Why is it that when MPs say anything about culture, they tend to make fools of themselves? It can even apply to arts ministers. I witnessed one of the worst (or best, depending on how in need of a laugh one is) examples of this when the then Conservative arts minister Stephen Dorrell spoke at the Cannes Film Festival.
The festival was at the time screening a season in honour of the incomparable French actress Jeanne Moreau. "I would", said Mr Dorrell, "like to pay tribute to a great Frenchman." People have been guillotined for less.
He's not alone, though. MPs, ministers, prime ministers can cope with the minutiae of global economics and global warming but turn white and start stammering when asked to comment on the last movie that they have seen.
The latest example of culture shock has come from Liverpool where the prospective Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree, 28-year-old Luciana Berger, a Londoner, was given a quiz by the local paper and did not know who Bill Shankly was, or who recorded the song "Ferry Cross the Mersey". At least she didn't venture a guess that Shankly had had a hit with the song. Her ignorance of matters close to the hearts of most Liverpudlians has provoked the actor and local boy Ricky Tomlinson from The Royle Family to consider standing against her in the coming election.
Well, I can understand Ricky's frustration. It's asking for trouble to try to be a representative of Liverpool and not know who Bill Shankly was. You can't even protest that football is only a game, as Shankly himself trumped that when the late Liverpool FC manager said that football wasn't a matter of life and death, "it's more important than that". I'm less sure that Ms Berger, who is only 28 after all, should be pilloried for not knowing that "Ferry 'Cross the Mersey" was taken into the charts by Gerry and the Pacemakers. It was a long time ago, and Gerry Marsden and his group weren't exactly The Beatles (notable Liverpool pop group, Ms Berger).
Besides, where should these quizzes and MPs' cultural knowledge begin and end? Should a Liverpool MP be expected to name the individual Pacemakers? I suspect that even Gerry Marsden would have to think for a minute to do that. Should a Liverpool MP know which famous actors started their career at the Everyman Theatre or which prize-winning novelists hail from the city? Then there are comedians, painters, conductors, opera singers, ballet dancers. (You still with us, Ricky?) Come to that, if you're meant to have heard of Bill Shankly, then surely in the interests of balance (and votes) you should be able to name Everton's league- and cup-winning manager of the same period.
They're dangerous things, these cultural quizzes. My advice to MPs, prospective or otherwise, is to steer clear of them. It would be nice to think that MPs could get immersed in the culture of their constituencies, but it probably won't make them any better or worse at their jobs. And as those of us who work in arts journalism or in the arts generally know to our cost, there are a lot of cultural anoraks out there with an infinite number of quiz questions to catch you out. Ms Berger can still be a fine MP, even if her brain is now addled with half-remembered songs by Bill Shankly and the Pacemakers.
Welcome back to the day job, Andrew
My thanks go to Andrew Lloyd Webber who allowed me to hear his new musical Love Never Dies and be the first journalist to write about it.
It was a slightly strange experience listening to a recording in the boardroom of his Really Useful Company next to the piano where he probably tried out a number of the songs, and surrounded by pictures of previous triumphs.
But I can report that Love Never Dies, which is the sequel to The Phantom of the Opera and premieres in the West End next month, sees the composer back on top form. The score is one of the most dramatic he has written, the story (which in its early stages had the involvement of novelist Frederick Forsyth) dark and disturbing, and there are at least two sure-fire hits.
All in all, I'd say that doing reality TV programmes with Graham Norton is all very well, but when you are able to compose musicals that will run for a decade or more, it's a good idea not to give up the day job. I'm pleased that he's returned to it.
The BBC can't make up its mind
Once there was an arts review programme on the BBC called Late Review. It then became part of Newsnight and was retitled Newsnight Review. When this happened I interviewed the head of BBC Arts. He told me that this was a significant event, one he had been personally fighting for, as it showed that a review of the cultural week was now important enough to be part of the nation's top current affairs programme.
But now Newsnight Review has been shunted off to Glasgow, removed from Newsnight, and retitled The Review Show. It is still hosted by BBC heavyweights Kirsty Wark and Martha Kearney. But what happened to the importance of it being part of Newsnight? No doubt, we will soon be reading an interview with a BBC chief telling us that it is important and significant that a review of the cultural week should have its own self-contained slot and not be subsumed into Newsnight.
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