David Lister: The Week in Arts

Raise a cheer for populist and popular theatre
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The Independent Online

The first week of the new year has one staple in the arts, the publication byThe Stage of the 100 most influential people in theatre. Two things struck me in the latest list. The first was that the top 20, the only part of the list that was ranked numerically, consisted almost entirely of producers, impresarios and theatre owners.

Sorry, they ain't the most important people in theatre. They contribute enormously, and some of them are certainly among the most delightful people in theatre. The West End would be a lot poorer, financially and spiritually, without the likes of Bill Kenwright and Sir Cameron Mackintosh.

But - and I hope I'm not being too radical here - the most important people in theatre are playwrights, actors and actresses. The top stage actors of the day, the likes of Simon Russell Beale and Clare Higgins, do languish somewhere in the lower reaches of the list. But they should be in the top five. For it is the performers and the playwrights who can make theatrical eras great. Certain directors, too, can bring in audiences, but generally it is the performers and the plays that get people talking.

It is a performer that was the second curious aspect that struck me about this list. For there was indeed one performer, and only one, in the top 20. It wasn't a young buck bursting into the limelight at the Almeida, Donmar or Royal Court; it wasn't a practitioner of Stanislavsky, nor even a film star drafted into the West End. It was the middle-aged matinée idol Nigel Havers who has broken box office records up and down the country with his portrayal of Maxim de Winter in Daphne du Maurier's old warhorse Rebecca.

And we all missed it. I can't recall seeing the show reviewed on the arts pages of one serious newspaper. I can't recall reading profiles of Mr Havers, or seeing the production listed in anyone's "best of" lists. Mr Havers is named this week the most important actor in Britain, yet I'd wager that 99 per cent of London theatregoers, critics and arts opinion formers weren't even aware that he and Rebecca were touring.

That ought to give some food for thought. There are often references made to the "arts world". But there isn't really an arts world. There are two distinct arts worlds. In theatre, the National, RSC, West End, fringe and regional powerhouses all unite to form a world searching for new plays, radical interpretations of classics and work from abroad.

But there's also out there another arts world, the Nigel Havers arts world, a world of theatre patrons queuing for returns to see a very English actor in a very English piece. The audiences all know the story. No one will be muttering: "Who plays Rebecca?" They know what they are going to get and they love it. It is comfort-zone theatre, but no less worthy of note for that.

It must be a sobering thought for those producers and impresarios who make up the most important people in theatre that while they try everything from importing Hollywood stars to changing the shape of the auditoria in the effort to bring in audiences, they could have made a mint from asking Nigel Havers to do his Maxim de Winter.

There's a certain irony there, but it doesn't mean that Daphne du Maurier or even the estimable Nigel Havers should be seen as the saviours of theatre. The survival of theatre depends upon new plays, great productions of both classics and contemporary works and world-class ensembles. But it does no harm to be reminded, as we were this week, that there's another theatre world out there, with quite different needs.

Credit where it's due

I have long thought that there is a book to be written about the early career of PR guru Max Clifford. He has often spoken of how, as a press officer with EMI, he helped to launch The Beatles. Scandalously, his pivotal role in the band's fortunes is not mentioned in any of the biographies of the group.

And, this week, in an article in The Independent looking back on the summer of love in 1967, Max revealed how he was also instrumental in launching Tamla Motown, the label of the Supremes (pictured) and the Temptations, in the UK. My goodness, The Beatles and Tamla Motown! Was there no limit to the influence of the young Clifford on the story of 20th-century music?

But, how traumatic it must have been for Max in 1967, when he was beavering away launching Tamla Motown. One shudders to imagine the psychological shock when he was taken aside and told that Tamla Motown had been a global success since 1965.

*It is extremely pleasing to learn that Mark Thompson, director-general of the BBC, has agreed to move the 10pm news to accommodate two lengthy new film dramas by the writer Stephen Poliakoff. Since Dennis Potter's demise, there can be little argument that Poliakoff is the greatest writer working in television; moving the news, something normally done only for major sporting events, shows that Thompson does appreciate the kudos Poliakoff brings to the corporation. If there is ever a new biography of Poliakoff, then "They moved the news for him" might not be a bad title.

I'm delighted that Thompson believes nothing is more important in the evening schedules than great television drama. But he should be careful at parties. Now he will face the wrath of all his other writers who have been told to cut down their scripts so that their dramas end at 10pm sharp.

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