The Week in Arts: We are programmed to pay over the odds

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The Independent Online

Why are programmes at theatres so expensive? The question is not mine, I hasten to assure those theatrical impresarios who sometimes accuse me of being too negative. The question comes from the Minister for the Arts, Estelle Morris. Writing in the New Statesman magazine, Ms Morris poses what she calls some "unanswerable questions about the arts".

Why are programmes at theatres so expensive? The question is not mine, I hasten to assure those theatrical impresarios who sometimes accuse me of being too negative. The question comes from the Minister for the Arts, Estelle Morris. Writing in the New Statesman magazine, Ms Morris poses what she calls some "unanswerable questions about the arts".

Question number one asks why it is that in America you get an informative and well presented playbill absolutely free, while here you "pay through the nose" for a programme with more pages of adverts than anything else.

And what is question number two? That is also about theatre programmes. The minister cannot understand how "First Division football clubs" produce bigger and better programmes - sometimes twice a week - for a fraction of the cover price of those for most West End theatre productions, which remain the same for the duration of the play's run.

Good for Estelle Morris. Generally, arts ministers are a little scared of asking obvious questions for fear of betraying some gap in their cultural knowledge. Estelle Morris, like the little boy in the emperor's new clothes has no such inhibitions. And that could make her a very valuable arts minister indeed. Give her a drink or two and she could find some more unanswerable questions.

Why are Richard Curtis's films so similar? Why does Sarah Lucas get an exhibition at the Tate? Why couldn't the English National Opera open its new building on time? Just what are "handling charges" that are levied on theatre tickets? Why do we need an Arts Council when we have elected ministers to take decisions?

You'll love the arts, Estelle. They're full of unanswerable questions. That's why they're so challenging. And, yes, you're absolutely right about programmes. West End theatre programmes are often a disgrace. And football fans would probably riot if they had to pay £3 for a collection of adverts and "biographies" of performers, which usually amount to little more than a list of plays they have appeared in. Programmes at classical music concerts are just as bad, by the way. Not a line about a violin prodigy's background - just a list of recordings that he or she has made.

Why on earth do producers and theatre owners allow it? Perhaps they think it would be wrong to give away too much information as that would destroy the sense of illusion so vital to theatre. The only other answer would have to be sheer greed. And neither I nor the arts minister would want to believe that.

Go on, give yourself credit where it's due

Little Richard doesn't mince his words. I know this from experience. When the old rock'n'roller was over here for a tour in the 1990s, I asked him about the alleged ill feeling between him and his fellow crooner, Jerry Lee Lewis. He gave me a thoughtful and explanatory response of "You shut your mouth!".

This week he was again on form. Rolling Stone magazine asked a number of rock stars for their choice of all-time greats. Most chose The Beatles or Elvis or Bob Dylan. Little Richard chose himself. He told the magazine: "A lot of people call me the architect of rock'n'roll. I don't call myself that, but I believe it's true. I don't think I ever got what I really deserved."

There speaks one honest rock star. Most of them actually think what Little Richard said. They are the best at what they do and never really got the credit they deserved. In the dead of night a lot of non-rock stars think it too.

Who reads verse better - an actor or a notable poet? In the past few days I have heard on the Radio 4 Today programme a recording of Richard Burton reading from Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood, and the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion reading William Wordsworth's "I Wander'd Lonely As A Cloud". Burton's reading was so full of feeling that I did not want it to stop. Motion, on the other hand, made me yearn for a teacher to say: "A little more expression please, Andrew. No, no, not so quickly. Try to make us picture those daffodils dancing in the breeze." Or, as the late Joyce Grenfell's comic creation of the weary primary school teacher would have said: "Andrew, don't do that."

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