Just when you think that everyone in the arts seems to speak with the same voice, mouthing many of the same platitudes, along comes someone with an eye-popping speech which dares to say the unsayable. Sam Walters, the outgoing director of the much admired Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, used his farewell moment to defend the middle classes.
What heresy. You can do many strange things in cultural circles, but the one imperative is to rid the arts of its middle-class bias. Indeed, three recent speeches have done just that. The Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, said many people paying to support culture through National Lottery tickets felt the sector was for “other, richer people”, while his opposite number, Labour’s Harriet Harman, claimed that audiences were too “white, metropolitan and middle class”. And, only this week, announcing the current round of Arts Council grants, chief executive Alan Davey said: “If we get diversity right we get better art and appeal to wider audiences. For the first time all organisations will be asked to demonstrate how they will make their work relevant to a wider range of audiences and build a workforce that better reflects our contemporary society,”
Mr Walters, though, was having none of it. The Stage reported him saying he was “fed up to the back teeth” that white middle-class audiences were undermined by MPs. He described picking out a section of society for “criticism and pillorying” as an unpleasant political trait. He added: “I imagine that, unlike Mr Javid and Ms Harman, theatres are of course delighted that these white, middle-class people buy theatre tickets or their theatres would be much the emptier.”
This is incendiary stuff. And it is right, but only half-right. Yes, the way to encourage a more diverse audience is not by rubbishing what is already there. But there is a bigger point, and a key word in the quest for a more diverse audience, for a younger audience, for a more classless audience. That word is price. I search through those speeches of Javid, Harman and Davey demanding diversity, and I do not see the question of ticket price addressed.
What, though, could encourage a new audience more than cheap tickets? While it has become fashionable to rubbish the middle class, it seems to have become oddly unfashionable to talk about price. Perhaps it might provoke too many awkward questions about funding. But only by increasing the number of cheap tickets, only by making theatre or classical music or ballet the same price as cinema, will you show a new, young, culturally and ethnically diverse audience that those art forms are for them.
Stop the pillorying and start the real discussion – how to make great art affordable.
A bridge too far?
Congratulations to the Museum of London Docklands for putting on the exhibition Bridge, a fascinating and long overdue show about the history, architecture and secrets of the bridges along the Thames. I travelled in a boat down the river, prior to the opening, with architectural historian and TV personality Dan Cruickshank. It showed me yet again how one person’s passion can make an art form come alive. The enthusiasm of Cruickshank (left) was mesmerising, and his phraseology memorable. Bridges, he intoned, were “strange, audacious interventions... the low bridges are strange and dark, giving them such an emotional appeal, things of life, things of death... Ah, look at Vauxhall Bridge, the bronze figures brooding over the river... bridges have secret lives, they have innards and guts...” I will never again think of them as lifeless structures.
A curious omission
I couldn’t agree with some of the critical acclaim for Great Britain, the National Theatre’s post-hacking-trial play about hacking. There were a fair few clichés and some very old jokes and predictable stereotypes about tabloid newspapers. But I did admire the moment of high drama right at the start of the play when a character lectured the audience about the hypocrisy of The Guardian campaigning against big companies avoiding tax, while its parent company also registered companies in the Cayman Islands to avoid tax. Far be it from me to say whether this assertion was true or just dramatic licence, but I thought The Guardian’s theatre critic might at least mention this powerful speech in his review. Strangely, he didn’t. Shortage of space, no doubt.