It's ridiculous that we can't afford to keep Peter Brook

One of our greatest directors is based in France - where they support their artists
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The Independent Online

A special theatrical event took place this week at the Young Vic theatre in London. It was the start of a short run of Le Costume, a production by the legendary Peter Brook (and he's one of the very few names which really does deserve the over-used adjective). It wasn't a world premiere; it wasn't actually the first time this production has been seen in Britain; it wasn't even in English. But it was a special event because it was the work of one of the greatest directors Britain has produced, because, with the Young Vic's commendable success in attracting young people, it will have introduced new audiences to his style of directing, because productions by the Paris-based Brook over here are few and far between.

The 80-minute story set in a South African township with performers as gifted as they were physically beautiful was both a comic and moving tale of a strange revenge by a cuckolded husband, with Brook's hand evident in the actors' expression and movement as well as song and mime to a background of jazz rhythms. The director brought out the raw emotion of a story by coaxing such powerful performances from his actors.

One should have left the theatre 100 per cent satisfied, but my pleasure was diluted by a feeling of anger at the British arts establishment. Why on earth is one of the greatest British directors alive based in France, with consequently few opportunities for British audiences to see his work in Britain? The answer is well known. Brook moved to France in the 1970s, despairing of the support system for artists in Britain, found a welcoming and supportive subsidy system in France and has seen little reason to return.

As he said in an interview with The Independent earlier this summer: "We have built up a subsidy here [in France] which has never been very big, but in exchange, the Ministry of Culture has never, ever asked to see our programme or for a justification of it. I have never had to answer to board or a committee of any sort... The attitude is that having taken the plunge to back an individual, you then give that person full artistic freedom. When I look at all my colleagues in England struggling with boards and having to present their programmes - however independent you are as an artist, you can't help but be influenced, if you have to spend all your time explaining yourself to a chairman."

And so Brook, who made his name here with the Royal Shakespeare Company, remains in France. Well, here's a challenge for our own national funding body, the Arts Council. Why not do something truly radical? Why not offer Peter Brook an annual residency in Britain, say for three months of the year or, frankly for however long he wants?

This would, of course, mean the Arts Council funding an artist rather than a building, and, as Brook says, trusting him to deliver rather than demanding to see plans, financial breakdowns and programme schedules. Trust a great artist. It is admittedly not in the Arts Council tradition. Sir Peter Hall asked to be funded to run seasons at the Old Vic a few years ago and was turned down on the grounds that there was already enough serious theatre in London. He didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Now the Arts Council could show a change of direction with one imaginative, grand gesture that would - if Brook agreed - give British audiences regular and guaranteed access to the work of a man whose work on stage, and books on stagecraft, have had a monumental influence. Meanwhile, get down to the Young Vic and see the work of a British master more honoured abroad than at home.

¿ Last weekend I turned on the BBC teletext news. One of the top five stories was headed Stones and was the story of the cancellation of the Rolling Stones concert. The next item was headed Beatles and was the story of Latin Americans pretending to be Beatles fans, who were turned back at the airport after failing a Beatles quiz. It's a rather odd footnote to rock history that The Rolling Stones and The Beatles were two of the top five headlines of the day in 2003. I suspect that hasn't been the case since 1969.

*BBC4 has just shown an interview, with Kirsty Wark taking on Donna Tartt. It is, in fact, the second time the interview has been shown on BBC4. Only one minute of the interview has been shown on terrestrial TV, in a clip on Newsnight. With every month that passes, the corporation's ghettoising of arts programmes on the little-watched digital channel gets more and more alarming. Yes, I can see a perfectly acceptable rationale for a specialist arts channel if it serves to show programmes from the BBC archive or perhaps to show transmissions of current West End and regional plays. But this was one of the BBC's top interviewers speaking to one of the world's most intriguing and best-selling novelists. If that isn't worthy of transmission on a terrestrial channel, then the BBC must believe its viewers simply aren't interested in the arts at all.

d.lister@independent.co.uk

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