With the possible exception of delivering nuts, bolts and screws to small businesses in the Dudley area, quite the most boring and pointless job I ever had was as arts correspondent for a national newspaper.
The problem, I quickly realised, is that the arts are not an intrinsically newsworthy subject. If you're a critic, they're great: there's room for all sorts of subtle analyses, rare insights, learned jokes, bitchy asides, frequent use of the word "I" and so on. But if you're looking for a news angle, you're pretty well stuffed, for nothing exciting ever happens in the world of the arts but that cunning journalism makes it so.
This is why, to be a good arts correspondent, you need to be slightly unscrupulous. You need to be able to kid first your news editor, later your readers, that the non-story you've picked up about a minor funding row at some tiny theatre company no one has ever heard of is, in fact, of major cultural significance.
Forgive me, then, if I sound a little sceptical about this new shock-horror yarn concerning English National Opera. Not for a moment am I suggesting that the story is made up: I am quite prepared to believe that it is jolly unusual for a staging of Verdi's A Masked Ball to open with all the singers on the loo having a dump; that most versions don't include transvestism or homosexual rape; and that one of the tenors did indeed pull out of the production in protest.
What I'm doubting, however, is the story's underlying premise: that anyone other than a few hacks, ENO's publicists and maybe the odd serial-complaining member of the public gives the remotest smidgen of a damn.
Of course, one can understand why ENO – with mounting debts and declining artistic credibility – decided to generate this storm in a tea cup. How many of us would ever have heard of this production, let alone of the (we're told) famously controversial Spanish opera director Calixto Bieito, if it hadn't been for this alleged scandal?
As far as generating sales is concerned, it will turn out to have been a wasted effort. I mean, when was the last time you forked out to see a production purely in the hope of being scandalised? I've only ever done it once, as a student, when I went to see a live sex show in Amsterdam (quite clever, the way she drank a bottle of Coke using her rude bits, but otherwise not that thrilling). But normally I don't flick through Time Out going: "Hmm. I wonder what's on that's really shocking at the moment?"
You do occasionally get productions – The Romans in Britain, Peter O'Toole's legendary Macbeth – whose notoriety is what pulls in the crowds. For the most part, though, audiences are far too sensible to waste money on something just because it involves a bit of sodomy, eye-gouging or bad language. I never did see Shopping and ****ing or Blasted or even Puppetry of the Penis, but I like to believe that the main reason they did well was their consummate artistry not gratuitous rudeness.
Have we become more broad-minded as a nation? Well, yes, I'm sure we have – though you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise after the risible outcry following the excellent Brass Eye on paedophilia. But I don't think that's quite the issue.
What's important is to recognise how large a gulf there is between what society colludes in pretending we find shocking and what we actually find shocking. How many people were truly, genuinely upset when Ken Tynan first said "fuck" on TV? When the Sex Pistols gave the verbals to Bill Grundy? When Jools Holland swore on The Tube? When Ali G used naughty words on the Radio 1 breakfast show? Sure there will have been a few complaints, but the nutters who phone or write in are by no means representative of the phlegmatic populace at large.
Sex was not invented in 1963. Nor was the sort of ultraviolence you see in Sarah Kane plays. Those who survived the First and Second World Wars – or indeed the Boer and Crimean wars – rarely managed it without a good deal of ripe language. There's nothing that can be done on stage or screen that most of us don't know about already. Of course we like to go on deluding ourselves otherwise, thanks to our fine national tradition of hypocrisy. But like most British traditions, it's only pretend.Reuse content