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Archives for November 2010

Nice little Turner

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Will Gompertz | 17:25 UK time, Tuesday, 30 November 2010


What do you think would happen if news people ran a major art museum?

Olga Accoudee (Olga elbowed)


For a start, the captions by the pictures - currently full of "curator-speak" - might become comprehensible. As for the advertising, that would certainly change.

The current modus operandi for museum marketing is to have a poster with a big image of the trophy work from the exhibition and the name of the artist or show writ large across the top. When and where the show is on is generally given parity with the institution's logo and placed politely at the bottom. In tiny type - or excluded altogether - is the ticket price.

Hardly headline-grabbing. Why be so circumspect about money? What about a poster telling like it really is? Roll up, roll up and stand before a billion quid's worth of art. Come see Warhol's record-breaking £100 million painting. Peer at Vermeer: made for pennies, now priceless.

That should do the job. Put a couple of extra staff on the box office, stand back and watch a queue form around the block. After all, it is only the value of the art that interests the public.

At least that's how it appears when art makes the news.

The focus of yesterday's story about the elderly electrician who happened to have 200 Picasso artworks sitting in his house was the value of his collection. Not what these previously unseen artworks told us anew about Picasso, where they fitted into the canon or how on Earth he had them. No, the headline was that it was a "treasure trove" worth £50 million.

Our fascination with art seems inextricably linked to our fascination with money. Financial success in other art forms makes up part of the picture - the movie blockbuster, the best-selling book, the platinum album - but not in the dominant way it does with art. With literature, music, theatre and film we are more interested to know if it is any good than how it fares as a commodity.

It is art's unique quality that leads to its duel existence as both a work of human creativity and an object of value. And it is this duality that Steve Martin tackles in his new novel An Object of Beauty. It tells the story of the ambitious Lacey Yeager who seeks to make her way in the art world, initially as an auctioneer and then an art dealer before eventually becoming a gallery owner.

The book is not good enough to mark Steve Martin out as a true Renaissance man - his genius is for comedy, not semi-satirical prose - but there are some nice lines. One scene finds Lacey sharing a train carriage with an older man. They have a conversation about art during which the man muses that "paintings drift towards money for self-preservation" - that great works of art could perish in a garage without the careful attention of a wealthy owner who has a vested financial interested in keeping them in mint condition.

He attributes the thought to John Updike, not because he said it - he didn't - but as an act of recognition of the prolific author's writings on art.

From UK Film Council to BFI, Film London and Creative England

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Will Gompertz | 09:03 UK time, Monday, 29 November 2010


I understand that the Culture Minister Ed Vaizey will today announce that having decided in the summer to abolish the UK Film Council, he will now place the future of UK film production with the British Film Institute (BFI).

BFI logo

Getting rid of the Film Council has upset a lot of people at home and abroad; concern was even voiced by Clint Eastwood - not a man many would want to cross.

But the government always made it clear that the decision was about removing bureaucracy and not about support for the industry. So while the grant for film has been cut by 30%, there will be an increase on the £28 million Lottery money the industry currently receives to an estimated £43 million by 2014.

Responsibility for investing this will now be the BFI's, which is inheriting an industry on form with well-received films such as The King's Speech, Tamara Drewe and Another Year.

The move will have its critics. One very senior and successful film producer I spoke to thought it was a bad move as the BFI is an academic institution based around an archive, not philosophically or corporately set up for the vulgar activity of making commercial movies.

Colin Firth in The King's Speech

Colin Firth in The King's Speech

There are other issues. The BFI will now have to turn itself into a Lottery distributor, which inevitably means added red tape and costs. Why, one industry insider asked me, is the money not being put through Arts Council England, which is already a Lottery distributor with the necessary expertise and capability? It could have simply absorbed this function, they said, fearing that the BFI decision would create more rather than less bureaucracy.

The BFI is not going to take on all the UK Film Council's previous roles. Responsibility for inward investment - encouraging foreign film-makers and studios to make and post-produce their movies in the UK - will be taken on by Film London. This might raise the odd eyebrow at the regional screen agencies across the rest of the country and fears that the newly-empowered London agency will favour its own patch within the M25.

