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Archives for June 2010

It's a bum note

Will Gompertz | 17:56 UK time, Wednesday, 30 June 2010


Prof Jeremy Dibble of Durham University's music department is upset by the removal, as from tomorrow, of the £20 banknote that bears the image of the composer Sir Edward Elgar.

A £20 noteHe says it reflects the low standing of the arts in this county. Does it? Why? There are only four denominations of note to choose from: £5, £10, £20 and £50, with the £20 accounting for 60% of all notes in circulation.

Elgar's mustachioed mug has been adding value to our £20 notes since 1999; before that it was Shakespeare who did the honours from 1970, when the concept of having a "celebrity" on the banknote was first introduced. So you could argue the arts have hogged the £20 banknote for 40 years.

In fact, there was a time in the early 1990s when the arts were represented on three of the four notes: Dickens on the £10, Shakespeare on the £20 and Wren on the £50. They were spared the ignominy of the fiver. Mind you, if they want a quick return to the fold, this is the note that is likely to be next available.

Given this run, it doesn't seem unreasonable to let some other sides of British life a bit of a go and makes accusing the Bank of England of philistinism seem a touch harsh. Philosophy, sport and religion have yet to have a look in.

The Bank of England's website covers the subject well, but some questions remained unanswered until I phoned them.

Q: How often do you change the portrait on a banknote?
A: Every 7-10 years on average, although some have been for as long as 20-plus years.

Q: What are the criteria?
A: Someone who has made an outstanding contribution to British life.

Q: So do they have to be British?
A: No.

Q: Any other criteria?
A: That they have stood the test of time.

Q: Oh. So do they have to be dead?
A: No.

Q: Who chooses the person to go on the banknote?
A: The Governor of the Bank of England.

Suggested names for banknote portraitsQ: Is the next available note going to have an arts face on it?
A: I don't know - I'm not the Governor. But you can look at our website for a list of suggested names [82.92KB PDF].

I did. It made interesting reading. It's hardly representative of multi-cultural Britain - and have a look at some of the suggestions from more recent times. Those who are hoping for a portrait of someone from the world of music should perhaps be careful what they wish for.

Beat-boxing, show-boating, foul-mouthed funny guy

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Will Gompertz | 09:10 UK time, Wednesday, 30 June 2010


Reggie coming to town (the town being, in this case, London).

The Seattle-based musician, comedian and very hairy fella Reggie Watts is coming to the UK at the end of July. A small venue for a big guy with a growing reputation: see, for example these pieces in Art Forum and the New York Times and this not-safe-for-work video.

Should arts institutions do anything about BP?

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Will Gompertz | 14:52 UK time, Monday, 28 June 2010


Corporate sponsorship of the arts is not a charitable endeavour; it's business. A company expects to extract maximum value from its association with an arts institution or event, just as those in the arts expect to extract maximum value from their be-suited patrons.

BP Portait Award at National Portrait GalleryThe three main motivating elements are:
• private entertaining: exclusive behind-the-scenes access, private views, the best seats in the house
• brand association: some of the perceived glamour and integrity of the arts will rub off onto the sponsoring company
• staff retention: this only really comes in to play in a boom

These are known as "benefits" and will form the basis of the deal between the sponsor and the "rights holder". Now, in my experience the most successful sponsorships - the ones where both sides are happy - are those that are built around private entertaining. It's an easy benefit for the arts institution to provide and for the sponsor to value.

Where it gets trickier is the brand-association area. If the main reason for a company to sponsor an arts event is public exposure and enhanced goodwill, sport is, frankly, a much better bet. An exhibition, play or classical concert doesn't have the same reach, no matter how much the sponsor spends on advertising their association - known as leveraging.

Even a "property" with as high a profile as the Turner Prize or the Edinburgh Comedy Awards struggles to find and retain sponsors when the commercial object of the exercise is brand fame.

The other problem with a sponsorship built around brand association is when one of the parties loses its allure. Companies are quick to dump damaged goods such as a misbehaving celebrity. But arts organisations are loath to do the same; they would rather bank the much-needed money.

