David Lister: The Week in Arts

The vanishing world of the cheap seat
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Tony Hall, the chief executive of the Royal Opera House, has outshone his predecessors in widening access to performances, and this week he took his boldest step yet on ticket prices. He put them up. OK, that's only half the story. He put up the prices of the best seats so that he could lower the prices of the cheaper seats. More than half the House's tickets will be priced at £50 and below, and 40 per cent will be priced at £30 or below. Mr Hall says: "A quarter of our seats will cost £30 or less, which is bloody brilliant compared with football."

I applaud him for addressing the issue of ticket prices. Well, I give him two and a half cheers anyway. He has, in reducing the price of those cheaper seats, recognised one of the biggest scandals in the arts – the erosion over the past 10 years of the cheap balcony seat. In West End theatre this has become a disgrace. It is often as much as £25 for a seat way up in the gods. And it is in the gods that students and teenagers tend to get their first taste of theatre. At £25 they will understandably choose a cinema instead.

Those balcony seats used to be a fiver, a tenner at most. But with all debate on pricing concentrating on the highly priced stalls tickets, the disregard for what the young can pay in the gods has continued. The Royal Opera House actually has very cheap seats up in the gods, but the view is pretty awful there, and Tony Hall is absolutely right to see reducing the cost of the middle-price seats as a high priority.

So, I happily give two and a half cheers for that. I still, though, feel a little queasy about raising the price of the best seats in the Royal Opera House to £210. Mr Hall makes comparisons with football matches for the price of his cheaper seats. Certainly £30 compares very well to the £65 or so for a Premier League game. But if he would care to stay with that comparison, then £210 is not so "bloody brilliant". For £210 at a top Premier League game you would receive a special hospitality package including lunch and a seat in a box with a "legend", a former star of the home team. I assume that Mr Hall isn't promising patrons of the Royal Opera House dinner with Placido Domingo before the show. That £210 is for the opera and the opera alone. It means that the Royal Opera House now boasts the most expensive opera ticket in the world, £60 more than the New York Met, £50 more than La Scala in Milan, £20 more than Glyndebourne.

This is not a boast that either the Royal Opera House or its funding body, the Arts Council, should be proud of. Subsidised arts institutions in Britain were established to be world-beaters, but not to be world-beaters in the race to charge the highest prices. Something is seriously amiss.

And, even though the flip side of that is cheaper seats for those new audiences, there is something about paying £210 for an evening of subsidised opera in a venue funded by the taxpayer that feels faintly obscene. Mine may be a visceral reaction rather than an analytical one, but on a visceral level it feels like an awful lot of money.

Mr Hall will say that there is no other way if we are to keep the cheap seats cheap. But I think there is. Choice of productions, casts, fees, running costs and so on are all decided before getting round to the thorny issue of ticket price. It is the last thing to be decided. But what if it were the first? What if the all-important decisions were taken on ticket prices first, and only then make other artistic decisions, such as how many productions to mount? Then we'll get those new audiences.

What the Dickens is going on?

The latest reality TV show to find a West End star has begun. This time Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh are casting the lead roles for a new production of Oliver! from the Saturday night TV auditions. The first one saw innumerable Nancys whittled down to a shortlist. They came in all shapes, sizes and, to the judges' apparent chagrin, classes.

I was certainly puzzled by what appeared to emerge as one of the criteria – namely that a stage Nancy must have a real life that is akin to Dickens's character. One of the judges, the musicals star John Barrowman (pictured), said to a young budding actress: "I'm worried that you don't have the life experience." Whatever happened to acting? Isn't the whole point that you can play something different from your real life persona?

But it could be worse. They could be auditioning for Bill Sikes, too. That would make for some lively Saturday night prime-time viewing, if all the wannabes had to have the requisite "life experience".

* In my piece on this page last week about the cultural and political turmoil of 1968, I referred to the saying "If you can remember the Sixties, you weren't there". (Some versions add the word "really" before "there".) It's one of the best-known sayings in the language, but who actually said it? I decided to research this, which is sad, I know, and found that 15 minutes' Googling provided confident attributions to Paul Kantner, Paul Krassner, Robin Williams, Pete Townshend, Grace Slick, Judy Collins, Timothy Leary and David Crosby.

It's quite a cast list. But only one of them could have actually coined the phrase. So which of the various rock stars, gurus and film stars was it? I'd be grateful to any reader who can provide a cast-iron attribution. It's a little too ironic that no one can accurately remember who it was who said that no one can accurately remember.