Putting us all in the picture

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I SPENT yesterday's bank holiday on a delightful day out at one of Britain's lesser known attractions, the Arts News Centre. Housed in an attractive listed 18th-century manor house, Fawley Towers, the centre is the place where all the important arts news stories in Britain originate.

'Remember 'Controversy over Radio 3's new policies'?' says Adrian Wardour-Street, head of the arts publicity powerhouse. 'That was all our doing. Remember 'Glyndebourne Nearly Burns Down'? Remember the recent Woody Allen and David Mellor brouhahas? We fixed all those . . .'

Are you saying that you actually applied a match to the scenery at Glyndebourne? Introduced David Mellor to, um, thingy? Were behind the Woody Allen marital mix-up?

'No, we don't fix anything at all,' says Adrian defensively. 'All we do is locate the stories and do a bit of steering on them. In the case of Woody Allen, we knew enough about the coming storm to ensure that there was a Woody Allen season of films on television in Britain at the time. Impressive, I think you'll agree. Anyway, thanks to Oscar, we can usually tell which stories are going to work or not.'

Oscar is the massive computer at the Arts News Centre into which all stories about the arts are fed, and which also knows - this is the vital bit - which stories will appeal to the public.

'Oscar has unerring instinct. He knows that stories about subsidised theatre and endangered cinemas bore people silly. He also knows that stories about opera stars who fail to turn up and treasures that are going to be sold by some impecunious duke touch a nerve, even though people are just as pig-ignorant about opera and famous paintings as they are about theatre and cinema.'

What sort of thing sells arts stories? 'Same as sells any story. Scandal, sex in the theatre, outrage, gossip, conflict . . .'

By sex in the theatre, do you mean famous playwrights and directors running off with famous actresses? 'That's always a good one. But you can't go wrong with good old-fashioned sexy goings-on on stage. It never fails to amaze me in this permissive age that little bits of nudity can still get them going, but they do.

'Take the Edinburgh Festival, for instance. Every year the city fathers - the local council - get terribly uptight about some bit of naked flesh on stage, which of course has usually been put there to get them uptight in the first place, and they always fall for it.

'But Edinburgh, like the British public, should be immune to shock by now. It's got more Aids and drugs than most places you can mention. It's today's Hypodermic City.

'Yet the city fathers still scream blue murder when a go-go dancer appears in a Fringe production, and seem to take the used needles in the street for granted. Weird. But it makes our job easier.'

Does Oscar ever originate stories, or does he just talent-spot them and groom them for the media? 'Well, mostly he just makes suggestions and, if we give him the go-ahead, writes up the stories. But occasionally he comes up with his own idea. Recently he got fascinated by the name Palumbo and came up with this totally fictitious story.'

Adrian picked a sheet of paper off his table and handed it to me. I started reading it.

'A 15th-century Palumbo which has been in the possession of one family for 200 years is now thought to be a fake. Experts who have examined it are convinced that it is not a genuine Palumbo, but probably an inferior Portillo.

'What they cannot be sure about is when the fake was done. If the piece has really been in the family for 200 years, when was it faked? And if it was faked 200 years ago, is it a rare 18th-century fake and therefore tremendously valuable? . . .'

Did they feed that story to the press? 'No. Someone in the media would have smelt a rat. They're not all stupid.'

And what did Oscar think a Palumbo was? 'To be quite honest,' says Adrian, 'we didn't dare ask him. It doesn't do to upset Oscar. He's a bit, well, shall we say, artistic in temperament. And the last thing we want is for him to go off into a sulk, and to have a story in the press about Oscar, the temperamental computer.

'I don't think 'Computer Storms out of Top Arts Set-up' would do much for our credibility . . .'