London Film Festival: the stars, the films, the parties... the point?

This week-long event failed to seize the attention of the capital

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Tomorrow night a gala screening closes the London Film Festival. The event has been running a while now, there have been several galas, lots of films, and sightings of Hollywood stars such as Tom Hanks and Kate Winslet. Not much change there then. London has galas, movies premieres and sightings of stars pretty much every week of the year. Few Londoners, I reckon, have been remotely conscious that there has been a film festival going on in their city.

It is, when you think of it, rather odd for the BFI, which organizes the festival, to put it on in the capital, a capital already bursting with culture, not least film. The Cannes Film Festival is not in a capital city, likewise Venice. And they are two of the oldest and most important film festivals. Part of the joy of those festivals comes in visiting a glorious location that is not the capital and seeing, certainly in the case of Cannes, a town totally given over to film. No resident of Cannes in May could be unaware that a film festival was taking place.

Britain has indisputably been going through a golden age for the arts, and London has indisputably been the centre of much of that activity and innovation. But it’s a lazy gesture to take advantage of that and plonk a film festival in London.

A film festival is not just another date on the arts calendar. It should dominate its surroundings, bring film-goers and tourists to its location, and put a national and international spotlight on that location. By holding it in a city already overflowing with events, it fails in all those aims.

Brighton, Birmingham, Cambridge, Newcastle, Norwich... there are a host of places that could have enjoyed that spotlight and could have given greater national prominence to the festival. A film festival should be a pilgrimage for fans, in a relatively compact place like Cannes or the Venice Lido, where they can gather and feel they are the main event, not an unnoticed cog in a much bigger arts machine.

The London Film Festival has, no doubt, had some great movies, parties and talks. But it has failed to cause a real stir because of its uninspired choice of location. Worse, it has failed to stimulate a local economy, its shops, restaurants and hotels, bring temporary jobs and publicity to a British town or resort, and failed to give us our own Cannes or Venice. The BFI should think again about its prestige festival, and this time use more imagination.

Is there really any need for previews?

Sir Tim Rice has told The Stage newspaper that he thinks there are too many previews in theatre (and he knows, as his own new musical From Here to Eternity has previews from here to eternity). He’s right, of course. Previews are glorified rehearsals, and increasingly don’t even offer reduced prices to audiences seeing these glorified rehearsals. Why, indeed, are there previews at all? Directors talk about the need to hone a show in front of a real audience. But the one point they never address is that other art forms seem to have their shows magically honed without the need for previews. A short walk from West End theatres is the Royal Opera House, where every opera and dance production simply has a dress rehearsal and then it’s the first night. No previews at all. If opera and dance can manage without a single preview, then so can theatre.

The bank bigwigs who needed some Persuasion

There was a wonderful postscript this week to the decision to put Jane Austen’s face on a new banknote. It was revealed,  under the Freedom of Information Act, no less, that the Bank of England had checked her out  to see there were “no issues in her private life”. Yes, this is for real. I’d have loved to have been in the room when Jane was positively vetted.

“OK, so what have you found out about this Austen woman?”

“There’s definitely cause for concern, chief. She claimed to be a novelist but only wrote a handful of books. Never married. Leaves some unexplained gaps in her private life. And I’m particularly concerned that there is a cult following that calls itself the Janeites. The cult meets regularly. Seems to consist of obsessive, middle-aged women, who gather at locations in the west country for unminuted discussions. Clearly they can’t be meeting time after time to  discuss those same few  books. Recommend further investigation.”

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