BP leakSo the current situation, where more than 170 creative artists have put their names to a letter attacking Tate Britain for accepting BP sponsorship is not straightforward, especially when money is tight elsewhere. Plus, many of those institutions that have benefited from BP's sponsorship over the years - such as the Royal Opera House, the British Museum, Tate and the National Portrait Gallery - will cite the oil company's loyalty and good manners. BP is known to be one of the least demanding sponsors and one with expectations which tend to be more realistic than most.

But for many, the company is now damaged goods, its reputation as spoiled as the Gulf of Mexico. What should the arts institutions do? Wave goodbye to a steadfast supporter when their need is greatest because of fears that their own reputations may be sullied by association? Or tough it out and hope the whole messy episode will be forgotten by Christmas?

Exciting - or not - the Glastonbury crowd

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Will Gompertz | 11:44 UK time, Monday, 28 June 2010


I can't remember a Glastonbury Festival that sustained the feel-good atmosphere quite like this one - but musically it failed to reach the sublime heights of previous years.

Willie Nelson, Gorillaz and Shakira all failed to connect with an eager Pyramid Stage crowd, whereas Rolf Harris and Snoop Dogg succeeded by shooting 10,000 volts of their very different forms of kitsch into the happy campers.

There was plenty of talk about the newer British acts being unable to excite a festival crowd. It's not about scale and pyrotechnics: Thom Yorke's ability to put the audience into the present with his presence is shaman-like. His set with Jonny Greenwood was a highlight.

Festival organiser Michael Eavis says he already knows the three acts that are going to headline Glastonbury next year. He told me that Madonna was past the point in her career where he would ask her to headline. Really? If Shirley Bassey is OK, then why not one of the most influential female artists in the history of pop?

But if that's the decision, so be it. Instead, how about this line up: Beyonce, the Rolling Stones and Prince?

Until then, here are some images from this year.

Somewhere in the crowd, the BBC's Mark Radcliffe is singing along to every word of Willie Nelson's set:

Somewhere in the crowd, the BBC's Mark Radcliffe is singing along to every word of Willie Nelson's set

The security team constantly hands water to the crowd at the front of the mosh pit:

The security team constantly hands water to the crowd at the front of the mosh pit

The crowd for Snoop Dogg:

The crowd for Snoop Dogg

Some shade at last:

Some shade at last

The 6 Music planning chart with booked guests taped to the side of the radio truck:

The 6 Music planning chart with booked guests taped to the side of the radio truck

Meet you at the ice-cream van?

Meet you at the ice-cream van

Hot dogs:

Hot dogs

Take me to Shangri-La:

Take me to Shangri-La

Someone wasn't paying attention in the lesson about Isaac Newton:

Someone wasn't paying attention in the lesson about Isaac Newton

The morning after:

The morning after

A single chair:


Clearing out until next time:

Clearing out until next time

Sometimes it's fun watching paint dry

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Will Gompertz | 16:27 UK time, Friday, 25 June 2010


Kurt Jackson"I've been the artist-in-residence for 12 years now. I met up with Michael Eavis and said if he gave me access to anywhere on the site, I'd make paintings and then sell them to raise money for the charities he's involved with. This year, I made £68,000 for Greenpeace."

I'm speaking to Kurt Jackson, the artist-in-residence at the Glastonbury Festival. Mr Eavis has been as good as his word. Our discussion is taking place on top of a 30-foot scaffolding tower a few feet away from the Worthy Farm house looking down on Willie Nelson: he's delighting a crowd; they are relishing the fact that this year it is the sun that is soaking them.

As we chat, a welcome breeze drifts through carrying a sonic mash-up from the various stages. Kurt drips paint on to the seven-by-eight-and-a-half-foot canvas and curses the quick-drying weather conditions.

The painting is a landscape of the festival scene framed by hills and tents. This morning, he painted the same composition in different conditions: intense light and Rolf Harris razzing-up the kitsch-loving crowd. Tonight he hopes to be on stage painting Gorillaz.

Kurt Jackson

Below the tower, a row of tents cling limpet-like to the steep bank at the edge of the field. I asked one of the campers how he was going to sleep at a nigh-on 45-degree angle. "I'll tell you in the morning," he said.

How to: Stage a multi-million-pound auction

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Will Gompertz | 12:16 UK time, Thursday, 24 June 2010


Wednesday night saw record-breaking sales for Christie's auction house as it sold over £150m worth of art works in one sale, including works by modern artists, Impressionists and a Picasso which went for nearly £35m. My colleagues asked Matthew Paton from Christie's how to put on a major auction.

