The Week in Arts: What it takes to be a national treasure

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What makes someone a national treasure? What exactly do you have to have on the CV to win the nation's hearts?

What makes someone a national treasure? What exactly do you have to have on the CV to win the nation's hearts?

I have been wondering about this, following the 70th birthday tributes to Dame Judi Dench this week. Dame Judi is a national treasure, and deservedly so. The words have been used about her many times in the past few days. But, I will always remember something Sir Peter Hall once said to me. He said that when he was running the RSC in the early 1960s he knew he had two excellent young actresses, Judi Dench and Dorothy Tutin; but if you had asked him then which one would be the big star 40 years on, he would have said Dorothy Tutin every time.

Yet, the late Dorothy Tutin, a beguiling actress, not only never achieved the status of national treasure, she is barely remembered at all. Elsewhere among Dame Judi's vintage, Dame Maggie Smith is hugely admired, yet is somehow not quite a national treasure. And Vanessa Redgrave, a most remarkable actress, simply doesn't figure when national treasure citations are being handed out.

Go down a generation and the two most charismatic and gifted stage actors of their day are Simon Russell Beale and Clare Higgins. But they don't stand a hope of worming their way into the nation's hearts. That's because they're hardly ever on the telly. You cannot be a national treasure if most of the nation doesn't know what you look like.

So, the pre-requisite in the national treasure stakes is TV exposure. Dame Judi may well be one of the great actresses of the past half century. And a few high-profile film parts don't harm. But it is the sitcoms that have brought her a huge and devoted audience of non-theatregoers. With the sitcoms she reached the parts that the Dorothy Tutins and Maggie Smiths never reached.

The other requirement for national treasure consideration is to be self-deprecating and not too political. Dame Judi fits the bill. Kenneth Branagh, though mightily talented, has seemed rather too sure of himself. National treasure committees are uneasy with self-confidence. Dame Maggie can be delightfully spiky. National treasure judges don't always warm to that. Vanessa Redgrave has a history of left-wing politics, which looks bad on the national treasure application form. Mind you, longevity helps. Tony Benn, once reviled by much of the press, is certainly now in the running for a national treasure award. So, Vanessa, with a couple of cameos in Little Britain, could yet convince the judges.

Meanwhile, congratulations to Dame Judi. She has won the most elusive award of all.

And the prize for the best porky goes to ...

There was quite a story at the Turner Prize ceremony last Monday. The winner, Jeremy Deller, revealed that his art teachers at Dulwich College had stopped him from taking O-level art. Except - they hadn't. A few days after the prize-giving, a reporter tracked down Deller's now retired art teacher, Barry Adalian. He said: "I did nothing to discourage him. Quite the opposite." Staff of the art department would never have stopped the lad from taking the O-level, he added. They wanted to "keep up the numbers".

That rings true. It's never easy to get pupils to take art in a rugby-playing public school. Keeping up the numbers would most likely have been the policy. But where does that leave Deller's much-reported quote? We will have to strike it from the record, I'm afraid.

Happily, Deller's art teacher went on to say: "I am surprised he won. I think, in particular, his graffiti is a bit passé. It has been done so many times before. It was old hat to me." So we're not totally devoid of memorable quotes.

¿ The presenter of Radio 4's The World This Weekend, James Cox, said the following on the programme last Sunday: "And now an item on the financial problems of Scottish Opera. I can hear people switching off their radios all over the country."

It's hard to know who should feel more offended and patronised by this: Scots? Opera lovers? Radio 4 listeners generally?

Never mind Lord Reith turning in his grave - perhaps those two well-known opera lovers, Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC, and James Naughtie of the Today programme, could take Mr Cox aside and urge him not to make such an inappropriate remark again.

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