The regional agencies will, though, have other matters on their minds: a new logo, for instance. As part of the shake-up, the old regional agencies will be re-christened Creative England and see their remit broaden to include the development of the video-game sector as well as supporting other types of creative industry. Why Film London isn't also re-named Creative England has not been made clear to me.

The decision throws up what one expert considers an anomaly. Film London will be responsible for selling the UK as a location and a film-making destination but the BFI will be in charge of the Certification Unit, the old Film Council department that oversaw the points system awarded to foreign film-makers that triggers the generous tax breaks that lured them here.

Much of the detail still has to be worked out. The government is unsure what savings, if any, the change will make; the rationale is about creating a coherent industry structure, freed from red tape and easier for film-makers to access.

It should be noted that the UK Film Council itself recognised that the old structure could be improved and had entered into talks with the BFI about a possible merger, an avenue of enquiry which was brought to an abrupt halt in June.

It will be interesting to see whether the BFI is able to marry successfully the commercial and the curatorial and whether the new structure will end up any less bureaucratic than the council it is replacing. One thing is for sure: the government is still very much in the movie business.

Are libraries out of date?

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Will Gompertz | 11:49 UK time, Friday, 26 November 2010


My home is cluttered with books, most of which I haven't touched since my original exploratory fumblings when they were still new, exciting and unknown.

Campfield, the first public library

Campfield, the first public library

I have, I admit, let the situation drift. Until recently, it was manageable - but now space is at a premium and something has to be done. In Austerity Britain, everything must earn its keep; contribute to the bottom line; provide value for money. All those square feet the books are taking up could be cleared up, enabling a small room to provide the basis for a new bed-and-breakfast business.

Then - and this is the sort of bonus you get when adopting a positive profit-and-loss mindset - in what is being touted as the coldest winter since the previous coldest winter, these displaced books could be bunged on the fire to keep down the ever-increasing gas bill.

If this thinking puts a smiley face on the Happiness Index of your local authority accountant, he or she will break into unrestrained laughter when contemplating the closure of loads of libraries.

A former library

A former library

The case for says that, like those former school sports fields, libraries take up lots of useful space, sitting there stuffed full of books that nobody reads. It is, some argue, a no-brainer.

The case against says that what might appear to be a no-brainer could lead to a society of no brains, where free and easy access to ideas, information and the imagination of others is removed like a frontal lobotomy.

It is preferable if lots of people use their local library, a subject discussed here in the summer, but it is not essential. What is essential, campaigners insist, is that libraries exist, even if only one person a year goes in, and that's for a chat with their brother who happens to be the librarian.

Libraries are totems of a society that prizes intellectual ambition, freedom of speech, ideas, knowledge and the human spirit. As for the public building that houses it - to its defenders, it is emblematic: a physical statement by the state to the community and to the world about the value of learning and the pursuit of knowledge.

For me, libraries are a public space - like a park - in which you may wander at will among trees of knowledge full of fruit banned in other countries.

Idea Store in Chrisp Street, London

Idea Store in Chrisp Street, London

My earlier post looked at those that have successfully turned themselves into fully-fledged knowledge centres with programmes of talks, courses, clubs and signings. It's another approach, which suggests investing more in public libraries and so might sound counter-intuitive in our cash-strapped times. And it only works with careful thought; perhaps it's not the concept of the public library that is out of date, rather the thinking behind how they are run.

'The moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow'

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Will Gompertz | 10:30 UK time, Thursday, 25 November 2010


I'm making a piece for Newsnight about walking and seeing and feeling, then documenting and fictionalising. It's a way of making art or writing books that goes back at least as far as Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales.

TS Eliot (1957); Jack Kerouac (1953)

TS Eliot (1957); Jack Kerouac (1953)

William Blake, TS Eliot, the beat poets in America and the situationists in Paris all used the act of walking, responding and reporting as the basis for works, a tradition that is continued today by writers such as Will Self and Richard Mabey.

Iain Sinclair is another writer who primes his literary canvas using the environment: sometimes built-up; sometimes open countryside; most effectively, the unloved edge dividing the two. I asked him where documentation stops and fantasy starts and, given the inevitable ambiguity in blending the two, how the reader is to know which is which.