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Francis Alys's tornado art

Will Gompertz | 08:47 UK time, Thursday, 24 June 2010


I like Francis Alys's art. It's often silly and surreal but has a poignancy that's lacking in the work of, say, Maurizio Catalan - here's a good interview with Catalan in Interview.

This is a clip from one of his films that is currently part of his retrospective at Tate Modern.

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Whatever serious philosophical messages it might be relaying, it is first and foremost funny. The rather prim text below from the curator's catalogue entry doesn't do any justice to this crucial aspect. I can't imagine Alys describing his work in such a way.

Since 2000, Alys has visited an area in the Mexican countryside where tornadoes occur, and has filmed his attempts to run into the eyes of the storms. The footage was gathered over a decade and edited to make the intense video Tornado 2000-10.

For Alys, the dust storm suggests the imminent collapse of a system of government or of political order. The act of running into the storm, which we see repeated over and over again, also invites interpretation: is the artist no longer able to combat the chaos he encounters? Is he recognising the vanity of poetic gestures at a time of calamity? Or is it only within the chaos that he can challenge the turmoil around him?

Reaching the centre of the storm, the artist is breathless and almost blinded, yet he encounters a furtive moment of peace that could hint at a new moment of possibility. There are more videos at Alys's website.

How to: Hang a painting

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Will Gompertz | 10:07 UK time, Wednesday, 23 June 2010


Here's a short film from the video on demand team who nipped down to the Royal Academy Schools Show to pick up some tips on hanging a picture:

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Sitting pretty?

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Will Gompertz | 16:43 UK time, Tuesday, 22 June 2010


The Royal Shakespeare Company has splashed out on some top-of-the range seating for its soon-to-be re-opened Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Given the RSC's penchant for day-long history cycles and near-four-hour Arthurian epics, this suggests (a) that they are a thoughtful bunch and (b) that there are plenty more marathon theatre productions planned.

RSTThe contract was awarded to an Italian company called Poltrona Frau which has Ferrari, Maserati and Alfa Romeo as clients. Clearly the thinking here is that any punter for whom the iambic pentameter induces a head-jerking, mouth-dribbling, oh-this feels-warm-and-perfect narcolepsy can avert any faux pas by pretending that he or she is driving a prancing horse around the Monza racetrack.

The RSC kindly invited me over to the theatre this morning for a seat preview. I spend a lot of time in theatre seats and was therefore unusually excited by the prospect; I have written here before about the experience-shattering effect of poor theatre seats.

In a 2007 seat survey by industry paper The Stage, subsidised theatre came out top - so my expectations were of the sort of ultra-comfy, leather-clad seats you find at the Royal Court or the luxuriant velour of the National Theatre. On that front, I was disappointed.

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre seats look as if they have been removed from a conference centre. They are not wrapped in leather, nor do they have any armchair pretensions. And sitting in them transported me not to a racetrack, but to a bus stop.

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But, as project director Peter Wilson explained to me on the Today programme, the racetrack experience was never the intention. The primary function of the seats is to engage the audience as one in the action. It's part of the theatre's new "thrust stage" design, where actors and audience are part of the same environment, rather than having one lot sunk deep in first-class comfort while those on stage exude energy and intensity.

And according to that survey, the most important elements in a theatre seat are leg-room, padding, arm rests, height of back rest and fabric. On that basis, the RST seats aren't too bad. The one I sat in had decent leg-room, reasonable padding, very good back support, arm-rests (a bit thin) and unexceptional but perfectly adequate fabric. There were others, however, that had less leg room and no arm-rests - but the seat element had yet to be attached, so I was unable to give them a test drive.

The biggest advance in the new theatre, though, is not the seats themselves but their positioning. Although there are a few with a restricted view, they all are within fifteen metres of the action, which is roughly half the distance as that of the furthest seat in the old theatre. And if the cost of that is no lazyboy armchairs, that's a price I think is well worth paying.

The Ask: Arts funding

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Will Gompertz | 12:40 UK time, Monday, 14 June 2010


I bought two copies of Sam Lipsyte's new novel The Ask on Saturday after reading some good reviews (in the Guardian, the Times and the New York Times).

