David Lister: The Week in Arts

European Capital of Culture? Chaos, more like
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The Independent Online

Not since those far-off days when Derek Hatton and his crew of Militant Tendency cronies took over Liverpool council has there been such a sense of anarchy and unpredictability in the city. We have to thank the machinations by the organisers of Liverpool, European Capital of Culture 2008, for restoring the city's sense of fun.

This week there was a crisis meeting to try to put the show back on the road following the resignation of the artistic director Robyn Archer, an Australian, based in Australia, who was once a cabaret singer and has more recently run some Australian festivals. She paid only flying visits to Liverpool. It emerged earlier this year that she had not yet got a visa to work full-time in Britain.

The playwright Willy Russell who, unlike the woman appointed artistic director, lives in Liverpool, says: "I have to say that I have had no sense of Capital of Culture being under any effective control. I'm constantly bumping into artists and people from arts organisations, and they ask, 'Do you know what is happening with Capital of Culture?'. And I say, 'Sorry, I don't'."

The chief executive of the Liverpool Art Biennial, Lewis Biggs, shows that he is more civil servant than playwright and lacks Willy Russell's sense of dialogue when he adds: "A great many people are confused." But the point is made nevertheless.

Interestingly, now that Ms Archer has gone, some of her ideas are being revealed. One was to bring in Australian artists to inspire Liverpudlian ones. This has not gone down too well. The Labour leader on Liverpool city council, Joe Ashton, said: "The only Australian names missing from her list seem to be Rolf Harris, Dame Edna Everage and Skippy the bush kangaroo."

Well, two of those three do actually live in Britain, Mr Ashton.

I know it is always the glib journalistic response, when a playwright is on the premises, to say that a chaotic cultural cock-up would make a great play. But, come on Willy Russell, you owe us a new musical. And this is a corker. The tragic Australian artistic director who cannot get her visa (I see Elaine Paige here), the stony-faced Labour council leader (Ewan McGregor?), a couple of Beatles on the sidelines, and guest appearances from Rolf Harris and Barry Humphries.

Failing that, we could at least have some discussion on what on earth the European Capital of Culture is meant to be. I'm as confused as the people ostensibly running the European Capital of Culture 2008. But at least their crisis meetings are bringing the question to the fore. David Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool, says: "It mustn't be a parochial, inward-looking event celebrating scouse culture. Why would the rest of Europe take notice of us if we are too insular?"

More than a decade after the European Capital of Culture started, no one really knows whether the city in question should be celebrating its own cultural achievements or importing cultural achievements from elsewhere. There was never any blueprint.

I disagree with Mr Fleming. I think we travel to a European capital of culture to sample, in the main, the indigenous culture of that area. When it is such a vibrant city as Liverpool, why worry about being insular? Talking of which, this time why not be radical and appoint a Liverpudlian to trumpet the cultural virtues of Liverpool, rather than someone from the other side of the world? There was a time when Liverpool was so fiercely proud of its cultural identity that it would have baulked at getting an artistic director from Manchester, let alone Australia.

What's it all about, Alfie?

I'm not alone in predicting great things for the debut album by Lily Allen, which is released on Monday. The daughter of comedian Keith Allen, she has a fine line in comedy herself. Her witty and musically diverse songs tell of urban life, successful and unsuccessful chat-ups, boyfriends and her younger brother, Alfie.

Ah, she's already regretting that last one. The song tells of Alfie virtually living in his bed, smoking dope, refusing to get a job, his bedroom a smoke-filled haze. When she tries to admonish him, he pulls her hair. She has revealed that, in revenge for the song, Alfie has already broken her laptop. "I have learnt that speaking about my family upsets them, so I'm not going to do it any more," she soberly told this paper. Too late, too late. As the album climbs the charts, Miss Allen can expect further revenge attacks from young Alfie. She forgot the first rule of songwriting. Bring all of life's experiences into your work - except one. Never write about your siblings.

* David Hare's translation of Brecht's The Life of Galileo at the National Theatre has been praised for its modernity. I followed it with great interest when I saw the production, not least because I was in the play at school, and, as a senior Cardinal, spoke the rebuke to Galileo: "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water."

In the David Hare adaptation, this line has changed to "Don't throw the child out with the water". No critic has remarked upon it, so I suppose that they, like Sir David, regularly use this cryptic phrase. But I'm afraid I have never heard it used in my life. And actually, what was wrong with "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water"?

I don't pretend that this query is by any stretch of the imagination a significant addition to Brechtian scholarship. I'm just curious to know what inspired Sir David Hare to throw out the bath.