Philip Hensher: The Arts Council and the gaiety of the nation

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The Independent Online

Last week, I wrote with some exasperation about the Arts Council's recommended abolition of funding for some 200 organisations. In particular, many organisations felt that the notice given was totally inadequate, and the decisions taken on peculiar and shifting grounds. I mentioned the Drill Hall in London, the main venue for gay and lesbian theatre in London, which was being cut at the same time as a grant to Queer Up North, a brilliant gay festival in Manchester.

The story with Queer Up North, it seems, is even more extraordinary than at first sight. Its present artistic director, Jonathan Best, was appointed in 2006 with instructions to increase participation and audience figures. He did this. Audience figures increased from 5,500 in 2006 to 23,500 in 2007.

The number of events doubled, and the percentage of tickets sold rose from 55 to 70. Overheads were cut. A very tempting programme for 2008 has been put in place, including Antony and the Johnsons, Sandra Bernhard, Rufus Wainwright and Bette Bourne. You might like to compare the programme for the Thames Festival, which never engages anyone you've ever heard of and which has just received a recommendation for a three-fold rise in funding.

How on earth could the Arts Council justify recommending the withdrawal of support to so manifestly successful, interesting and drastically improving a festival? Well, they do it by ignoring all recent figures. The Arts Council says "audiences, while slowly increasing, are unacceptably low. In 2006 only 53 per cent of available tickets were sold". No comment about the impressive 2007 figures.

Queer Up North is in the peculiar situation of being a highly successful arts festival which is always going to find it much harder than most to raise commercial sponsorship.

Clearly, concerns were rightly raised by the Arts Council, when Mr Best was put in place, about sales. He and his team must be an unusually energetic and enterprising bunch to double their events, quadruple ticket sales, raise percentage sales by nearly half, and at the same time cut overheads by 24,000.

Even the Arts Council, set as it seems to be on cutting funding for gay theatre groups left, right and centre, could hardly fail to acknowledge that. So the best thing, apparently, is to go back to a moment in time when it was clearly failing and base decisions on that.

Mr Best told me that among the five reasons the Arts Council are giving for recommending the withdrawal of funding was one entirely new one. The gay arts festival in Liverpool, Homotopia, had some overlap with QUN; the older one, in the official view, was therefore redundant.

Most of the overlap, Mr Best points out, came in the form of three productions which originated with QUN and subsequently toured Liverpool, after previous recommendations of the Arts Council. A brilliant new form of Morton's Fork: do the Council's bidding, and they drop you. Refuse to do it, and they drop you.

The hard work of such organisations contrasts, frankly, with that of Arts Council officials. Mr Best told me that the Council had the gall to denigrate the competence of QUN's board, though nobody from the Council had troubled to attend any of its board meetings for two whole years.

If anyone can make sense of the Arts Council's planning, or their recommendations, or how any of it is supposed to improve the provision of the arts in this country, I promise to set their explanation to music and perform it on the stage of the Manchester Apollo.

Parent power postponed

Mrs Lynne Spears has announced that she is putting off the publication of her how-to guide to parenting. I feel this is cause for considerable regret.

After all, having brought up her daughter Britney to sing sadomasochistic lyrics in school uniform at 16, and so on, one feels that there must be some advice on the subject she can give the world.

It wasn't the tragic decline of her elder daughter which discouraged her, however, but her younger daughter's pregnancy at 16.

I can't help feeling that Mrs Spears' 'How To Be A Good Parent' book, when it finally appears, will sit on the shelf next to Stephen Fry's 'Humility', 'Great Canadian Composers' and '1001 Humorous Sayings of Gordon Brown'.

* A charming CD arrives from Forest, the pro-choice in smoking organization.

The Boisdale Blue Rhythm Band play a number of fag-related standards and new numbers, including "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes", "I'm Going Outside" and "Smoke Smoke Smoke That Cigarette". If only the anti-smoking fanatics showed a tenth as much good humour. Anyway, it's all wasted on me, since I gave up in February, thinking that I'd probably smoked long enough.

I anticipated an immense increase in my personal well-being and health. I should have listened more to David Hockney, who points out that the decline of smoking has been accompanied by an immense rise in the consumption of anti-stress medication. I stopped having any craving for cigarettes within days of giving up, but my stress levels, previously under quiet control, just kept on rising.

Is it merely coincidence that Britain is getting shorter-tempered, dependent on anti-depressants and stressed out now that nobody's allowed to smoke?