Sam Lipsyte

The only thing I usually buy in pairs is jeans when, on rare and thrilling occasion, I find some that fit - or when the supermarket is pushing through a two-for-one promotion on electric-toothbrush heads.

Books are normally a single-unit purchase. But in this instance, I bought one copy for me and one for Jeremy Hunt, the recently-installed secretary of state for culture.

It is rammed with ideas, comment and stories all written in the sort of ultra-contemporary prose that makes it a certainty for future academic study and creative-writing courses where it will be appropriated and then deconstructed by earnest intellectuals. I hope Mr Hunt enjoys it. I did, but that's not why I got him the book.

The setting is a New York university's fund-raising department where Milo Burke works as an ineffective development executive - development is the term used in not-for-profit organisations for raising money from rich individuals.

The book's title is American fund-raiser-speak for the quarry: the banker, the rich widow, the beneficiary of a will or the grateful alumnus. If "the ask" is successful and the wealthy person pays for a new computer room or an outreach programme, he or she becomes "the give".

The book begins with prostitution as metaphor - in that trade, as in "the ask", both parties play a role. The development officer fawns over, flatters and subjugates himself to potential donor to such an extent that self-respect is jettisoned as excess baggage. Meanwhile the ask basks.

Mr Hunt might be interested in The Ask because he has said he wants to import American-style philanthropy to help mitigate against autumn's government cuts in what he describes as "a horrible period for arts and cultural funding".

The vast majority of people to whom I have spoken about importing the American philanthropic model feel that it's a non-starter. It is not, they say, that we're above grovelling to a stubbly oligarch or a conceited hedge-fund guy: we can do that with the same fraudulent gusto as Milo Burke. It is, they tell me, overt or apparent "tackiness" that we baulk at, as David Puttnam told me last week on the News at Ten.

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Mind you, everybody also said that philanthropy is a good thing and welcomed a governmental initiative to encourage more giving. If someone is feeling a bit socially unacceptable for having too much dosh, the arts institutions are always very happy to help assuage his or her guilt by exchanging free tickets, private views and a titillating coffee with an intellectual grandee for as little as 10 grand.

What they won't do - where the line is not so much drawn as sculpted into their sense of artistic integrity - is countenance any interference whatsoever in their programmes.

They consider being able to chose which play, exhibition, concert or ballet gets put on as a fundamental right of the artistic director.

No amount of coercion or cash will shift the director's stance; if it did, his or her institution would be deemed morally and artistically bankrupt - although financially much better off.

Unlike in the American model, that is a price British artistic institutions are currently unwilling to pay, whatever the ask.

'Man hands on misery to man'

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Will Gompertz | 11:42 UK time, Friday, 11 June 2010



The most famously chastised parents in English verse are perhaps Philip Larkin's. If you're near a radio later, the Afternoon Play is worth a listen: Pip Carter and Tim McInnerny play the poet and his father Sydney on holiday in Nazi Germany. And if you're not near a radio, there is of course the iPlayer.

The dangerous beauty of cellulose nitrate film

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Will Gompertz | 11:54 UK time, Thursday, 10 June 2010

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Imagine if Steve Jobs' next trick of innovative brilliance was a whole new 3D-movie experience that was ten times better than the current offer, which didn't require you to wear faux-1960s specs and that had the aural sensation of a hundred-piece orchestra. I think we can agree such a notion is not particularly far-fetched.

The Yearling (1946)

What though, if there were just one small problem with his new, funky iCinema: if the state-of-the-art movie play-back hard-drive was prone to burst into flames that couldn't be put out with water, that emitted disgusting poisonous smoke and that might turn not only the film you were watching to ash but also the cinema and you? Would it be stretching believability to suggest that in our world of Health-and-Safety executives, the iCinema would be given the go-ahead on the basis that, barring this notable imperfection, it was otherwise terrific? Reckon so.

Go back a hundred years or so, though, when Health-and-Safety executives still worked as bank clerks, and you'll find that's exactly what happened. From 1895 to the early 1950s, all commercially available 35mm film, stills, negatives and even X-rays were made out of cellulose nitrate: a fragile, combustible, unstable, highly-flammable substance that was also used in explosives. And those are just some of its drawbacks. It can also give off a toxic vapour, turn into a brown sticky glue and disintegrate into a pile of dust as it has done on countless occasions, thereby obliterating swathes of film history.

