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Thoroughly moral Millican's principled protest is just the ticket: Booking fees must go

The week in arts: Why mega-rich stars must do a "Millican", Parade's End will show the BBC the way and The Royal Academy needs a bigger flag
  • @davidlister1

I spy a chink of light. Two chinks of light, actually. After literally years of campaigning against booking fees, I feel that in the past week or so there may at last be signs that some progress is being made. First, at the opening of London's newest theatre, the St James in Victoria, the management announced that shows at this venue would have no booking fees at all. "The price you see is the price you pay," its publicity proclaims.

Second, and particularly significantly, the comedienne Sarah Millican declared that on her next national tour she would not appear at theatres owned by the powerful Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) because of its high booking fees – the accumulated charges can be as high as £8 on a ticket.

I take particular pleasure in her stand, as I wrote here a while back that what was needed to really make venue managers listen was for performers to make a public stand against these iniquitous charges. The ATG has responded by saying it finds what Millican has said "concerning", and is "always reviewing its charges".

I fear that it will need a radical change of attitude from the top, though. Before Millican made her protest, I had personally tackled the head of ATG, the otherwise estimable Howard Panter, on the subject of booking fees. Panter, named by The Stage newspaper as the most important man in British theatre, told me that those objecting to booking fees were just a "vociferous minority." He should see my weekly emails from readers, who consistently find booking fees the most irritating thing in the arts, often deterring them from attending performances.

He should see my weekly emails from readers, who consistently find booking fees the most irritating thing in the arts.

So, how to build on the two excellent examples of defiance that we have just seen against these booking fees, handling charges, and all the other fancy names that are synonyms these days for "fleecing"? Other venues must, of course, follow the example of the St James, or they should publicly explain why one major venue can do without these fees, while others can't (just, incidentally, as the publicly funded South Bank Centre in London should explain why it has booking fees, and the publicly funded National Theatre next door doesn't). And, most importantly, other performers must follow in Millican's footsteps and make a public protest, better still do as she did and refuse to perform at venues charging extortionate fees.

Many actors, musicians, dancers, are not in a position to take such a stand, of course. They can be too easily replaced. But the big stars do have that bargaining power, they do have the power to make a stand on behalf of the audiences that have made them stars. When are those actors, actresses, directors going to start thinking about their audiences? When is a mega-rich rock star going to refuse to play at an arena charging mind-boggling fees on every ticket? Their constant declarations of love for the fans are meaningless, until they start doing a Millican.

Soldier's story shows the Beeb can be a class act

There was also a chink of light in another of my preoccupations this week, the wish for the BBC to show more classic drama on TV. Hands up anyone who can recall the last Ibsen or Chekhov on television. Well, I happened to be at a lunch with the chairman of the BBC Lord Patten and asked him if he would add this concern to his in-tray. He told me that both he and the corporation's brand new director-general George Entwistle are on-side as far as the need for more classic drama were concerned, and he felt that the success of the recent Shakespeare history plays and Tom Stoppard's adaptation of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End may have marked a change of direction for BBC drama. Mr Entwistle shares my concerns, apparently. Watch this space. I shall certainly be watching the new D-G in this regard.

Royal Academy needs a bigger flag

I noticed on a visit to the excellent Impressionists exhibition at the Royal Academy in London that there is a new flag flying outside the building. It proclaims Burlington House, the complex that contains the Royal Academy, and lists the various learned societies that make up the rest of the complex. I'm sure that is wonderful news for the scholars within, but wouldn't it be better for the flag visible along much of Piccadilly to tell tourists clearly that they are approaching the Royal Academy? I just have a feeling that more of said tourists are looking for the internationally famous art gallery than the Society of Antiquaries.