Sarah Sands: The great British blockbuster – big, bold and brilliant

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The Independent Online

As I skipped to the Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy last week, I experienced that first-day-of-the-sales feeling, excitement hardened by determination. Not only was I going to see one of my favourite painters, but he was everyone else's favourite. The world was converging in its taste, if not in its pronunciation. It was a blockbuster.

No matter that one had to sidle past some dreary drawings and endless depictions of peasants' bottoms. Or that Brian Sewell had observed that Van Gogh's accompanying letters were not quite as psychologically revealing as billed. The one that stuck in my mind was about the texture of a pencil that the artist had acquired. The point was that there were enough paintings of Provence to make your spirits waltz. Even the painting of the asylum looked gorgeous. How could someone so disturbed paint landscapes of such dazzling colour and joy? Crowds of us gathered round the self-portrait and the lovely boat at sea. Everyone lip-read the letters in case of references to ears. It was a truly satisfying exhibition.

If you mention blockbusters to heads of arts organisations they groan. A friend who ran an opera company used to hate the unspoken pressure upon him to stage La traviata. The current fashion is for blockbuster casting. Hamlet with Ben Whishaw. Hamlet with David Tennant. Hamlet with Jude Law. Judi Dench as Titania, perhaps followed by Helen Mirren as Titania and maybe Nicole Kidman as Titania. Big-name directors, big-name stars, big-name playwrights.

The argument against blockbusters is that they crush what is new and fragile. I would be sad to see the modest charm of the film An Education bulldozed by the expensive, blue-faced banality of Avatar at the Baftas. What of the delicate hopes of a debut novelist drowned out by the fanfare for a bestselling writer?

The culturally nutritious course is the punishment reward system of an event such as the Proms. If you dutifully make it through the post-20th-century section, you can have Chopin and Mozart. But a balanced diet is not as exciting as a blockbuster. My dream is of Barenboim's five Beethoven concertos at the Royal Festival Hall. Blockbuster casting, sponsored by Shell.

The sponsorship issue was always part of the agony of my old opera director friend. Verdi was produced by a beseeching coalition of opera wives, American sales and corporate sponsorship. Where there is a blockbuster exhibition there is usually a bank.

Our museums are centres of civilisation, and all the better when they are civilisations we have come across in Tintin books. The British Museum is a master of the blockbuster, giving us China's Terracotta Army, the blood and treasure of the Aztecs and the imperial might of Hadrian.

Size and clout are impressive. The 02 arena is a blockbuster venue – big names, big crowds, Beyoncé, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin. It is a formula that eluded it in its previous incarnation as the Dome. If you want to find Britain's centre of intellectual gravity, it is a few notches away from the critics (A Prophet! Yuk!) but well above the lowest common denominator of reality TV. It is conservative and discerning and family minded.

The blockbuster West End show is War Horse. Obviously the First World War with horses is a sure-fire emotional combination, but the twist is that this is a puppet show. Don't patronise the public and don't underestimate the power of the past. And think big.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the London Evening Standard