Thomas Sutcliffe: Should Disney run Venice and Pompeii?

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Wandering around Pompeii last week we turned a corner in one of the city's villas to find a small group of students scraping at the dusty earth. As we watched, one of them unearthed a lump and handed it to the American archaeologist who was supervising the dig. "What is it?" we asked, rather excited by the thought that we might have been present at a discovery. "Just a chunk of ancient wall painting," she replied dismissively. Just? The children looked mildly crestfallen, while the adults among us couldn't help but feel this counted as a significant failure in marketing, to put it mildly. But then a certain carelessness with regard to its riches is characteristic of the Pompeii site. It's almost as if there's too much there to cherish properly. After a while you start to get blasé about original Roman shop-fronts and Latin graffiti, forgetting how astonishing it is that it's still upright in the sunshine.

That incident came to mind when I read that the British economist John Kay had suggested that the only way to save Venice was to hand the city over to Disney - or some similar entertainment corporation - to manage as a visitor attraction. Only by abandoning the pretence that Venice is a normal working city, he argued, could its assets be properly exploited... and thus preserved. Tourists would be charged a one-off entrance fee to get in and then queue for the various attractions, whether it was gondola rides or the Carpaccios in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni.

And, given Disney's track record with crowd management and added value, we could surely expect some extras. Animatronic torture victims in the Doge's prison, perhaps, or a regular parade of harlequins crossing the Piazza San Marco. Essentially, the task of fretting about Venice's future - currently parcelled out between private charities and the Italian government - could be privatised.

Before we get all huffy about this (we'll come on to that later), we should recognise its merits as an idea. It's not hard to imagine ways in which efficient management might improve Venice, even for the most fastidious visitor. Gone would be the competing clutter of souvenir stalls, with their made-in-China plastic gondolas and their Rialto Bridge snow globes. In would come discreet merchandising outlets, tucked away behind a palazzo façade.

And if things went well in Venice, Pompeii makes an obvious candidate for expanding the franchise. Like Venice, it's easy to cordon it off and govern access. Like Venice, much of the global marketing work has been done already. And it would simply be dishonest not to admit that Disney or - let's be patriotic for a moment - Madame Tussauds, would have no useful expertise to bring to bear.

The only problem being that John Kay hasn't costed in the value of aggravation, discomfort and an absence of drinking fountains. Because the real, for most of us, isn't guaranteed by pleasant experiences but by mildly unpleasant ones - or at least by days in which the sublime is wrestled out of the banal. In a theme park in Pompeii that chunk of plaster would emerge every two hours, on the hour. It would be reverently brushed clean and displayed to time-ticketed visitors with a carefully scripted back-story. And, however much we relished the theatre, we wouldn't believe a word of it. Tourists want authenticity and authenticity means friction and happenstance, bad and good. The problem with Disney running Venice isn't that they would do it badly, but they'd do it all too well.

A shameful blow below the belt

The feral bullying of the popular press shouldn't really be shocking any more, but even so, The Sun's splash revealing that Heather Mills-McCartney had posed for what they tendentiously described as "hardcore porn" was notably vicious and hypocritical. The Sun had discovered she took part in a photo-shoot for a German publication. "The filthy volume features 112 pages filled with pictures - and contains NO accompanying words," said the report. Unlike their own Page Three picture in which Zoe, 24, is spared from words like "sordid" and "brazen" with a little speech bubble about John Prescott. Heather's sins also included wearing red stockings and a corset. If only she'd donned a pair of Love Kylie knickers like Zoe, she might have got a cheque from the paper, rather than a kicking from the media's closest equivalent to a happy-slapper.

* Sunday night's fund-raising concert in memory of the comedian Linda Smith concluded with a treat for the audience of Radio 4 devotees: a performance of Ian Dury's "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll" in which the lyric was delivered by Brian Perkins, Charlotte Green, Corrie Corfield and Peter Donaldson. The audience enjoyed that a lot, as they did the shortened versions of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue and Just a Minute. Not very surprising really, since both enjoy a cult-like following. But it was intriguing to see how this genteel audience relished every hostile remark about Blair, however extreme. Radio 4 loyalists probably don't figure very highly in New Labour's electoral calculations - but they shouldn't be in any doubt that they're really, really cross.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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