David Lister: The Week in Arts

This national arts debate could be rather fun
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This week the Arts Council launched a national debate on the arts and what the country wants out of both the arts and the aforesaid council. No, please read on. I realise that the words Arts Council are almost as good a cure for insomnia as the words national debate. Put them all together in one sentence and there's barely an open eye left in the house.

But even though the alleged national debate has been launched to a deafening silence, it seems churlish to ignore it completely. The council does, after all, fund the performing arts in this country and formulate national policy about the arts. Indeed, it is to reformulate that policy that the national debate has been launched. The Arts Council chief executive, Peter Hewitt, says this is "the first ever public value inquiry" it has undertaken. The purpose is "to explore what people value about the arts ... to help the Arts Council consider whether we need to do things differently in the future...".

The Arts Council is important. Under the very precious (if to me largely incomprehensible) arm's length principle, it and not the government of the day gives money to the arts and expresses views on national culture. It has long been deemed wrong for government to do these things itself. The Government can say and do what it likes on such matters as health and education; but on culture it must take a back seat, lest it shows its political prejudices in doling out the cash.

I've never quite understood this. Tessa Jowell can be entrusted to oversee Wembley Stadium and the 2012 Olympics, but not to have a say in how much money the Manchester Royal Exchange theatre should get, or whether the Royal Ballet ought to tour more.

And far from being a tribute to democracy, the arm's length principle is actually anti-democratic. For, if an MP has a concern about, say, perennial crises at the English National Opera, and has the audacity to ask a question about it in the House of Commons, the arts minister will reply: "That is a matter for the Arts Council." And as Arts Council meetings, unlike Parliament, are closed to the public, mystery and secrecy prevail.

But, as there is now a national debate, one must show willing. So here are my questions to the Arts Council, and its chief executive, which I hope will be debated as promised.

Why are Arts Council meetings not open to press and public? Why did the Arts Council end its tradition of giving monthly post-meeting briefings to the press? Why did you do stand by idly during the problems at the English National Opera, which you fund, saying they were a matter for the board, even failing to point out that you had an official observer on the board? What are you doing about the current, worrying threats to famous arts centres including the Gardner Arts Centre in Brighton and the Battersea Arts Centre in London?

In a spirit of accountability, can you say how much taxpayers' money has been spent on the wave of cost-cutting redundancies at head office? Will you say who has been made redundant and what the pay-off was in each case? Can you explain why certain posts were abolished as the post holders were made redundant, but remarkably similar ones sprang up the next day - the head of arts being replaced by a head of arts strategy, for example?

And, finally, could you please explain how the arts and the country would lose if funding and policy decisions were made by elected representatives, and the Arts Council were abolished?

I'm beginning to change my mind. This debate could be fun.

Beauty queen

I'm fascinated by the story this week that a Roman coin shows Cleopatra to be less beautiful than is commonly thought. Have archaeologists just discovered this coin? No. It has been in the collection of the Newcastle Antiquaries Society for years. Ah, but it is now, according to these stories, being "studied" for inclusion in the new Great North Museum.

It sounds to me like the Great North Museum has hired some bright PR to get national coverage. One can picture him alighting on the coin and exclaiming: "That Cleopatra, she looks a bit of an old trout. We might be able to do something with that."

Shakespeare's play praised her "infinite variety", but never made her out to be a beauty. Actresses who play her are not obliged to be beauties, though few can match the comment of Judi Dench (pictured), when she played the role at the National Theatre in 1987. During rehearsals, she took her director, Peter Hall, aside and said: "Are you sure you want a menopausal dwarf to play Cleopatra?"

* Back home with the England cricket team is the official Ashes poet, David Fine. The Nottinghamshire poet could be seen around the Australian Test venues in a T-shirt, with the words "I speak of bats, balls and wickets".

He says his poetic inspirations on the tour included Freddie Flintoff bowing to the Barmy Army. "For me," says Mr Fine, "that was very symbolic and almost like the end of the British Empire as well as an Ashes series."

Mr Fine was commissioned to create 25 poems, one for each day's play of the five-Test series, but ended up only with 20 as England didn't last the whole five days in three of the tests. I feel that sets a poor work rate example for young poets. Tennyson didn't give up on writing about the Light Brigade, merely because its charge didn't last as long as he had hoped.