David Lister: Why it's time for venues to put great British acting names back in the spotlight


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The Independent Online

A new theatre is to be built in the West End of London, the first for many years. We know from its owners where it will be – right above Tottenham Court Road Tube station. We know roughly how big it will be – quite compact. We know what sort of shows it will put on – straight plays, not musicals. The only thing we don't know is its name

That's not surprising, for there is no harder decision when it comes to a theatre, or indeed any arts venue, than the name. Raising the money, getting the planning permission, that's all a piece of cake compared to the business of what you will call it, and who you will offend.

It's worth the owners, Nimax, one of whose chiefs is the excellent, veteran West End producer Nica Burns, taking their time. Just look at how the rest of the West End has got it wrong in the past. There is so little celebration of talent in the naming of venues, just a celebration of duke, duchesses, queens, Greek gods, street names. And how many people actually know which duchess or which queen the theatre they are sitting in is named after. Thankfully, a few actors and impresarios are commemorated. The immortals, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier have their venues. Mind you, the Olivier auditorium at the National Theatre is alongside the Lyttelton and Cottesloe, worthy gents, though few in a pub quiz could tell you who either actually was. And no theatre in the West End is named after an actress. Peggy Ashcroft has a theatre named after her in Croydon (though located within another venue), but she should have her West End venue too, and the new Tottenham Court Road playhouse might be just the one to commemorate her.

The trouble is there is no system, it all comes down to individual theatre owners and their individual heroes, which is why Sir Cameron Mackintosh has given us a Novello and a Noel Coward.

And it's not just Theatreland that too often fails to remember its heroes. Music completely fails to remember them. How many O2s and Carlings do we need, for goodness' sake? Can't the country and the cities that gave us The Beatles, The Smiths, The Who, even if you really, really insist, the Spice Girls, name a few pop venues after some musical giants (and serious exports). O2 might be revelling in its commercial ubiquity, but it's desperately unimaginative.

And on the subject of ubiquity, couldn't we play around a little with the Odeon and be a bit more imaginative with cinema names? Would it be so impossible to have the Alfred Hitchcock Odeon in Leicester Square? Let's celebrate British talent and think about British talent when we go to watch talent. Could the Royal Opera House not name one single bar, one foyer, after Margot Fonteyn?

So, here's an idea to add to all the cultural celebrations, Olympiads, world festivals and the like taking place in the UK this year. Let the Department of Culture set up a Cultural Venues Naming Commission. Let it publish a list of British talent that should be honoured above the lights of famous cultural venues. Let it then wrangle with the commercial owners of these buildings in public.

The word one hears a lot, too much, this year is that awful word, legacy. The one meaningful cultural legacy from 2012 would be to see the names of great cultural heroes and heroines in lights, permanently.

French have the X-factor but they don't fit the bill

Simon Cowell loves nothing more than controversy, so one hesitates to add to it. But watching the last episode of Britain's Got Talent, I did wonder exactly what the dance group Cascade were doing on it. They did a cracking routine of dance, martial arts and stunt acts. Only thing was, they weren't from Britain, they were from France.

It seems a bit of an admission of failure, both ratings failure and a failure of patriotism and cultural faith, effectively to say that there isn't enough talent over here to fill an hour or two. Perhaps he should change the name of the show, though "The World's Got Talent" sounds even more of a truism than the original title.

No mention of the museums' taxing times

One of the perks of the Chancellor's wife being a mover and shaker in the arts is that she hosts very pleasant receptions at the Chancellor of the Exchequer's residence, 11 Downing Street, for arts bodies. I went to one recently for the Museums at Night campaign. Frances Osborne hosted the evening and introduced it with a short speech. Curiously, she neglected to refer to the one issue most on the minds of the museums' community – the Chancellor's decision to cut tax relief on charitable giving, which could significantly affect the amount philanthropists give to museums and galleries. Mrs Osborne didn't mention this at all. I can't think why.