Not that that deterred directors. Quite the opposite: it brought out the mad professor in them. Nitrate film has had at least three starring roles. The first was in Michael Powell's The Love Test (1934), where a young scientist tries to discover a method for making nitrate fireproof. Then in Giuseppe Tornatore's poetic Cinema Paradiso (1988), the cinema is razed to the ground due to a projection room fire. And in Quentin Tarantino's movie Inglourious Basterds (2009), the projectionist stands in front of a huge heap of nitrate film smoking a cigarette - cool / stupid - before flicking the butt onto the pile, starting a fire that destroys the Nazi high command. Any idea why this movie didn't win the Best Picture Oscar?

But there's more to nitrate film than a fiery nature and odour issues: it has a sensitive, artistic side. According to the eminent curators at the British Film Institute (BFI), cellulose nitrate film is the most vivid film stock ever created. In a short summer season this July, the BFI at London's Southbank is running a programme called Dangerous Beauty: The Joy of Nitrate Film [97Kb PDF] in which five films will be shown including the Oscar-winning The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) directed by Alexander Korda and starring Charles Laughton, and the John Boulting-directed Brighton Rock (1947), which stars a young Richard Attenborough. The phrase is always "a young Richard Attenborough"; the older version is called "Dickie", a luvvies' gag on the mercilessness of the ageing process.

Brighton Rock (1947)

All of the movies will be all shown on their original nitrate film stock from a specially designed projector room replete with metal shutters, fire extinguishers and projectionist with a keen interest in dangerous sports. It is the first time in a decade that films have been shown in the UK on their original nitrate stock and the BFI is now the only venue in the country licensed to do so.

I asked Robin Baker, Head Curator at the BFI National Archive, whether the friction of the film going through the projector's gate could cause one of the movies to ignite. "Oh yes, absolutely," he said with the kind of alacrity normally associated with gung-ho 19th-Century explorers who consider a limb-to-limb mauling by a lion as jolly good fun.

And as Spinal Tap memorably demonstrated and as Four Lions is now mimicking, the idea of something spontaneously combusting has a certain frisson.

Robin is captivatingly passionate about nitrate film and says that the real allure of this film stock is its aesthetic attributes; that it exhibits a quality never matched by modern safety film stocks. The luminosity of the blacks caused by the stock's high silver content means that black-and-white movies have an extraordinary lustre and richness that can create a contrast between light and shade similar to that seen in the paintings of the renaissance artists using their chiaroscuro method.

Nitrate film consisted of nine strips of colour film recording simultaneously, resulting in the "truest, purest colour you will see" and the BFI says the vibrant colour of an original dye transfer Technicolor nitrate print is unforgettable. For Robin, this season is about learning to look, to gain an appreciation of the difference between film stocks which he says is a marked as the difference between oil and acrylic paint. It's about the medium as much as the message.

The season is also about conservation. It marks 75 years of the National Archive, which boasts over 180,000 cans of nitrate film, making it one of the world's largest holdings. But don't let any of this deter you from a trip to the Southbank: all the films are kept out of harm's way in bunkers - due to their explosive nature and also because of the BFI's determination to preserve them for future generations. The plan is to create a special microclimate to radically slow down their deterioration process. Ideally they would be stored at -5C and 35% relative humidity. Me: "What's that?" Robin: "Very dry."

Conservators tend to be the unsung heroes of the arts. Few will think of or thank them when they sit down and watch an original nitrate film and amaze at its quality or when they buy a new copy of the recently restored Powell / Pressburger classic The Red Shoes (1948) - you can read about that Martin Scorsese-backed project here [925Kb PDF]. But they don't do the job for the plaudits: they do it because they love film - even when it's temperamental, noxious and potentially fatal. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if the BFI's conservators spent their weekends lighting cigarettes with fireworks. Just for fun.

Who wants to run Tate Modern?

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Will Gompertz | 16:57 UK time, Tuesday, 8 June 2010


Don't you think it's weird that in a country which - according to a plethora of commentators - has become besotted with modern and contemporary art, there is almost no discussion about the vacancy at the top of one of the world's most prestigious modern-art museums?

