David Lister: The Week in Arts

So, Sienna Miller, are you really you?
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The Independent Online

I have a namesake on another national paper. It can lead to some odd situations. I have had a businessman threaten me with a writ. (Fortunately, it was the other guy.) I have had someone congratulate me on a sexy, young girlfriend. (Unfortunately, it was the other guy.) It has occasionally made me think that if I were an actor this couldn't happen. The actors' union Equity does not allow to performers to have the same name. Once a name is claimed, a new recruit with the same name has to find another one.

But this week saw a change in that long-standing tradition. Equity announced that 16,000 members have frozen their memberships years ago and walked off with their names. Unless they renew their memberships, the names will be freed up for others to use. It's fascinating stuff, not least for the terminology. These 16,000 actors and actresses froze their membership under the "Honourable Withdrawal" scheme. I love that phrase. The likes of you and me get made redundant or try alternative careers, or resign in a huff. Actors honourably withdraw.

It's fascinating too that Equity says that it currently turns away 30 prospective members a week (losing the union a potential £180,000 a year) because their names are already taken, while a further 30 a week are forced to choose a stage name. That means, I suppose, that the first 30 a week are so determined to cling on to their real names that they'd rather forget about acting than have a stage name. What happened to the famous determination of actors to succeed at all costs?

But, most fascinating of all are the names involved. Potentially up for grabs are names of illustrious British actors Nicol Williamson and Glynis Johns, the singer Gilbert O'Sullivan, the rock star Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the comedian Tracey Ullman and the film star Mia Farrow. I have to admit that, were I of the other gender, I could quite fancy being Mia Farrow for a few weeks. I recommend a wannabe actress to go for that name. It will help the audition application no end.

Equity says it has been unable to contact some of the 16,000 honourable withdrawers. Among these is the Evening Standard TV reviewer Victor Lewis Smith. Yes, it must be tough to try to locate a man who has a column and picture in a London paper every day. Perhaps the TUC might organise a special conference for its affiliate unions on how to contact newspapers. Actually, I could give Equity the phone number of that particular honourable withdrawer if it would care to send me an honourable cheque.

Whether he'd release his name for a fledgling actor is another matter. Equity members seem loath to let go of their names. Septuagenarian actress Diana Calderwood, who has not actually acted for 50 years, is quoted in The Stage saying people would be upset if they later found out that their names had been given away without their knowledge. "Once an actor, always an actor," she says.

Fifty years without treading the boards, but she ain't giving up her name. Perhaps Equity should drop this whole names thing and let actors have to put up with same potential confusion that the rest of us do. What a boon it would be for producers. Imagine the tickets that would sell for Jude Law and Sienna Miller in Romeo and Juliet. And they wouldn't have to give anyone their money back just because it wasn't that Jude Law and that Sienna Miller. The theatres would be full and a host of new stars would be born. I leave that thought with producers and with Equity, while I honourably withdraw for a week.

Free the footage

There's excitement for Bruce Springsteen fans with the release of a DVD of his 1975 concert at Hammersmith, when "Born to Run" and other now classic songs were fresh. That concert has long been regarded as "legendary", if not quite as legendary as Bob Dylan's 1966 "Judas" concert in Manchester, parts of which were also shown on TV recently in the Martin Scorsese documentary.

Such has been the delight from fans of both artists that it seems almost churlish to raise a complaint. But I will. How come 30 years after Springsteen's concert we are suddenly seeing it for the first time, and, even more shamefully, how come there has been a 39-year wait to see footage of Dylan's truly legendary concert?

Someone somewhere has been sitting on some pretty important footage. Who? Is it the record company? The artists themselves? Film-makers? Whoever they are, they have been hoarding classic moments of rock history. They should explain themselves.

* Andrew Lloyd Webber's plan to improve the fabric of his West End theatres has been rightly welcomed. Overcrowded bars, a lack of toilets and worn-out interiors can certainly dampen an evening's enjoyment. Sir Cameron Mackintosh is also in the process of improving the fabric of his theatres.

Improving the fabric, or doing up the buildings as non-theatre owners still fondly call it, is a boon for both regular audiences and tourists. But I wonder if theatre owners don't sometimes ignore other needs of theatre-goers when concentrating on building improvements. Programmes remain horribly expensive. Why can't the West End offer free cast lists as the National Theatre and RSC do? Those who wanted souvenir programmes would still be able to buy them. Improved fabric is a good thing, but while sitting in the improved fabric before the curtain goes up, it would also be an improvement to have this information free of charge.

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