David Lister: They should put the Bard on the box

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Political leaders tend not to speak about the arts. I'm not sure why. Perhaps they fear it looks a little "soft" or peripheral to the "big issues". Whatever the reason, they certainly give the subject a wide berth. We've been bombarded with Barack Obama's collected speeches and philosophy, but I defy anyone to give me chapter and verse on his cultural policy. I'm not sure that I know where Gordon Brown stands on cultural issues either.

So it was refreshing this week to see the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, making culture a central platform of his policy for the capital, and certainly unusual to see that he wanted to give working-class children a much more upmarket cultural diet. A diet of popular culture like movies and hip-hop "patronised" the young working class, his cultural adviser said in a speech to publicise Mr Johnson's new document: The Cultural Metropolis: the Mayor's priorities for Culture 2009-2012.

His chief of arts and culture strategy, Munira Mirza, added: "There's been a kind of inverse snobbery about culture. I get the feeling some people would look at Shakespeare and say, that's a bit too intimidating for working-class people."

Indeed, though it understandably may have escaped attention in a week of momentous events, it has been an important few days in the nation's culture. Reports from the Royal Shakespeare Company say that half of teachers on their practical courses designed to enthuse pupils about Shakespeare have cancelled since SATs for 14-year-olds in English were scrapped last month. Coincidentally, the Education Secretary Ed Balls has sought the help of that fine young Shakespearean director, the confusingly similar-sounding Ed Hall, to find new ways of presenting Shakespeare to children – mounting 60-minute cut-down productions in unusual venues such as barns has been mentioned.

I don't quite get that one myself. If you don't like to see Romeo and Juliet on a day trip to Stratford-upon-Avon with a walk by the river, an ice cream and a comfy seat, why should you warm to it by traipsing across a muddy field to a barn? But more importantly. I think that all the parties involved are spectacularly missing the most important way to widen cultural horizons: television. It has become the elephant in the room, when culture is debated. Every teenager watches it, every day. Yet as politicians grapple with barns and other ways to turn people on to the Bard, they never consider the role of TV. That's a bit odd when you remember that it comes within the Culture Secretary Andy Burnham's portfolio alongside the arts.

So, Messrs Balls, Burnham, Johnson and Hall, when was there last a Shakespeare play on television? If we're talking of the mainstream terrestrial channels then I suspect we're not even talking years, we're talking decades. Actually, when was there last a play by Ibsen, Chekhov, Stoppard, Pinter, Caryl Churchill?

Outside of the specialist arts channels – and even those are extremely light on the world's great dramatists – there is a dearth of cultural fare. Magazine programmes such as The Culture Show are used to draw attention to important dramas and other cultural events taking place. But, with the glittering exception of the Proms, those great cultural events are rarely broadcast, and the great dramatists never reach a mass audience.

It's television that is the most culpable in patronising its young audiences. Until Mr Burnham calls a summit of TV controllers to address the lack of culture on mainstream TV, all the cultural manifestos and all the country's barns won't solve the problem.

Ticket agencies need careful handling

Your letters and emails in support of my irritation with booking fees show how widespread the annoyance is. Peter Grove of Salisbury points out one aspect that I neglected to mention: the delay in sending tickets after payment has been made. He booked for the show Monkey: Journey to the West at the O2 on 30 November. He was obliged to book through either Ticketmaster or Seetickets. He chose the latter, as with a £4.85 booking fee plus £2 handling fee, it was the lower. The money was taken from his credit card immediately on 20 October, and a month later the tickets still had not arrived. He was first told that the tickets were not yet in stock, and later told the delay was the fault of the Royal Mail.

When he asked why there was such a delay in sending out tickets generally, he received the priceless reply that the agency was concerned he might lose them if they sent them out too early. Does that logic work both ways? Can we be excused from handing over the money until the week of the performance, as we're worried that the ticket agency might lose it?

Don't mince your words

The top prize at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards this week went to Kevin Spacey, Hollywood star turned artistic director of the Old Vic. Spacey said how particularly pleased he was to received the award from the Evening Standard. Normally, such a remark is part of the mutual backslapping that goes on at these occasions.

But Spacey had something else in mind. He reminisced wryly, and at some length, about how the paper had been highly critical in the past of his stewardship of the Old Vic and wanted, in his words, "to run me out of town". The editor of the Evening Standard, Veronica Wadley, might have been expected to be rather affronted at a speech that came close to party-pooping.

But she kept the happy smile that she maintained throughout the awards luncheon. Probably that was due to her using her editor's prerogative to sit herself at a table with Josh Hartnett and David Tennant. Why chat to only one heart-throb when you're in charge of the table plan?