Culture: I'd do anything to be crunched like this

Toby Young
Sunday 01 February 2009 01:00 GMT

Now that Britain is officially in recession, will people start spending less money on culture? The conventional wisdom is that the arts don't suffer during times of economic hardship because the need for escapism is greater than ever – and this is borne out by the latest statistics.

There is much gloom and doom in the publishing industry at the moment, but if you compare book sales from 2008 with those from 2007, there is little cause for concern. In the second half of last year, the number of books sold was identical to the number sold in the second half of the previous year – or, at least, it was once you ignore sales of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which distorts the picture.

Pessimists might argue that book sales are an exception, since books represent good value for money compared with other, more expensive cultural pursuits, but sales of theatre tickets have held up, too. Last week, the Societyof London Theatre announced that attendances for 2008 totalled 13,807,286 – an increase of one per cent on 2007.

There is little evidence that attendances are about to start falling, either. Oliver! , starring Rowan Atkinson as Fagin (pictured), has set a new record when it comes to advance ticket sales and the forthcoming production of Waiting for Godot starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart is "selling like hotcakes", according to the entertainment-industry bible Variety.

Sales of cinema tickets have proven equally robust. According to the UK Film Council, total box office takings in the UK and Ireland totalled £949.5m in 2008, up from £907m in 2007. People may have been cancelling their summer holidays and shelving plans to buy new cars, but that didn't stop them turning out for Mamma Mia!, which became the highest-grossing film of all time in the UK and Ireland, beating the record set by Titanic in 1997.

One sign of confidence is that the UK Film Council has just launched a search engine called internet users can plug in the name of a film and the site then tells them when and where they can see it, be it at the cinema, on DVD or on television.

It would be complacent to come to the conclusion that there is no need to worry, but so far the arts are proving to be recession-proof.

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