Look at the departure today of Tesco chief executive Sir Terry Leahy - the story went straight into this website's top ten most-read articles.

Tate Modern

But when Vicente Todoli, the soon-to-be-leaving boss of Tate Modern, announced he was off a couple of months ago, it barely got a mention. Since then, there has been no discernable discussion about who might take over the world's most-visited museum of modern art, no short-lists of potential candidates - no conjecture whatsoever. Well, at this blog, we are interested - and not because I used to work there.

There are plenty of potential applicants, but I suspect the allure of an external candidate. And who could be more alluring than a very brainy Swiss person?

Bice Curiger is the founder of the hugely respected art journal Parkett, a senior curator at the Kunsthaus Zurich and the recently appointed director of the 2011 Venice Biennale. She is also the editor-in-chief of Tate Etc magazine and one of the most impressive, clever and interesting people I have ever met.

And then there's Hans Ulrich Obrist, who came top of last year's Art Review list of the world's most influential art-world types. Among other things, he has spent his recent past running the Serpentine Gallery with Julia Peyton Jones. I don't really know Hans Ulrich, but trust those who have told me that he is top-notch.

It is quite possible neither would want the Tate Modern directorship - but if not them, then who?

Local Heroes: Is UK film saving the economy?

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Will Gompertz | 12:25 UK time, Monday, 7 June 2010

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Boasting, showing-off and succumbing to hyperbole are traits that will not, on the whole, endear you to people. Self-aggrandisement is rarely acceptable.

Unless, of course, you run a British, state-funded organisation in 2010. In which case, you blow your trumpet so hard that the foundations of the House of Commons shudder in a way that would have made Guy Fawkes light up.

UK Film Council reportFear does not tend to respect decorum; nor does the film business. Its UK chapter, the Film Council, launched a paper this morning [1.36MB PDF] extolling the success of the British film industry. It is an immodest document, proclaiming with gusto the enormous economic importance of the British film business. And why not? That's part of the Council's job.

The central purpose of the report appears to be a plea to the government to retain its Film Tax Relief incentive. It argues that this is a jolly good thing and warns that to remove it in any of the forthcoming budget cuts would signal The End for the British film industry.

The report says that such a move could reduce current production income in the UK by 75%. Foreign film-makers come to the UK for the skills of our production professionals and for the generous tax incentives. Take them away and Woody Allen and co would look, cut and run. Right now, according to the report, it is 40% cheaper to make a movie in Britain than it is in the USA - due to tax relief and a weak pound.

Screenshot of Her First AffaireGovernment interventions on behalf of the British film business date back at least to 1927 and Parliament's introduction of the Cinematograph Films Act that mandated a minimum allotment of screen time to British films. It began at 5% in 1927 and was to rise to 20% by 1936. The extremely-low-budget films that were made to fulfil the criteria were known as Quota Quickies, which you can read about more here.

Ultimately, though, the "Quickies" didn't satisfy film-makers or audiences and so the government-backed strategy to create a British studio system to match and mirror the burgeoning American movie-making model was abandoned - thankfully not before it had given birth to Michael Powell's talents.

The current system of government support through tax breaks appears to be working well for all parties. Unlike the old Quota Quickies, today's investment is predicated on selling the UK as a production base and not as a producing centre of home-made films, which is a frustration for some British film-makers who are struggling to finance their projects.

This morning's report has been compiled by the consultancy Oxford Economics, supported with funding from the UK Film Council and other interested parties; it does not provide an impartial overview. Some figures have been attributed with the scantest of evidence. Here for example is a passage about the British film industry's contribution to tourism:

"Limited robust statistical data qualifying the value of this impact [on tourism], the available evidence suggests around a tenth of the value of foreign tourism to the UK may be attributable to the impact of UK films. On this basis we estimate that around £1.9bn of visitor spend a year might be attributable to UK films."

Jude Law and Robert Downey JrNot only are there more caveats employed in these assumptions than you'd find in an LA pre-nuptial agreement, but they are based on movies such as Sherlock Holmes and Pride and Prejudice. Both are more famous as books and had been trading successfully for many years as tourist candy. Now if they had cited Fish Tank or Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll, that would have been worth a mention.