The sometime book dealer started his answer with another question: "And where in a bookshop do you position the book?" Under travel writing, memoir or fiction? He said it was his job to blend the two worlds, to work out how they can make a coherent whole where the fiction may end up more truthful then the facts.

He then pointed me to an article he wrote late last spring about a new edition of Richard Mabey's 1970s book The Unofficial Countryside, a classic of topological writing concerned with - among many other things - the bypass and the passed by.

It's published by Dovecot Press, where the primary concern seems to be writings about place.

Stratford's thrusting new stage

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Will Gompertz | 13:00 UK time, Tuesday, 23 November 2010


If Shakespeare were alive today and writing his line "all the world's a stage", he might add: "and most of the auditorium, too". Especially if he had just visited the £112m overhaul of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in his home town of Stratford-upon-Avon.

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The old cinema-style auditorium, with its "proscenium arch" framing the action in front of an audience all of whom face the actors, has gone. Where once there were seats there is now a broad-shouldered stage barrelling through the auditorium like a rock star's red carpet, displacing some 400 of the theatre's 1,400 seats. Those that remain are much closer to the action: the new design halves the distance of the furthest seat, from around 30 metres to just 15.

The RST's old proscenium arch

The RST's old proscenium arch

The Royal Shakespeare Company is clearly proud of this new intimacy and there is a slightly laboured visual gag: a row of seats from the old theatre hangs on a wall well away from the auditorium, high above a discreet table-for-two in the stylish new restaurant on Level Three. The wall is in fact the outer wall of the old theatre, the seats installed at the distance they would have been from the stage.

Some are saying, though, that this dramatic closeness comes at a price that is not just financial. Concerns have been raised by Sir Peter Hall and Professor Stanley Wells, both of whom are Shakespearean experts and have served Stratford in the past: Hall as its visionary artistic director in the 1950s and '60s and Wells as a long-standing scholarly board member and vice-chairman.

Their misgivings are with the RSC's commitment to the "thrust" stage, which the company has also installed next door in the smaller Swan Theatre. Sir Peter recently told the Guardian: "You come on down that vast diving board of a stage and address the person you're speaking to with your back to half the audience. So the moves tend to be based on whose turn it is to have a bit of text."

Stanley Wells shares these performative reservations; he also expressed concern about the inflexibility of the stages. He says that Shakespeare wrote knowing that his plays would be performed in a variety of locations and styles: theatres with "open" stages, town halls, private houses and at Court. Now, he feels, that while Shakespeare's plays are open to multiple interpretations, Stratford has only one way to present them.

Four types of stage

Others have welcomed the introduction of the increasingly popular thrust design. Judi Dench says it will work wonderfully for "actors and audiences alike", a sentiment echoed by Ben Kingsley when the BBC talked to him last week. They welcome the invitation to actors to step over the threshold of the traditional proscenium arch and into the main house, creating a more intimate, immediate and dramatic experience for all.

Elsewhere the renovation is competent if unspectacular, although there are some nice touches. The teak flooring of the old stage - boards that have been trodden by some of the greatest actors of modern times - will now be walked upon by everyman. And by every woman and child as they stroll across the threshold of the new foyer where much of it is now laid. Also in the foyer is the art deco box office from Elizabeth Scott's 1932 theatre, which has been turned into a "flying" unit. If the foyer is busy and therefore a bit crammed, the bulky but beautiful ticket booth can be raised out of the way like a piece of stage scenery.

The foyer in the 1930s

The foyer in the 1930s

There is also the introduction of a tower: a nod to the water tower that was destroyed when the original theatre burned to the ground in 1926. But in a very 21st-Century approach, the new tower contains not water but a visitor attraction. From the top, you are treated to a wonderful panoramic view of Stratford and Warwickshire; the rest provides some useful exhibition space.

But the focus of this redevelopment, which has been completed on time and to budget, is the performing space: the new auditoriums and thrust stages of the main Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Swan.

In an age where the public appetite is for memorable live experiences, the thrust stage gives companies the opportunity to present their work to audiences with a more immersive, three-dimensional treatment. After all, it would be embarrassing if a trip to watch the Avatar movie felt more exciting and "experiential" than live theatre presented by one of the world's most revered companies.

The newly-refurbished and redesigned theatre will open to the public tomorrow.

