David Lister: When does an actor become a star?

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My esteemed colleague, the science editor of this paper, Steve Connor, has attracted opprobrium in the letters column for referring to the also esteemed Sir Michael Gambon, pictured, as "the Harry Potter actor". Ms Doraine Potts claimed she was "shocked" by this, adding: "For an actor with such a distinguished career in film, television and the theatre to be identified solely by his appearance in a popular children's movie is insulting not only to the actor himself, but also to your readers."

Well, the science editor's description of Gambon may not be rigorously scientific. Sir Michael does indeed have a career well beyond the Harry Potter films. But more people think of the wizard Albus Dumbledore when they see a picture of Michael Gambon, than think of Uncle Vanya or Lear or Falstaff or A View from the Bridge's Eddie Carbone or the dozens of other roles that Sir Michael has played on stage in a long and triumphant career.

When the day comes – a long way off I hope – that Dame Maggie Smith takes her final bow, I fully expect the press coverage to mention her Harry Potter cameos prominently. The same will be true of all the theatrical titans that have had cameos in the films. The reason is that theatre does not touch the public consciousness in the way that film does.

The perfect example of this came last year when a legend of the stage Sir Paul Scofield died on the same day as the TV actor Brian Wilde who appeared in Porridge and Last of the Summer Wine. In the press and on BBC news, Sir Paul received barely a mention compared to Mr Wilde. Perhaps he would have done if his 1967 Oscar triumph for A Man for All Seasons had been a little more recent.

Theatre simply does not have the same celebrity power as film or TV. I believe the two greatest stage performers of their generation are Simon Russell Beale and Clare Higgins. They both have great track records with the National Theatre and RSC and are mesmerising to watch. But because neither has done a great deal of film or TV, they are all but unknown outside the small percentage of the population that goes to the theatre regularly.

The theatre world must ask itself why its own stars fail to become stars in the wider firmament. It does seem to suggest that fewer people than it might like to think go to see great acting on stage, at least in straight plays. Musicals are another matter, its leading lights managing the crossover to stardom. But it's heartbreaking that the greatest actors of the day are relatively little known unless they take a day job in films, and will almost certainly be forgotten when they depart from the stage. Memory also plays a part in celebrity ranking. Michael Gambon did achieve national fame on television in Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective, but it was a long time ago. Harry Potter is ever with us, and that earlier small-screen success is a fading memory.

To touch the consciousness of the nation, reality TV ranks first, then a movie blockbuster, then film generally keeping company with prime-time television. Stage actors are about mid-table, just above novelists and ballet dancers, while poets are at the bottom alongside counter-tenors in celeb obscurity.

At least our letter writer can be grateful that Sir Michael Gambon never tried his luck on Strictly Come Dancing. That would have eclipsed even Harry Potter in giving him a celebrity handle and touching the national consciousness.

The Tate deserves a platform

Travelling on the Tube in the capital, I was struck how some of our national museums and art galleries get a merited plug on the station platforms, while others are neglected. At Charing Cross station one is advised on the platforms to alight for the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery. At South Kensington one is reminded that there is a host of museums, with a special passageway to them.

But neither Tate Britain nor Tate Modern has gained any recognition on the platforms of surrounding stations. What pull do the directors of the National and National Portrait Galleries have with the chiefs of Transport for London that the estimable and usually rather powerful Sir Nicholas Serota at the Tate has not? Are the TfL bureaucrats registering some sort of protest against the eccentricities of the Turner Prize? I think Sir Nicholas should have a meeting with the London Mayor Boris Johnson to demand equal rights.

It won't get bums on seats

In writing last week about how subsidised national venues are also now charging booking fees, I thought I might have exhausted all the possibilities of arts venues squeezing money out of audiences. I was wrong.

I'm grateful to Independent reader Mrs E M Beazley from Erpingham in Norfolk, who has reminded me of the iniquitous new trend of West End theatre producers discovering something called "premier seats". What an amazing discovery. These are, in fact, just a bunch of seats in the middle of the stalls, which greedy managements have decided to call "premier" and whack up to £40 extra for the privilege of sitting in them. For Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, pictured, at the Palace Theatre they are £35 above the normal price, at £95. Mrs Beazley says: "I have been a West End theatregoer for over 45 years but am sickened by the greedy producers and the continued ripping-off of the poor paying public."

Congratulations to West End theatre owners. You have alienated one theatregoer in premier style.

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