and Cleopatra, received raves the following night. No, it's the profile off stage that worries me; of the festival, and indeed of Stratford itself. It's not just the lack of signposting to Stratford's theatres that I find lamentable. The fact that it does not possess a mainline station with a direct link to London must also bewilder tourists.

The RSC says that signposting is a matter for Stratford Council, but it would do the company's bosses no harm to bang a little more loudly on the council's doors with some demands.

More importantly, has the Complete Works jamboree permeated the national consciousness, or is it to be a treat only for dedicated theatre-goers? I fear that it is the latter. For the RSC to present for the first time every Shakespeare play in his birthplace over a 12-month period is an event that should be trumpeted around the world. It really is no exaggeration to say that. At best it could be an event that is talked about in decades to come, with an "I was there" cachet for those who attend part of the season - and an "I was numb" cachet for those who attend every single play.

But at worst it might end up being regarded as just another season of Shakespeare plays, with many visitors not even realising that the Hamlet or Macbeth they happen to catch is part of an unprecedented showing of the entire canon.

It is perhaps a little sad to say it of an obviously theatrical event, but what this festival needs is some TV exposure. The BBC's lack of interest in Shakespeare - and I mean the real thing, not the updated variety it is so proud of - is a cultural disgrace. But the RSC could also do more to press the corporation to mount joint endeavours. The BBC should be filming a selection of the complete works across the next 12 months and showing them on a mainstream channel. No offence to BBC4, but if this really is an unprecedented cultural event, then it should be aimed at a large viewing audience.

The RSC and its artistic director Michael Boyd can be congratulated for the festival. But staging the stuff isn't enough. Artistic directors and their boards have to be impresarios. Shakespeare was certainly one. He even lobbied the Queen and brought shows to the palace for her birthday. Now there's a thought.

Not so bleeding obvious

What was the first swear word used on television? The question, which could add a frisson to a pub quiz, is answered in the programme notes for the West End production of Steptoe and Son, the belated offshoot from the old TV series. Interviewed in the programme, the original scriptwriter Ray Galton recalls: "We put the first swear word on the BBC." He had Harold and Albert, right, try to move a piano out of a high-rise flat. At the end, they get it wedged in a corridor.

Giving up on the job, Harold said: "We've learned one very important lesson today. What goes up can bleeding well stay there."

The word "bleeding" on primetime TV caused problems for the BBC, with Tom Sloane, then head of light entertainment, prepared to go to the stake for the impurity of the script. "They'll take that out over my dead body," he declared. And it did stay in, but that was not the end of the matter. A "bleeding" on the BBC led to questions being asked in Parliament.

* "Tate Liverpool welcomes its 10 millionth visitor," boasts the venue this week. And I say "balderdash". Such announcements are hilarious and meaningless. Aside from the fact that linguistically it is dubious - many people visit repeatedly; it is not 10 million different visitors - free museums have simply no idea how many visitors they get. How can they have? Most have no mechanism for measuring how many people come in a day. And even in those venues which claim to have man, woman or machine logging each new arrival, there is no way of logging the numbers in a school party that rushes into the entrance hall.

In fact, it is only those much-derided charging museums that can give an accurate figure for how many people they attract and can argue about numbers when they apply for funding. Visitor numbers proudly announced by free museums are just hyped-up guesswork.