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Breaking olds

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Will Gompertz | 09:55 UK time, Monday, 22 November 2010


Painting should be banned. At least that's what the Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Lecky thinks. Not forever, just for a year or so, during which time artists who don't use paint to make work - those who produce collages, installations, video and internet-based works - have a moment in the sun.

It Felt Like A Kiss

A couple of days after talking to Mark, I read Adam Curtis's latest blog post, From pigeon to Superman and back again; as is the way with Curtis, it uses extensive archive material to make a very contemporary point.

Then I re-watched his 2009 film It Felt Like A Kiss, which was made in collaboration with Punchdrunk for a show at last year's Manchester International Festival, about which his friend Charlie Brooker enthused.

Iris Murdoch

And then I thought: let the painters be, but what about a week without new footage on television and radio, except the news? A week where all stories - new and old - have to be told using pre-existing material, where we dust off the archivists and put them in the limelight for a bit?

What has happened in the last 45 years, other than changes in style and technology, that makes this Iris Murdoch interview with Frank Kermode dated? The substance is entirely relevant: form and content.

The ideas they are discussing in the film are the same as those explored by Jonathan Safran Foer in Tree of Codes, his new die-cut book based on Bruno Schulz's Street of Crocodiles. The same goes for Visual Editions, the young publishing house that produced his book.

Safran Foer

They love literature, they say, and want to play with its physical form while their writers do the same with style and structure.

Boyle v Beatles: Compare and contrast

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Will Gompertz | 11:37 UK time, Friday, 19 November 2010


The fact that Susan Boyle has had two simultaneous chart-topping albums on both sides of the Atlantic this year is just that: a fact. As is the statistic that the Beatles also achieved this rare feat back in the late 1960s. Beyond that, the two events bear little comparison.

The Beatles were making new music and writing new songs that reflected the world they were living in. Susan Boyle is not. She's singing old numbers that have been selected for their marketability.


To compare these achievements artistically is like comparing the famous photograph of a girl in a short tennis dress scratching her bottom with Picasso's Guernica and concluding that they are somehow of equal stature because as posters they are both million-sellers.

Nor do her sales achievements mean that Susan Boyle now stands comparison with the likes of Frank Sinatra or Edith Piaf, two performers that, like SuBo, sung songs written by others. They interpreted their songs in such a way to make them their own, bringing them to life by giving them their soul.

Whereas, to my mind and ears, Susan Boyle is doing little more than a karaoke job: knocking out the songs to the best of her considerable ability, without adding an extra dimension that makes them "hers".

Maybe she will do so in due course as she develops her own singing personality and the confidence to argue for her vision with producers and managers. Whatever she does, though, the chances are she will achieve immortality through another art form.

Pop-culture figures such as Susan Boyle are becoming a staple raw material for artists such as Mark Lecky to appropriate and re-configure into an original artwork: maybe a video, or a collage or perhaps both framed within an installation, as was the case with his 2008 Turner Prize-wining exhibit.

He took part in a debate called The Trouble with Painting at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts last night, where the panel discussed the merits and faults of paint as a medium with which to make art. Mark was on the anti-paint side.



I couldn't go, but I asked Mark to join me in a BBC studio yesterday morning to have a warm-up bout with Jennifer Higgie, the co-editor of Frieze magazine and the holder of a master's degree in painting. Jennifer took a pro-painting stance.

Much ground was covered in a lively half hour discussion which took in subjects ranging from the slow-cooking movement to the way painting is currently taught in art colleges (badly, according to Jennifer). A condensed version of the conversation went out on the Today programme this morning.

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James Turrell: Consciousness of light

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Will Gompertz | 12:20 UK time, Wednesday, 17 November 2010


Two words would have been running through my mind yesterday if I were Kate Middleton, soon to be Windsor. As the roomful of flashlights popped, the cacophony of their electric clicks creating an instant soundtrack, standing there blinded and unsure, entrapped and feeling claustrophobic, I'd be saying to myself: Bindu Shards.

James Turrell


This is exactly like Bindu Shards, I'd be thinking, except a bit more public. Well, a lot more public, as there were loads of people in that room and Bindu Shards is a solitary experience.

But as experiences go it definitely comes under the heading of unforgettable - just like Kate's big moment was yesterday. I should explain. Bindu Shards is an installation at the Gagosian Gallery in Kings Cross, London by the American artist James Turrell.

