David Lister: The Week in Arts

Memories fade but the myths still linger
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Tomorrow The South Bank Show on ITV1 has an absorbing look back at the political and cultural turmoil of 1968. But, with all such things, I tend to wonder how good people's memories are of the time. In pre-publicity for the programme, Tariq Ali was quoted in one article recalling a conversation with John Lennon, in which the Beatle apparently made excuses for not coming on the anti-Vietnam War demonstration in Grosvenor Square in the spring of 1968.

Ali said: "Later, after John had split from the Beatles, he said to me, 'I was desperate to come.' I said, 'Well why the hell didn't you come?' He said, 'Brian Epstein told us that if we went on that march we would not be allowed into the United States and we had a big tour lined up.' So I said, 'You caved in.'"

Well, Brian Epstein must have warned his charges through a medium, as he had died seven months earlier. And, a tour of America would have been news to the Beatles as they publicly retired from touring in August 1966.

No such conversation between Tariq Ali and John Lennon could have taken place. And, frankly, even if it had, I do wonder if Ali would have been quite so devastatingly direct to the hero of the age.

In another even more absorbing film, currently being shown on Sky Arts, we can watch a 1971 documentary of John Lennon at home during the making of the album Imagine. At one point some guests come to call, one of whom is the young revolutionary Tariq Ali. A shy Ali tells Lennon softly how good he thinks the lyrics to the song "Imagine" are. That courteous, star-struck young man doesn't strike me as someone who would have barked at the Beatle: "Well why the hell didn't you come? You caved in."

But that's the great thing about these programmes and articles looking back on the pivotal cultural and political events of a few decades ago. We can all rewrite history just a little to give ourselves a slightly more forceful personality, a slightly bigger role in shaping the country's culture.

I'm sceptical about how we now view the cultural landscape of the 1960s. Last year's endless memories of the Summer of Love must have given generations born after that decade the impression that life was one long round of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. The wave of 1968 anniversary tributes about to hit us will doubtless paint the picture of a revolutionary Britain at the barricades in the style of Les Misérables. The prosaic truth is that in 1967 most people were not hippies, and in 1968 most people were not revolutionaries. Small minorities were, and yes they certainly had some effect on the culture of the day and the culture of the future. But there is a tendency to exaggerate today the cultural movements of yesterday.

I see, for example, that the Hayward Gallery is opening an exhibition of revolutionary posters from 1968. It's significant that all the posters are from France, where there was real action on the streets. But in Britain, with one or two exceptions such as Grosvenor Square, it was very different. Our landscape wasn't dotted with posters, and in that epoch-making spring the pop charts were topped by – in order of revolutionary fervour – Cliff Richard, Louis Armstrong, and Des O'Connor.

A surfeit of 1968 anniversary programmes, articles and supplements are coming your way. So now more than ever it's worth keeping firmly in mind the observation that if you remember the Sixties you weren't there.

Four Weddings and a clanger

I attended a film quiz hosted by Barry Norman at the Groucho Club in London. The highlight of the evening for me was a question asking which film the following tagline advertised at the time of its release: "He's quite engaging. She's otherwise engaged." The answer was the 1994 movie Four Weddings and a Funeral.

I have to admit I didn't know that, and I was not alone. No one seemed to score any points. But when Barry read out the answer, there were shrieks of laughter from one of the tables. It emerged that they, like most of us, did not know or had forgotten the right answer. The only difference was that one of their team was the woman who had written the tagline.

I won't name her as she said afterwards that she is embarrassed enough already. I simply express my admiration for someone whose life must be so prolific that she can write the advertising slogan for one of the most successful films of all time – and then completely forget all about it.

* I'm looking forward to the new play by Yasmina Reza, the author of the hugely successful ART, which delighted audiences in the West End for years. Her latest, called The God of Carnage, opens in London in a couple of weeks. Miss Reza, a striking and charismatic Parisian, made one of the most memorable acceptance speeches I have heard when she received the best comedy award for ART. She strode to the podium, took her statuette, approached the microphone and said simply: "It is surprising to win the award for best comedy as I thought I had written a tragedy." She then strode back to her seat.

Those of us who recently watched the interminable votes of thanks masquerading as speeches at the Baftas and Oscars can only commend the Yasmina Reza approach to award ceremonies. All acceptance speeches should be as short, as bemused, as memorable and as quintessentially French.