Editor-At-Large: National Treasure or a pain in the rear?

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The Independent Online

Here's a question: 71 days trapped on a boat in high seas with Ellen MacArthur or just under three hours in a seat in the theatre enduring Victoria Wood's latest opus? Let's look at the pluses - you might get to eat occasionally on the boat, albeit reconstituted dried soup. But at the Theatre Royal in London's West End, two glasses of incredibly nasty white wine, two tonic waters and a small packet of peanuts will cost you over £13.50. And a programme, which contains nothing except biographies of the stars and one page announcing "Book, Music and Lyrics by Victoria Wood", is another £4. Acorn Antiques is firmly trading on its undoubted status as one of Britain's favourite comedy concepts of the past 20 years. But there's no song list, story outline or even a mention of the fact that there's an interval anywhere within the pages of the lavish booklet you've shelled out for - after splashing out £65 for a seat!

Here's a question: 71 days trapped on a boat in high seas with Ellen MacArthur or just under three hours in a seat in the theatre enduring Victoria Wood's latest opus? Let's look at the pluses - you might get to eat occasionally on the boat, albeit reconstituted dried soup. But at the Theatre Royal in London's West End, two glasses of incredibly nasty white wine, two tonic waters and a small packet of peanuts will cost you over £13.50. And a programme, which contains nothing except biographies of the stars and one page announcing "Book, Music and Lyrics by Victoria Wood", is another £4. Acorn Antiques is firmly trading on its undoubted status as one of Britain's favourite comedy concepts of the past 20 years. But there's no song list, story outline or even a mention of the fact that there's an interval anywhere within the pages of the lavish booklet you've shelled out for - after splashing out £65 for a seat!

As I see it, Ellen MacArthur gave us value for money. She may not have donned a pinny and tap-danced around the poop deck. But she gave us a moment of patriotic pride, and she gave her sponsors bucketloads of publicity. Unlike Ellen, Victoria Wood is one of those people it is particularly difficult to criticise - she's seen as a National Treasure, a woman who embodies all that is special in British humour. She's been very fat, and now she's lean. She writes about the working class, piles and haemorrhoids, reusable gusset liners and macaroons. She doesn't try to be trendy, but sends up New Labour, community arts centres and the modern world. Her position is so secure that the BBC devoted a whole evening last weekend to eulogising the woman under the guise of her special Bafta award, ending with a number from her new musical (at that point unseen by the press) in prime time on BBC1. Talk about product placement!

I happen to love Acorn Antiques, which started out as a series of short sketches within Victoria's television series and quickly became a cult. A parody of dreadful series such as Crossroads and set in a failing shop selling knick-knacks, it starred Julie Walters as the world's slowest and most irritating cleaner, Mrs Overall, and the brilliant Celia Imrie, playing Miss Babs, the desperate shopkeeper. Twenty years later, Victoria Wood rations her television appearances, rarely performs in public and could easily sell out the Royal Albert Hall night after night. But has she become so formidable that no one can tell her when to accept advice, when to stop expanding a slight idea, when to trim and when just to keep quiet? This show is allegedly directed by Trevor Nunn, the man who's never made anything shorter. He can't have nerve endings in his backside, just suckers that glue his buttocks to theatre seats. He extended My Fair Lady totally unnecessarily. Now he's been unable to turn around the Titanic that is Victoria Wood's Acorn Antiques the musical. It suffers from what I call the Barbra Streisand effect. Remember Yentl, when the deranged star tried to do everything (acting, directing and scriptwriting) except the location catering? Here the Yentl effect is plain to see - I'm surprised Miss Wood didn't conjure up home-made low-carb macaroons for the interval, and then the bar could have made an even bigger profit.

The second half of Acorn Antiques is a perfectly acceptable musical based on the TV show. It has stars thrown at it, from Josie Lawrence to Neil Morrissey, who spend a large part of the action marooned on a sofa. But the first half, set in an arts centre in the Midlands where a trendy director plans to stage Acorn Antiques as a "relevant" piece of political theatre, is one of the most toe-curling bits of theatre I can remember. After all, Acorn Antiques was a shameless parody to start off with, and biting contemporary satire is not exactly what Ms Wood's legion of fans are expecting. The music throughout ruthlessly cribs from other shows, from Sondheim to Les Mis. Can you imagine the outcry if another director - Nick Hytner, for example - had done this? Only a National Treasure can get away it - and I fully expect the faithful will be saving now to fill those £65 seats for months to come. If Victoria is in touch with her audience, she'll be ruthlessly pruning, chucking away most of the first 45 minutes and letting us leave with a smile on our faces instead of a pain in the rear.

The forthcoming election has already become a macho affair - the tones of Alan Milburn wafting out of my radio on Saturday morning from the Labour Party conference in Gateshead, smooth, emollient and brooking no disagreement, remind us that now the chaps are firmly in control, with Alastair Campbell back in the fold issuing fuck-off emails by the hour. And sod the environment; we might be demonstrating this weekend to plead with President Bush to sign the Kyoto protocol, but President Blair was whisked around the country last Friday to launch his election scratch card by gas-guzzling helicopter. TV reporters were forced to shout questions over the sound of the blades - so no danger of having to deliver any in-depth sound bites.

Now there are mutterings that Labour's front-ranking women will be sidelined from television and the media in the coming weeks as the chaps set the new tough agenda, from immigration to crime, locking into head-on battle with the Tories. True or not, the party needs to harness all female power, not just from within the party faithful - from Ellen MacArthur to Victoria Wood - in order to persuade women that Labour is not just a party run by and for men. The editor of Vogue, Alex Shulman, was offended the other week when I said she should not have been given an OBE in the New Year's Honours List. I wasn't belittling her achievement (running a successful and profitable magazine for many years) but denigrating this government's tawdry way of dishing out honours instead of taking successful people like her on board and listening to what they have to say.

Gongs mean bugger all. The challenge our government has is to harness the power of clever women in this country. Yes, we have Ruth Kelly, Harriet Harman, Tessa Jowell and Margaret Hodge, but they're not exactly at the nerve centre, are they? And appearing on Richard and Judy (proving you're a real bloke by recognising Sharon Stone but not a courgette) seems like an idea dreamt up by the men at party HQ in the hope of capturing "housewives". Like Victoria Wood, Mr Blair needs to start listening - and butch stunts like jumping in an out of helicopters are a turn-off, I'm afraid.

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