It's what happens when you cross an MRT scanner with an artist whose primary concern is light. And James Turrell is interested in light in the same way Alex Ferguson is interested in football. That is to say, he's obsessed. And when you encounter one of his works it becomes your obsession too.

Light - the way we do and don't see, perceive and feel it - has been Turrell's overriding concern for some time - decades, in fact. For more than 45 years he has been contemplating and making artworks designed to heighten the viewer's consciousness of light.

And Bindu Shards certainly does that. It consists of a spherical object that looks like a prop from a Wallace and Grommit film: a fibreglass dome that sits atop three or four spindly legs. It is about 10 feet in diameter and 15 feet tall. To one side there are some steps that lead to a platform resting against its midriff where a small hatch has been cut.

Bindu Shards


On instruction, one of the gallery assistants - all of whom are dressed theatrically in lab-coats - presses a remote control button in their hand, whereupon the hatch opens and ejects an eight-foot-long bed. At which point you are asked to sign a health and safety form, lie on the bed, don some headphones and answer one simple question: do you want to go for the relaxed or hardcore version?

Before you've finished saying "hardcore", the machine has devoured you, the small hatch has been locked and a 15-minute light show like no other has begun. It starts off nice and serene. The white domed chamber in which you lie facing upwards becomes bathed in blue and red lights. Nothing hardcore about that. But then there's nothing hardcore about the slow ascent of a rollercoaster in those moments before it sends you plummeting over a precipice.

Within 30 seconds Turrell has you tripping the light fantastic. The sensation is decidedly odd. It feels as if some child has got hold of each of your eyeballs in their sticky fingers and is twisting them to-and-fro like a kaleidoscope. You are totally engulfed in fractured images of bright colours; creating a wholly disorientating and oppressive atmosphere.

The idea is to get behind the eyes. It does that all right: and then promptly to your brain and onto your imagination. At first it feels like being in a Van Gogh painting, living within his distorted, vivid world. Then after about five minutes it feels like being inside Van Gogh's head, which is an altogether scarier place to find yourself.

James Turrell wants to create this artwork to facilitate a state of mind of total relaxation. Quite how he expects that to happen after submitting the visitor to such an intense psychedelic blitzkrieg is beyond me. I emerged confused and amused; my eyes still popping, my body slightly shaky. I was not relaxed.

But I was after going into his next installation; called Dhatu. Again you walk up some steps but this time into a more open space that is about 18 feet long and 12 feet wide. It's a bit like a photographer's studio with white walls and ceiling and infinity curves running down the sides.


At one end, taking up almost the entire back wall is a lozenge-like shape that subtly, yet constantly changes colour. In fact, it's not a wall at all but a large hole in which light and mist is gently projected into the space. Now this installation is relaxing, and clever. The wall of light at times appears completely solid, but then moments later like an ethereal tunnel beckoning you forward. And then you turn around and realize you are experiencing one of the finest artworks to be on display in London at the moment.

What you see when looking back towards the opening through which you entered Dhatu is both surprising and sublime. It has turned into a flat surface of block colour. A perfect piece of colour-field painting that is framed by the edges of the entrance. It is in fact the back wall of the gallery that is some fifteen feet from the entrance, but the effect is that the entrance has gone and been replaced by a painting: perspective has been removed.

As the light changes in the installation so does the block of colour, going from a deep orange to a dark green, through to a ruby red: all of which is done by manipulating the light and your state of mind. Extraordinary.

I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that Bindu Shards is fully booked for the duration of the show and therefore unavailable. The good news is that Dhatu is not - you can go along when the gallery is open and check it out for free. I think it is the better artwork anyway, it felt like less of a gimmick and more thoughtful and profound. My only advice is try and get there early - the gallery opens at 1000 GMT - as it is much better when you can see the block colour without other people standing in the way.

Turrell is an interesting man and artist, not only making us look at something we normally take fro granted, but to change its status too. He sums up his work thus:

"My desire is to set up a situation to which I can take you and let you see. I am interested in light because of my interest in our spiritual nature and the things that empower us. My art deals with light itself, not as the bearer of revelation, but as revelation itself."

