David Lister: The Week in Arts

Who has the right to change a famous name?
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The Independent Online

Lord Hollick steps down this month as chairman of the South Bank Centre in London, having overseen the reopening of the Royal Festival Hall. I'll rephrase that in a manner he would prefer. Lord Hollick steps down this month as chairman of Southbank Centre, having overseen the reopening of Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall.

For under the present regime huge sums have been spent renaming the South Bank Centre, Indeed, I'd love to know precisely how many hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money have been spent on the signage and literature and marketing fees involved in removing the definite article from the South Bank Centre and inelegantly turning South Bank into one word.

As a way of getting into the public consciousness, it seems an expensive failure. Newspaper article after newspaper article, review after review, mixes up the old and the new and refers to The Southbank Centre. But what was the point of it anyway? Why change a perfectly serviceable and familiar name? Even worse is the requisitioning of a great symbol of British culture, the Royal Festival Hall, and rather arrogantly calling it Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall.

These very words are on the plaque that the Queen unveiled a few weeks ago at the official reopening of the building. As she was present in 1951 when her father, King George VI, opened the Hall, I wonder what she thought when she saw the words on the plaque. I suspect she wasn't thrilled to see the famous name now subject to a marketing fad.

But it gets worse. Next door to the South Bank Centre, sorry, Southbank Centre, is the most inelegant, unmemorable, pompous name for a building in all British cultural life. It is BFI Southbank. That's BFI Southbank as in: "Darling, do you fancy a night out at BFI Southbank?" This building used to be called the National Film Theatre, a name which delivered exactly what was on the tin, and was a brand known not just nationally but internationally.

Perhaps Amanda Nevill, head of the British Film Institute, who decided to change the name of the National Film Theatre and make it in the image of her own bureaucracy, would like to explain why she has dispensed with such a well known and accessible name as the National Film Theatre. Even its initials, NFT, were better known across the arts, and across the country, than those of Ms Nevill's organisation, the BFI.

There is no law against Lord Hollick changing the name of the South Bank Centre or how we allude to the Royal Festival Hall. There is no law against Amanda Nevill taking it upon herself to rename the National Film Theatre, most horribly. But, perhaps there should be. Perhaps there should be an equivalent of planning permission to ensure public consultation on changing a famous name.

The Hollicks and Nevills of this world are powerful figures, but they and others at the top of their respective organisations are temporary custodians of these great cultural edifices. The names belong to the nation, not to them, not to marketing departments, not to consultants, not to expensive logo companies.

We have all accepted the right of those running arts organisations to play fast and loose with the naming and renaming of those institutions. But in the light of these two ugly and inelegant name changes, I am beginning to think that we have accepted that apparent right too easily. Can we have the South Bank Centre, the Royal Festival Hall and the National Film Theatre back please?

Pioneer, survivor and legend

The most over-used word in the arts is "legend." Every rock star, actor and film director who has been around more than a decade or two seems to be honoured with the soubriquet. I had determined never to use the word again as it has become so devalued. But this week I watched the 77-year-old jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins, right, perform at the Barbican. I mused on how this was the last great survivor of the Fifties jazz era, a man who recorded with Miles Davis, who had got through heroin addiction, but served a prison term, who had practised his instrument for years every night on the Williamsburg Bridge in New York, blowing into the dark, so as not to disturb his neighbours. As a musician, he pioneered musical styles including the jazz calypso, and can play the sax for an hour without pausing or repeating a phrase. As he stood on stage to acknowledge a standing ovation, I thought ok, fair enough, this is a legend.

* I've always been quite a fan of the rock group Sparks as indeed is Morrissey, who invited them to play at Meltdown when he curated the season on the South Bank. The group has gone through several changes of style since their Seventies heyday, from quirky melodic pop with surreal lyrics to a flirtation with disco and a dabbling in electronica.

Now they can play all their changing styles on consecutive nights. This week they announced that they will be playing all 21 of their albums on 21 consecutive nights in London next year. I imagine that's some kind of record, not least because most groups who have been going that long tend to disown or try to forget part of their back catalogue. It's also quite a feat of memory. They will have to perform 250 songs over the 21 nights. It's a good thing Alzheimer's hasn't set in quite yet.