Nevertheless, the £1.9bn is shamelessly banked, and contributes to a headline total that exclaims the annual contribution of the British film industry to the UK economy as £4.5bn. That's if you count every single available pound that could possibly be attributed to the UK film business, such as the sales to foreigners of deerstalkers and pipes.

Elsewhere in the document are rather more robust figures. The British film business directly employs 36,000 people (up 7% from 2006), enjoying a reasonably high average wage of £33,700, in three cases out of every four working in London or the South East. A stand-out statistic was the existential conclusion that a British-made and British-themed film will enjoy 30% better box-office takings than had it been made elsewhere. Er...?

The report would have benefited from more comparative data, outlining how British state funding of the UK film business compares against the support given by the French, German and American governments to their film industries, both financially and strategically.

And distribution is barely mentioned - which seems too big an issue to be completely ignored. For example, what percentage of British-made films, with or without UK Film Council support, receive a full theatrical - that is, a cinema - release?

It's one thing making a movie but quite another finding a distributor. Is the UK Film Council investing enough in helping pay for the high cost of film prints and marketing costs that are central to having a movie successfully released?

This report tells us what is going well and outlines a couple of apparent threats such as illegal downloading and copyright threat, but it's actually more of a PR document than a genuine overview - which is a shame.

Lembit Opik: Stand up if you're funny

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Will Gompertz | 10:43 UK time, Thursday, 3 June 2010


Stand-up comedy is enjoying a boom along with the rest of the live entertainment sector. New festivals, clubs, awards and open-mic nights are springing up faster than... a lot.

Lembit OpikThey are hungry beasts that need vast quantities of comedian-fuel to keep them going. Which means just about anybody is welcome to give it a go, even former Lib Dem MPs for Montgomeryshire. Stand up Lembit Opik.

Last night, in front of a small but supportive audience in a subterranean central London bar, Lembit gave it a go. Not for him some low-key rural outpost where he could hone his skills in relative obscurity. No, he went straight into the West End as the headline act with cameras rolling and a dozen journalists (me included) with pens poised.

Politicians have a reputation for being cleverly cunning, all meticulous planning and elaborate strategies. I suspect Lembit handed in his cunning chip along with his desk keys and Parliamentary pass when he recently left the House of Commons.

Why else would he make such a schoolboy error as to appear on the same bill with not one, but two outstanding professional comedy acts? A wise man would have rounded up his five least funny friends and paid them all handsomely to go on before him.

OK, he might not have known quite how funny Josh Widdicombe would be (very), but a quick glance at his CV would have told Lembit that here was a young pro with a big future. But to allow an act as funny, polished and professional as Nina Conti to immediately precede you is simply silly.

She was good and finished her act with a new puppet / mask which she strapped around the face of a poor unsuspecting audience member who then found himself possessed by a demonic Jack Nicholsonesque hedonist determined to show the audience his best dance moves.

And then Lembit came on. Here's a review of his show. Sitting down with the other comedians afterwards, it was clear they all admired him for giving it a go. The word brave was used frequently. And they all genuinely felt that he could make the grade if he really worked on his set.

But as one said, if he was going to build his show around his own story - perfectly reasonable in the circumstances - he'd need to make a bit more out of the whole Cheeky Girls episode. Not doing so was like "Neil Armstrong doing stand-up and not mentioning the Moon."

From Parliament to stand-up; it's a funny old world.

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Arthur Miller's Big Society

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Will Gompertz | 10:13 UK time, Wednesday, 2 June 2010


This is an extract from the opening scene of Arthur Miller's play All My Sons, which is currently on at London's Apollo Theatre. Joe Keller, a 61-year-old wealthy businessman, is the play's main character, Frank his young, naïve neighbour.

Joe Keller: I don't read the news anymore. It's more interesting in the want ads.
Frank: Why, you trying to buy something?
Joe Keller: No, I'm just interested. To see what people want, y'know? For instance, here's a guy lookin' for two Newfoundland dogs. Now what's he want with two Newfoundland dogs? Here's another one. Wanted - old dictionaries. High prices paid. Now what's a man to do with an old dictionary?
Frank: Why not? Probably a book collector.Joe Keller: Well, that shows you; in my day there was no such thing. You look at a page like this you realise how ignorant you are.

Now, the great man didn't just knock off lines like this to pad out time till the real action happened, this was the real action. He wrote morality plays whose messages lurk just beneath the surface like one of those flat fish you see in David Attenborough documentaries.