James Turrell has spent a lifetime thinking about, playing with and enjoying light. I hope Kate Middleton has the same appetite for it, because as from yesterday, she's going to be standing in it for the rest of her life.

Hofesh Shechter in rehearsal

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Will Gompertz | 10:19 UK time, Tuesday, 16 November 2010


Hofesh Shechter doesn't think like most people. The Israeli-born British-domiciled choreographer talks of butterflies, Quasimodo, farmers and DJs - all in the hushed, gentle tone that is his natural speaking voice. And all addressed to his dancers, who look intently at him as they try to interpret the master's instructions.

"Reach up to the sky, then pull your arms down from the sky and into your stomach like a butterfly," he suggests after stopping a scene because he was unhappy with the movement of the dancers. Those of us watching this intimate rehearsal look on bemused and amused. What will they make of that piece of choreographic direction? The answer is: sense.

Shechter moves away, starts to count to eight and then the dancers suddenly animate like a car getting a jump start. In unison they do indeed reach to the sky and pull their hands to their stomachs like butterflies. It is extraordinary to behold.

Ten or so athletic young people move as a unit around the studio with a power controlled and harnessed by their own physicality and by the will of the tall, thin, authoritative figure of Hofesh Shechter, the creator of the famous dance sequence in Channel 4's teen drama Skins. My Newsnight profile of him is below.

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I haven't sat in on such a dance class since the early 1980s when I worked at Sadler's Wells as a stage-hand. What is now the Birmingham Royal Ballet was then called the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet. Although their main purpose was to tour, the dancers spent large chunks of the year rehearsing at "the Wells" and didn't mind if we looked on as we ate our sandwiches.

Stage-hands aren't often in the news, but they managed it this week. A headline in this weekend's Observer read "Top theatre hit by claims of drunken abuse". I read on. It tells the story of a stage-hand for the West End production of War Horse who claimed he was picked on after "blowing the whistle on an alleged culture of drunkenness and racism". Not a lot has changed since I did the job, then.

Being part of a stage crew is a lively experience. The people with whom I worked were tough and could quickly become rough if their instructions were not followed to the letter. Many had come from the Navy; at the time the Sadler's Wells was a "hemp house" - that is, ropes and not an electric mechanism operated the fly tower above the stage - and they ran things in a quasi-military fashion. They were good blokes, but the wise did as they were told.

I don't recall any racism, but was there drunkenness? I should cocoa. If I remember rightly, the nearest pub to the stage door was the Shakespeare's Head. We were in there a great deal. In fact, the rule was that if you weren't working, you were in there. And "working" did not include "on duty": "working" was physically pulling some 30-foot piece of scenery onto the stage. So while the dancers danced, we drank. How did we know when we were needed? Simple: the pub had a bell. When required, the bell would sound in the pub and we'd all jump to it.

We weren't the only ones in there. In the corner, enjoying a glass of cold white wine, always happy to talk to anyone, would often be seen the great choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton and even on occasion Dame Ninette de Valois, the great dancer who performed with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes before founding the Royal Ballet and the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet.

I never heard either of these legends talk of butterflies or farmers, but I am quite sure they would have been just as entranced as I was last night by Hofesh Shechter and his dancers.

Short stories

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Will Gompertz | 10:50 UK time, Monday, 15 November 2010


For me, Sunday night is telly night. Last night was going to be a good one, with a new series of Chekhov's short comic plays on Sky Arts. Chekhov is a master of brevity whose short stories and plays are, in my opinion, some of the best ever written.


Anton Chekhov, 1898

The team at Sky Arts is doing a good job too, surviving - thriving even - on the financial crumbs it has been allowed to scavenge under the boardroom table of an organisation making record profits.

Poverty has been the mother of Sky Arts invention. And it has been innovative: bold sponsorships, imaginative commissions and the addition of a second channel, Sky Arts 2 HD.

But the truth is that I never watch it. This is not because I don't have Sky - I do - it's just that the thing I want to see is never on at the time I want to watch telly and the kids have always maxed out the Sky+.

It's an omission about which I have been feeling slightly guilty, professionally and personally. So it was with a double dose of enthusiasm that I puffed up the cushions and settled down for a spot of Mackenzie Crook and Johnny Vegas doing Chekhov.

