David Lister: The Week in Arts

These warriors seem rather familiar...
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At the opening of the Terracotta Army exhibition at the British Museum on Tuesday night, I did rather marvel when the Prime Minister said that the last visitor to the show would be the Olympic torch bearer, who would start the journey to China from the BM. Neil MacGregor, the British Museum head, has pulled off some remarkable coups in his time; but this must be one of the canniest. What better way to have the eyes of the world on your institution than to start the Olympics from there. Other museum chiefs can eat their hearts out.

The exhibition itself was as fascinating as the critics and numerous pundits have been saying all week. I wandered round it with the Turner Prize winner, Grayson Perry. As we stopped at the exhibit showing how one of the excavated pits contained models of musicians, Mr Perry wondered why this was not called the orchestra pit. For that I am prepared to give him the best joke of the exhibition award.

We also discussed the effect of hype on exhibitions. Now, I am certainly not saying that the Terracotta Army show owes its fame and its 138,000 advance ticket sales to hype. It is an illuminating exhibition, which demands to be seen. Nevertheless, one thing has been puzzling me all week; one strange thing; one thing that, in all the thousands of column inches, has been barely remarked upon. One thing that should cause all the critics, all the 138,000 visitors, all the awestruck commentators, and even the Prime Minister himself, to pause for thought.

And that thing is the Oxford Street store, Selfridges. For this is not the first visit by the Terracotta Army to Britain or even London. Just 26 years ago they were in walking distance of the British Museum at Selfridges for an East Meets West marketing exercise. There were not as many, it is true. There were, to be precise, six. At the British Museum there are 12. But as a percentage of the 8,000 that were excavated in China, I can't see that the difference between 12 and six is that startling.

So what, I ask myself, went wrong 26 years ago? I can recall no such fuss, no plethora of articles about The First Emperor, no stampedes down Oxford Street. Where were the art critics who are saying now that this is one of the most important exhibitions ever to hit these shores? Where were the 138,000 people so desperate to see the army now? Many of them would have been walking along Oxford Street during that summer of 1981 to do some shopping, and not even bothering to pop into Selfridges, or if they did, not bothering to get past Menswear or the perfume counter.

It's odd, isn't it? Here are 12 members of the Terracotta Army that no self-respecting culture lover would dream of missing. But when there were six members of the Terracotta Army a mile away, no self-respecting culture lover thought to put it in the diary.

Selfridges, of course, is not remotely as fashionable an address for exhibition goers as the British Museum. And the way the BM has mounted the exhibition shows why a museum is a museum and a department store is a department store. It is a riveting history lesson, telling you huge amounts about this period in Chinese history and about art and archaeology.

And yet, and yet. If these warriors are a source of fascination now, then they should have been 26 years ago. The marketing supremos at Selfridges back in the Eighties must be kicking themselves today.

How an emu lost his bite

Sooner or later they all come back. I had assumed the adage only applied to human performers, but it seems it applies to emus too. The late Rod Hull's vicious glove puppet once afflicted pain and humiliation on Michael Parkinson during his Seventies chat show. It still provokes tears of laughter, however many times Emu's lunges at Parky's groin are shown.

Now it is returning, with Rod Hull's 30-year-old son, Toby trying to control the bird. But Toby seems to be rather less mischievous than his dad, or TV executives are more pernickety and politically correct. No unprovoked attacks will take place in the new 26-part series. Christopher Pilkington, executive producer at CITV, ITV's children's channel, says: "We are reworking this for six- to eight-year-olds, and there is no place for gratuitous violence."

Oh, come on. Six- to eight-year olds love a touch of comic, gratuitous violence from a puppet. And, though it might surprise TV executives, they don't try it at home afterwards.

* Jonathan Mills's first year at the helm of the Edinburgh Festival has not been especially successful. As this paper reported at the time, he looked a little silly (and the audience a little embarrassed) when, before the opening concert, he sang "Happy Birthday" on stage to celebrate the Festival's 60th anniversary. His first interviews seemed to harp on about the lack of funding for the Festival. And now he has given a press conference threatening to resign unless the Scottish Executive and Edinburgh council increase their spending. But surely the level of funding cannot be a surprise to Mr Mills. When he came from Australia, where he was an arts administrator, for his interview in Edinburgh, he would have been told exactly what the funding was. If he thought it was unsatisfactory, why did he take the job? It would be refreshing to hear him talk a little less about money, and a little more about his cultural ideas.