David Lister: The Week in Arts

A depressing display of celebrity infatuation
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The Independent Online

I have to confess I don't know a huge amount about Melanie Sykes. I know that she is a TV presenter, but that's about the sum of my knowledge. I also suspect that she has a deeply supportive and loving family and circle of friends, and that they are all regular visitors to the Lowry Museum in Salford. I can think of no other reason that she is currently near the top of that museum's list of the Greatest Northerners Past and Present.

There is no disrespect intended to Miss Sykes, nor to radio presenter Sara Cox, TV presenters Vernon Kay and Fred Dibnah or some of the others in the list. It is just that I find it odd when one thinks of the great northeners that haven't made the list, the Brontë sisters, William Wordsworth and the Beatles. (Interesting indeed if their popularity is on the wane on their home or near home turf after all these years.)

The Independent yesterday put forward an alternative list including a range of eminent historical figures from Capability Brown to Emmeline Pankhurst. But there are present-day successes too that are absent from the Lowry list. What of some of the local boys and girls still making good in the arts, Sir Ian McKellen and Jeanette Winterson from Lancashire or Dame Diana Rigg from Yorkshire?

And what, of course, about Lowry? He surely can't have been too difficult a name to remember at the Lowry Museum. That is where the votes were physically cast, before the shortlist was voted on online.

This list, compiled after votes from members of the public, is a mighty odd list. Much as I may be guilty of underestimating the inherent greatness of Miss Sykes, I find it hard to believe that she has contributed more to culture, humanity or even the concept of fame itself than John Lennon, let alone Wordsworth. But there are many mighty odd lists that emerge from exercises such as these. Figures from TV and radio are often in them, however fleeting their fame or greatness. There's nothing new in that. What is new, and rather alarming, in this particular case is that these votes were not collected in a shopping mall or the pubs of Manchester. They were collected from visitors to the Lowry Museum.

So, people who had made a conscious decision to spend a few hours in a museum still feel that minor celebrities from TV are better representatives of northern greatness than the very man to whom the museum is dedicated, or any of the great cultural figures that they as museum goers presumably take enjoyment in.

I'm not sure how to take this. On the one hand, it is depressing that museum-goers are so fixated by minor TV celebrities. On the other hand, you could argue that the Lowry has succeeded rather brilliantly in getting a new audience, the TV- and celebrity-fixated audience, to come through its doors.

But whichever is correct, I believe that the Lowry should be a little ashamed of the way it has handled this venture. It is a museum, and the central purpose of any museum is an educational one. There's more to life than television, and more to greatness than celebrity. And, dull as such sentiments may sound, it is up to museums to remind us of that. The Lowry could have put forward some suggestions of its own, both in its building and on its website, could indeed have mounted mini-exhibitions on some of its own suggestions, and could have spurred its visitors to take a voyage of cultural discovery.

Can the show match Sally's blog?

I'm ambivalent about blogs. Interesting as they can be, they do sometimes seem to me like public cries for therapy. I'm not saying that the blogs by celebrated film and theatre director Sally Potter, are such cries. Ms Potter is directing Carmen at the English National Opera and is putting her thoughts about the rehearsal process online. It seems that the rehearsals are causing her sleepless nights – there has been one big blog on insomnia, and she goes on to write how the performers can "suddenly feel naked, alone and confused".

They are not alone. The director herself confesses to the blog-reading world that she has "shed many tears in private... the harsh words I whisper in my own ear late at night are words I try to welcome, as a Zen student learns to welcome the blows of his master".

Apart from that, how did you enjoy the rehearsal, Sally? If there's as much passion in the performance as there is in the director's blogs, this Carmen will be a knock-out.

* Most people have their own memories of Luciano Pavarotti. I certainly treasure my own particular one, which occurred at Covent Garden.

I was being shown round the Royal Opera House one afternoon in the mid-1990s shortly before the big renovation project there was to take place. I and my guide, an ROH official, had to cross the auditorium at one point, and I was warned to keep my voice down as there might well be "some rehearsal or other" in progress. There was. It was Pavarotti in a thick jumper (he had told me a few years before that he always found England too cold) singing an aria from Tosca. He had his hand on the shoulder of the seated soprano that he was serenading.

My guide had to go and I sat and watched in an otherwise empty theatre. The rich tenderness and seemingly effortless soaring of the voice seduced me too.

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