Zoe Wannamaker and David SuchetThis passage is no different, but put meaning and metaphor aside for a moment and then what strikes you about the exchange? Surly it's the expression "want ads"?

Occasionally American-English does that; serves up a word or phrase that is so direct, so baldly descriptive that at once it destroys the elegance of the language while adding admirable elemental clarity. "Want ads" is a good example of the form. It's a vulgar expression but, like a drunk on a train, beguiles more than repulses. I wrote it down.

And then I checked out the current state of "want ads" in British publications and found not much has changed in the 60-odd years since Miller wrote the play. "Want ads" have moved from newspapers to websites but the clamour for dogs and publications remain. Except now Newfoundlands are out and Shih Tzus are in and nobody appears to fancy an old dictionary anymore but DC/Marvel comics are greatly desired.

As are soiled pants, potato ovens, a pink smart Trike deluxe, a cappuccino baby monkey and a twin-axle four-berth caravan. I couldn't find anybody who wanted a first edition of Miller's All My Sons, which is a shame for irony hunters, but then again I didn't check out any American or literary sites, so there's still hope.

It is his most important play, not necessarily his best, but unquestionably his most important. His previous play, The Man Who Had All the Luck, had closed after just four days in 1944. Miller was on the verge of giving up. If All My Sons had failed he vowed to "find some other line of work".

Arthur MillerAnd that would have been a pity because he was a good playwright. Some rank him as one of the "big four" alongside Shakespeare, Chekhov and Ibsen. It is true that Miler's plays, as with all great works of art, have stood the test of time, and that, like Shakespeare, he created seemingly rounded characters undone by a fatal flaw such as the delusional Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.

He also wrote the screenplay for The Misfits as a gift for his wife Marilyn Monroe (at least she was when he wrote it, but not when it was made, such is the way of these things). This was a marriage that turned the cerebral playwright into prime paparazzi fodder, they were certainly an odd couple.

Miller's skill was to write plays in which the characters were striking individuals while at the same time embodying Everyman. He nailed universal themes like Marilyn's previous husband, Joe DiMaggio, nailed home runs.

In All My Sons, Joe Keller appears to be a happy, successful, family man who, with little formal education, has lifted himself up, built a thriving business which his youngest son is now running. This now leaves Joe and his lovely wife to turn their beautiful home into a suburban nirvana for friends and family. He is the embodiment of the American Dream.

But as the short extract at the beginning of this post illustrates, he has lost touch with the wider world and society. He is no longer interested in news, just the advertisements. He doesn't care for anyone outside of his family, he serves not the greater community but his own pumped-up little enclave.

Accordingly he makes a duff and fateful decision, selling cracked cylinder-heads to the US air force during World War II, resulting in catastrophe. He figured that as long as it didn't harm his sons it would be OK.

Now swap Joe Keller for latter-day bankers, his dodgy cylinder-heads for their dodgy debt. It's impossible to tell if Arthur Miller and David Cameron would have got along, but on one thing they would have agreed and that's the idea of a big society, where the limit of a person's responsibility doesn't stop at the boundary of their own interests.

There have been several film and theatre productions recently dealing with the issues behind the financial crisis such as Enron, Wall Street 2 and even Robin Hood. None of them succeeds in exposing the universal truths of recent events with the same vivid revelation of Miller's 1947 play All My Sons.

Arthur Miller's brilliance did not rely on fancy theatrical pyrotechnics or special effects but on creating painfully real characters which he constructed by using the simplest words and phrases like "want ads". That's where the truth lay.

Louise Bourgeois: One of the very best

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Will Gompertz | 10:27 UK time, Tuesday, 1 June 2010

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Louise Bourgeois was a good artist, one of the very best. She overcame many difficulties to establish herself among the 20th-Century greats - not least being a woman in a man's world.

The last decade of her life saw her find a new audience with a series of international shows and the installation of Maman, her giant spider at Tate Modern.


I wrote about encountering her work for the first time in an article for the Guardian in 2008.

Her strength of character was legendary, leading to a refusal to follow the avant garde of any given time; instead she pursued her own ideas and demons. The result is a body of work that is just as significant and important as that of any of her contemporaries - a discovery that future generations will delight in making.

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