David Lister: The Week in Arts

Don't expect an MP to be a decent film critic
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The Independent Online

Why is it that MPs have a blind spot about the movies? Seeing a film is a common activity for the rest of the population. But MPs don't seem to do it. They attend rock concerts, occasionally the theatre and even more occasionally the opera. But when did you last turn round at the cinema on a Saturday night and see your local MP behind you?

That is why it is a great sport for arts reporters every time a new culture secretary is appointed to ask what was the last movie they saw. A look of blind panic always crosses the face of the new incumbent. That is also why the greatest gaffe in the arts that I have ever witnessed was at the Cannes film festival, when the then Conservative arts minister Stephen Dorrell was visiting. The festival was paying tribute to the exquisite actress Jeanne Moreau. Mr Dorrell decided to add his personal tribute and described Moreau as "a great Frenchman".

As I say, MPs just don't do movies. So I was curious to read this week a poll of MPs on their favourite films. In first place was Casablanca. That was a dead cert, because Casablanca is the movie of choice for people who don't go very often to the movies. It's safe; it's a classic; it's got Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, and even the most philistine of MPs saw it on TV at Christmas when they were young. No chance of being caught out or doing a Dorrell with Casablanca.

Much the same applies to the runners-up in the survey by Sky Movies: Star Wars, Some Like It Hot and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. MPs must have had the titles lodged in the recesses of their brains.

What was less predictable, and far more fascinating, was the breakdown of favourite films by political party. Labour MPs favoured Brassed Off, a touching and thought-provoking story of the plight of a colliery brass band following pit closures. This might have stirred some dormant socialist feelings - a feel-good movie, as unlikely as that might sound.

But, God bless the Tories. Conservative MPs gave a resounding vote of confidence to Carry On Up the Khyber, the 1968 film in the franchise which, aside from the hilarious rhyming slang of the title, offered the even more hilarious proposition that a regiment of British soldiers wore pants under their kilts.

One has to feel for David Cameron. There he is desperately trying to modernise his party. He must have been hoping that his troops would have voted for Al Gore's environmental screen polemic An Inconvenient Truth. And all the time what they really yearn for is a good old Carry On film. What stronger evidence could there be that the rump of the Tory party looks back nostalgically to an aspect of British culture now vanished? Or maybe they've just got a questionable sense of humour.

As for the Liberal Democrats, I confess that I'm baffled. High on their list is Austin Powers: Goldmember, in some ways a Carry On film for the modern era. There's something of a cultural pact with the Tories there. But what really puzzles me is their choice of the recent film Wimbledon. It has the virtue of being modern, but is a slight, romantic comedy. Does it really deserve to be in a list of the best movies of all time?

No doubt there are further political analyses one can make of MPs' film preferences. They may indeed reveal political attitudes that our representatives feel it best to keep hidden the rest of the year. But, culturally, their choices lead to an inescapable conclusion. They need to get out more, and go to the pictures.

It's only words...

I have a slight sympathy for Tony Blair over the Bee Gees affair. No sympathy at all for his shameless love of freebies, but I do feel he may have been misjudged in being labelled (almost everywhere) a disco fan for staying at Robin Gibb's home. All the newspapers wrote of the Bee Gees as a Seventies group and some showed pictures of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.

Certainly, the group's score for this movie reinforced their fame and they became synonymous with the disco explosion of the late Seventies, now thought of as rather naff. But Tony Blair - being the age he is - would have come across the Bee Gees when they had their first round of fame in the mid-Sixties. Then they had a string of hits with memorable ballads such as "To Love Somebody", "Words" and "New York Mining Disaster 1941".

All in all, they were pretty good in that first incarnation. So the Prime Minister can be excused this time, at least on grounds of musical taste.

* In an end-of-year lunch with arts journalists, the Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell was asked about the latest shake-up at the Arts Council, the quango which under the traditional "arm's-length principle" is responsible for funding the arts. It has recently seen more than 70 staff leave with numerous lucrative payoffs. Ms Jowell said: "We have to ensure that giving effect to the arm's-length principle and having an arts council as an intermediate body between the arts and government actually adds value to the process." She added that there was a danger that some government sponsored bodies might be "spending more time on the next review than they are on actually doing the business which justifies their existence."

It was all nicely coded for Christmas, but it still sounds to me like a warning to the Arts Council to get its act together. A happy 2007 to it.