Saturday, 7 July 2007

Give me a sweetie

A few days ago on here I was nice about the National Theatre. Yesterday I was nice about Yes Minister.

I've a fundrasing drive going on at the moment in a desperate attempt to compensate for an ACE-shaped hole in my budget for Man Across the way, and as part of it my beautiful wife sent letters to 250 theatre celebrities. Yesterday I got a cheque from Nicholas Hytner, today I got one from Derek Fowlds. It is the policy of this blog, in a spirit of fitting optimism, to be nice about everyone with a chequebook.

Which in a roundabout way includes James Purnell, our new culture secretary, who everyone seems to think is so far doing a good job. What a nice man. I bet he's great with children and animals.

Oh alright, I admit it. I remain to be convinced. Just because a man likes the theatre doesn't necessarily mean he'll do a great job running the whole national cultural infrastructure. I know loads of season ticket holders at Middlesbrough, for example, who'd do a ghastly job of managing the team.

But Purnell has now given a new speech, which might help readers of this blog to forget the one to the IPPR I so cruelly dismantled a week ago. It's much better, almost as happy clappy as Blair's earlier this year, but in this case with something to say. I've had no luck in unearthing the full text, so we'll have to take Charlotte Higgins' word for it and assume she's read the whole thing and not just the press release. It's moderately encouraging.

Excellence, he says, is going to be the main criterion from now on. I'd like so see how he plans on measuring it: peer review seems the only sensible strategy, and there are obvious difficulties even with that. But still. The chances a piece of art has of being good art seems like a very good place to start when formulating an arts funding strategy. He's wrong to say that the access battle has been won, but one of the best ways of widening access is to make really terrific work that people want to see. His example, Punchdrunk's Faust, is a good one.

This brings me to the most surprising news story of the week: Michael Billington in "not talking total arse" shocker. Billington argues fairly persuasively that we do in fact have to continue considering access in the arts world. There's no point in making great work if no more than the same seven people come to see it every time.

This means creating work that will appeal to demographics other theatres can't reach, with all of the attendant problems that brings. Because of course we can't create work in bad faith; that will only lead to bad work. We just have to hope that our beliefs about what is good are shared by the people we manage to get through the door. The root problem then, is not a lack of diversity in the audiences, but a lack of diversity in the directors and theatre managers. There have been massive strides on this in the last ten years or so, but the vast majority of us are still white, middle class and university-educated. In having been working class for about the first fourteen years of my life, I'm mildly divergent from the norm, but not all that much.

So how do we get a real reflection in our profession of the society to whom we profess to speak? I have to come back to youth and community work. As I've said before, this stuff is not a waste of time or money. It's about the future.

But there's an awful lot of bad, tokenist box-tickery going on in this sector, I hear you cry. So there is. And the solution is simple. Put the emphasis on excellence. Inclusion is not a de facto good if what you're included in is rubbish. There's no merit in having been in the Leeds United squad; youth and community work can and should be encouraged to excel. I'm not a believer in entering kids into drama competitions and whatnot; I'm a great believer in doing good work with them and some of my best work is done there. If I ever hear about this bloody job in York (the board meeting to discuss whether they can afford to pay my wages was on Thursday and I'm waiting for the phone to ring: predictions welcome) I hope to continue doing more.

So Purnell may be onto a good thing in putting the emphasis on excellence. But one can't help but feel he's pouring honey into one ear and poison into the other. He's guarded where it most counts: he admits that he doesn't hold the purse strings on this one, and admits it's going to be a tough round. And of course he's right. He can sing the praises of the arts all he likes, but it will only really count when he convinces not us, who are well-known to already have a high enough opinion of our value, but the Chancellor and the Prime Minister. It's all very well telling your child he's a good boy. What he wants to know is: are you going to give him a sweetie?


Andrew Haydon said...

It is good that he puts the focus on excellence. It is a shame that the only play he claims to have seen recently doesn't exist. This could of course be rubbish reporting, but the fanciful claim that he saw Kneehigh's Caucasian Chalk Circle is nonsense. Kneehigh are doing A Matter of Life and Death and Caucasian Chalk Circle was an NT production using a Frank McGuinness translation.

danbye said...

Damn, I was going to mention that and I forgot.

I wondered if he was thinking of Complicite's Caucasian Chalk Circle, which was, after all, only about ten years ago.

I'm pretty sure though, that it's dodgy reporting. Don't they have people who check these things pretty carefully? Or is it only Sam Seaborn who insists on triple-sourcing?

olly emanel said...

okay, a question. in gordon's search for a 'cabinet of talents' wouldn't it be wise for the culture minister to come from the cultural world? even if they are not an MP? i've recently heard good arguments for making the NHS non party political (although how the hell it would work seems to be a question no-one is prepared to answer) and the same could be said for the arts, couldn't it? that's actually seven questions, but my real question is, has a member of the arts been arts minister before and with what success? i vaguely remember glenda jackson being rubbish but then... i bow to cleverer persons than i...

danbye said...

Let's open the nominations. How about John Tusa?

The NHS point is a good one. I hadn't really thought that through: was the implication that, in making the NHS independent, there would no longer be a health secretary? Or would that simply become a much more junior position, a supervisory and policy post probably existing below cabinet level?