What has Culture Secretary Ed Vaizey done to anger Dame Helen?

Plus: Go, girl! More Flynn and less Mantel, please; and the award for histrionics goes to the inaugural International Opera Awards at London's Hilton Hotel

David Lister
Thursday 18 April 2013 12:52
British actress Helen Mirren poses as she arrives for the BAFTA British Academy Film Awards after party in London on February 10, 2013.
British actress Helen Mirren poses as she arrives for the BAFTA British Academy Film Awards after party in London on February 10, 2013.

Two months ago a report was sent to the arts minister Ed Vaizey on how arts cuts might be curtailing new writing. The report's author, playwright Fin Kennedy, received no reply from the minister. Imagine Mr Vaizey's surprise when, last week, 60 of the biggest names in the arts, from Sir Richard Eyre and Sir Tom Stoppard to Penelope Wilton and Sheila Hancock, wrote him an open letter pointing out that he had not bothered to reply. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport then rushed out an anodyne response, saying what the current spending on the arts is. This week Dame Helen Mirren joined the fray, protesting that Mr Vaizey should answer the concerns directly.

Things are definitely getting out of hand between Government and artists. Appropriately perhaps this week, it feels a throwback to the confrontational times of the Eighties. Whatever the merits of the arguments in the report, it does seem bad manners not even to address directly the concerns of such a gathering of worthies.

It's not that I automatically believe that the worthies have a cast-iron case. Indeed, the argument that the cuts are devastating the arts needs to be proved. I for one would want a number of issues addressed, for example how some of these cuts-ravaged institutions manage to afford expensive commercial PRs and consultants when they have taxpayer-funded in-house teams, whether they do enough to attract new audiences and so forth. Cash is not the answer to everything. The worthies would also, on the particular issue they raise, need to explain just how cuts generally affect new writing. We seem to be living in an era of a welcome surge in new, young playwrights, so some concrete evidence needs to be shown that new writing is on the wane. The report claims that one of the ways that the cuts harm new writing is that they lead to small casts on stage, but it seems to me that small casts have been the norm in theatre for years.

But, whatever the merits of the debate, debate there should be. Since when did arts ministers not even bother to reply to such concerns? Teachers and other educationalists have been complaining in this paper recently that Michael Gove does not listen to them. We now appear to have a Culture Department that doesn't bother to listen to some of the best known performers and writers; genuine global stars.

This is more than bad manners on the part of Mr Vaizey. It is dangerous for the health of culture. The Culture Department and the arts world need to have continuing dialogue and work together for the sake of audiences. Isn't engaging with the cream of the arts world what an arts minister is meant to do?

And the award for histrionics goes to...

Generally you can't move in the arts world without stumbling across an awards ceremony, but strangely the one leading art-form without its annual prize-giving is opera. That will change next Monday with the inaugural International Opera Awards at London's Hilton Hotel, supported by our sister paper the Evening Standard. This has to be a welcome development, not least because opera provides larger-than-life personalities, or divas as they are more commonly known. I hope that the International Opera Awards will acknowledge this with the tranche of awards for best productions and best singers followed by a prize for the most outlandish behaviour.

Go, girl! More Flynn and less Mantel, please

I've said more than once, OK three times, that I don't fully understand the Women's Prize for Fiction (or Orange Prize as it used to be) as there is no shortage of women in the fiction bestsellers' list. An award for female film-makers, where there is a genuine shortage, would be more appropriate. But, since there is a Women's Fiction Prize, it is odd that its shortlist announced this week names Hilary Mantel, who has not exactly been lacking in podium appearances at literary prizes, and ignores one of the longlisted books, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (below).

Those of us who have read Gone Girl (often in the dead of night as it has proved impossible to put this stylish thriller down) will wonder why it has been excluded.

It makes me think that it would be more interesting to learn from judges of these big prizes their reasons for dropping some of the longlisted books than hearing rehearsed for the 1,000th time the reasons why Hilary Mantel is a great writer.

d.lister@ independent.co.uk

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