Lord Hall should raise the curtain on a new era for arts on the BBC

Plus, why the National Theatre job would be safe with Kenneth Branagh


Last Tuesday the BBC’s director-general Tony Hall endorsed the arts in a way that few of his predecessors have ever done. In a landmark speech, behind which was a 20 per cent increase in spending on arts programmes, he promised, among other things, a new arts brand bringing audiences the best live music, theatre and arts events from around the country.

As I watched him deliver an often inspiring address at Broadcasting House, I was particularly struck by one image he offered. He said he had found it hard to forget a video he had seen some months ago of a child looking at a magazine: “She tries to swipe it – she tries to expand it – she bangs it to try to make it play. Nothing happens. And in frustration she throws it away. To a toddler a magazine is a tablet that’s broken. That’s how this generation is growing up. It will have a totally different set of norms and behaviours.”

I was sorely tempted to jump from my seat and say: “Well perhaps if the BBC had a books programme on television, it might inspire that child, as she gets older, to read the magazine.” But that’s no way to treat a D-G in full flow.

Spending more is great, and embracing and developing the latest in technology is crucial. But let’s also aim high. I was absolutely delighted that Lord Hall announced that the BBC would now be partnering some of the country’s leading venues and festivals to show live performances, not least of theatre. This is something I have campaigned for over many years, usually to be told by former heads of the RSC and National Theatre that stage performances translated imperfectly to the screen, and they were reluctant to do it. Thus were some of the greatest productions and performances lost forever. Well, thank goodness they have changed their minds. Thank goodness, too, that the BBC has changed its mind on ghetto-ising arts coverage on BBC4, and now realises that it has to be on the mainstream BBC1 and 2 as well.

When he spoke of filming stage performances, Lord Hall did not detail what sort of productions he wanted to broadcast. I hope that we will at last see some classic drama. Name if you can the last time the BBC did any Chekhov or Ibsen, Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, Pinter or Stoppard. Actually even the BBC drama department can’t remember the last time they did a Chekhov, because I asked them. Unfashionable as it may be to say so, but it’s about time the BBC renewed acquaintance with the classics.

Tony Hall could be the man to make this happen. He is a believer not just in not in not dumbing down, but in opening new horizons to everyone. When he ran the Royal Opera House, he organised a performance solely for Sun readers. It proved for many of that rapt audience a transformative experience. His speech on Tuesday was rich on general promise, but at this stage lacking in detail. I hope that he will soon be able to pledge that the BBC will engage with classic drama, have a regular book show on one of its mainstream channels, and alongside its splendidly thorough commitment to televising Glastonbury, recognise a commitment to the country’s best theatre, art, opera, and dance.

I look forward to that speech.

The National job is not beyond our Ken

With celebrations for the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary approaching, the institution has still to appoint a successor to the excellent Sir Nicholas Hytner, who will leave in 2015. Most of the names being bandied about are directors, like the last four heads of the National. I think it would be rather exciting to see a change now, and have an actor run the venue, just as the founding head of the National, Laurence Olivier, was an actor. The board could do a lot worse than seek out Sir Kenneth Branagh, who seems to fit perfectly the bill of being first and foremost a great actor, but also an impresario, enabler, director and hyper-imaginative talent.

Take your seats for, er, taking your seats

A new musical called Ushers, about theatre front-of-house staff, is to open at the Hope fringe theatre in Islington, London, next month. No details have been given about the songs the front-of-house characters will sing, but I imagine there will be such titles as “You’re on the End of the Row But I’m Not Sure Which End”, “Would You Like a Programme, Cost You a Fortune?”, “The Toilets are Out of Order” and that singalong classic, “You Can Order Your Interval Drinks Now, But Don’t Expect to Find Them.”

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