Terence Blacker: Back to the old Tory basics of cutting art

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The Independent Online

It is as if south London has slipped into some grim time-warp and suddenly finds itself back in the mid-1980s. That proud Conservative council Wandsworth has just announced a cost-cutting offensive and, to show how seriously it takes the business of keeping down taxation, it has started by hammering a local fringe theatre.

The fact that the theatre happens to be the Battersea Arts Centre, recognised as one of the most dynamic and original cultural venues in London and a huge local asset, has merely made the council more implacable. Harsh decisions must be made, say the councillors. Services for kiddies and the elderly must come first.

This is political gamesmanship at its most pathetic. Wandsworth Council has complained that its settlement from the Labour government has left it with a shortfall of £5m and has made its point by cutting a £100,000 grant to the BAC at three months' notice and, in what looks like a clear attempt to finish it off, also demanding a commercial rate of £270,000 a year for the old town hall in which it is based.

The move is so short-sighted that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it is motivated by political spite. The BAC is a model of the way a local arts centre should work. For those hoping to build a career in theatre or music, it offers a way into the mainstream, an encouragement of new talent, often with spectacular success. Jerry Springer: The Opera was developed there. Comic acts from Matt Lucas to the League of Gentlemen were given an early break in Battersea. The prestigious James Menzies-Kitchin Award at the centre gives a young director the chance to stage a production of a classic play. There are regular workshops, involving local people.

The argument that a centre which puts on performances for children each weekend and brings in 3,500 pupils from schools every year should not be supported by its local council is clearly ludicrous. Not only do people in the borough visit the BAC, but its success at bringing custom into the area was reflected only last year in the Wandsworth Business Awards where it won the Best Community Contribution award.

At first glance, it is all very puzzling. One would think that an institution which not only brings in business but also encourages local people, particularly the young, to get involved in local projects was pretty much what councils wanted. At £100,000, with a low rent on an old building, it would seem to be cheap at the price.

But in Wandsworth, it seems that the local Tory politicians see things differently. The council which once pioneered the sale of council houses and has prided itself on having the lowest level of council tax in the country, will inevitably look askance at the scruffy dynamism of the fringe theatre. For them, the achievements of the BAC count for less than the fact that rude words and inappropriate views may be expressed on their stages.

This distrust of the alternative, the artistic, the unrespectable is more than just mean-spirited and unimaginative. It is a reminder that the old conservatism, thought to have been discredited long ago, is never far away. Before his cause is damaged further, it might be wise for David Cameron to have a quiet word with his more doctrinaire colleagues down in Wandsworth.

A case of too much exposure

It is an odd fact that the multibillion-dollar pornography business is run much like any other industry, with trade fairs and seminars. From one of these has come the heart-breaking news that advances in technology have been posing certain technical problems. Apparently, the new high-definition DVDs reveal too much human imperfection. "The biggest problem is razor burn," the director and star Stormy Daniels confided to the world's press. In an age where reality has become the Holy Grail, it is oddly reassuring that, in at least one branch of the media, less is more. Perhaps, out of respect for the importance of fantasy, the next generation of triple-X classics will be shot in moody, badly lit black and white.

* The argument that, in this world of pain and strife, it is idiotic to discuss what happens on a reality TV show is utterly wrong-headed. The debate surrounding Celebrity Big Brother has been important.

It is not the behaviour of those poor saps inside the house which is of interest. Channel 4's argument that their attitudes to race, class or - the latest game - age represent problems in society at large is self-serving and bogus. This story is about the media's power to manipulate feelings and events within their studio and, significantly, in the world outside.

Thanks to the cold-hearted creeps at Endemol, we have seen how bullying onscreen can, carefully directed, prompt more bullying in the name of justice. With clever editing, games of reward and punishment, backed up by extensive PR, a production company has revealed its power to play the public mood like a fish on a line. It makes for ugly, demeaning TV but provides an important political warning.

terblacker@aol.com

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