Thank God: Maria Miller is a Culture Secretary who has actual opinions on culture

Plus: The Barbican and the Bard, together again and and eclectic audience for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic's coffee concertos


Alan Bennett was once asked what was the most offensive T-shirt
he could imagine. He famously replied that it would proclaim: "I
hate Judi Dench".

What greater obscenity could there be than to insult a national treasure? In the same vein, my offensive T-shirt would state: "I hate Alan Bennett's latest play". To confess that one was rather bored during a much anticipated, critically lauded work by another national treasure, is not something to be recommended in polite society. So when Bennett's People was premiered at the National Theatre late last year, I kept to myself my opinion that it had longueurs, and that I found its negative depiction of National Trust volunteers unnecessarily patronising, even a little snide. They're decent enough folk, surely.

But suddenly I find I have a strange ally for this critique. The Culture Secretary Maria Miller has belatedly seen the production and was quoted as saying afterwards: "I'm all in favour of this army of volunteers. It seems that most other people agree too, with the exception of this illustrious playwright." I was pleased to read this, not just because on this occasion I share her view, not because it is a particularly illuminating or elegantly phrased piece of criticism, but for a much more important reason – here was a Culture Secretary engaging with the art she had witnessed.

I can't immediately recall another example of someone holding that office saying anything more after a performance than the usual "it was wonderful" platitude. Here at last was a genuine, heartfelt reaction.

Now I know that many, many people in the arts will deplore what she says, not because they feel that Bennett is beyond criticism, but because it is anathema to most of the arts world for the politician in charge of culture to have opinions on culture. They are meant to arrange the funding and then silently relish the fare without passing comment. And for a Tory politician to criticise a liberal playwright is the stuff of many an arts nightmare. But as someone who has long argued for Cabinet ministers to be seen at arts events, it seems to me nonsensical to then say that they may be seen but not heard, that they should with their presence endorse British culture, but not be allowed to publicly engage with it or debate it.

The artists should welcome debate, and the ludicrous, long-standing fear in the arts that ministers' own prejudices will affect funding has no basis in reality. I look forward to Maria Miller adding the job of critic to her portfolio. One of the great pleasures of seeing a show is discussing it afterwards. Part of that discussion can now be led by the Culture Secretary, with others taking her on forcefully, and many others watching the debate unfold, and keeping the week's big openings as talking points. What's to be afraid of?

The Barbican and the Bard are an ideal match... again

The Royal Shakespeare Company has announced that David Tennant will be playing Richard II later in the year. It's an exciting piece of casting, but I'm equally intrigued by the venue for the production, when it comes to London. It will be the Barbican. The Barbican was, of course, the RSC's London home until the company decided, controversially, to leave it in the Nineties. Since then the Barbican management has commented from time to time on how they had no interest in having the RSC back. Have some quiet negotiations been going on behind the scenes?

Certainly, the various London venues that the RSC has used since have failed to give it an identity, and have simply confused the public. I suspect that the RSC has been making peace overtures with the Barbican. I also suspect that Richard II will be the first of many RSC productions there, as the company begins to realise it wasn't such a bad home after all.

Baton on stage, tickling stick in the audience

Orchestras are being urged to do more to connect with new audiences. One orchestra making the right moves is the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. I went to see them perform the other day. Their charismatic Russian conductor, Vasily Petrenko, has inaugurated "coffee concerts" where he and orchestra replay the symphony of the night before at noon, all tickets are £15, coffee and biscuits are included, and the conductor talks to the audience. Hundreds of people came to the last one.

The audience at the evening symphony concert I attended was quite interesting too. It included the Norwegian consul, the Archbishop of Liverpool... and Ken Dodd. That's what I call eclectic.

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