Except I couldn't get the channel to work and had to call a grumpy expert. He huffed and puffed and complained a bit too; after about 90 of his apparently very precious seconds he told me, "Dad, you've got to pay extra for Sky Arts."

What? No, no, there must be some mistake. I already pay plenty to Sky each month: that must cover the arts programmes. I mean, it must. In the great scheme of Sky's finances, it amounts to a runner's petty cash: why deny access to any subscriber? I like the arts - a lot - but I'm not going to shell out yet more to watch re-runs of old docs and the occasional new commission.

It seems a disservice to the team behind the channel, to the arts in general and to Sky subscribers not to bundle Sky Arts into all the packages on offer. I flicked over to BBC One. I found lots of men in wigs who all looked the same, except for the one who looked like Rumpole of the Bailey. Garrow's Law might be lavishly produced, but The Wire it is not. I reached for the off switch and a book.

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway, 1944

The first that came to hand was Colm Toibin's The Empty Family, his recently-published collection of short stories. It's very good. Like Chekhov, Toibin takes you to another place in a few simple sentences. In a recent interview, he cited Hemingway as an influence.

Ernest Hemingway was a master of the short story. Even his memoir, A Moveable Feast, is a lesson in precision, reduction and clarity. He creates atmosphere by taking words out, not putting them in. Long before the he or she realises it, Hemingway knows that the reader is ensnared. His control and his rhythm are breathtaking.

It is said that he bet a friend he could write a story in six words and then presented this: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

I suspect he would have liked and loathed the digital world and its publishing platforms such as Twitter. He might have been amused by Flash Fiction, which describes itself as short stories under 1,000 words. Compared to the approach of Six-Word Stories (surely a homage to Hemingway), that's flagrant windbaggery.

Short stories appear to be regaining popularity. The shortlist for this year's BBC National Short Story Award will be read on Radio 4 at 1500 GMT all this week, starting with Tea at the Midland by David Constantine.

The short story is all about the concept of "less is more". This can work a treat in fiction; in real life, it tends to lead to disappointment and frustration - as I find out last night when I tried to watch Sky Arts.

Happy Birthday Nottingham Contemporary

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Will Gompertz | 10:30 UK time, Friday, 12 November 2010


Nottingham Contemporary is one year old on Sunday. And it will be a happy birthday. The modern art gallery has beaten its own - frankly ambitious - target of attracting 200,000 visitors by nearly 50%. That's impressive.

Nottingham Contemporay


It would be a notable achievement under any circumstances; given the unapologetically avant-garde and contemporary programme, it is a surprisingly good result.

OK, they kicked off with a crowd-pleasing David Hockney monograph exhibition, but that only accounted for 80,000 of the eventual 290,000 visits. Thereafter it has been hardcore art all the way.

I applaud the academic approach of the gallery's director, Alex Farquharson, but have to admit that I thought it might be a little off-putting to a non-specialist audience. In February, I reported on Star City: The Future Under Communism, a show about the Soviet space race.

I guessed, based on my experience at Tate, that it might attract between 20,000 or 30,000 people if they were lucky.

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Wrong. 80,000 people tipped up to see and walk in the tent-like spacesuit based on the original worn by Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. Once in, they might well have found themselves in a black-box film installation by the Otolith Group, which was an awfully long way from David Hockney's pop paintings. The film mixes images of a group of Indian women who travelled to Russia in the 1970s on a research trip with images of people floating around in space. It won the Otoliths a place on this year's Turner Prize shortlist.

Nottingham Contemporary appears to have quickly established itself in its own community. Even by February, the vast majority of people I spoke to on the streets for vox pops were supportive and proud. NC has repaid their faith by reporting an estimated contribution of nearly £9m to the local economy in its first year.

The gallery is based in the city's historic Lace Market. When sun shines, the green and lace motif that wraps the building shimmers as if hanging from a washing line in a light breeze. The building was designed by the under-rated architects Caruso St John. Many were surprised that Nottingham Contemporary was not shortlisted for this year's Stirling Prize and these two devout modernists must wonder what they have to do to receive the recognition their work deserves.

At least they now know the public likes it.

CGI Britannia

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Will Gompertz | 11:31 UK time, Thursday, 11 November 2010


Warner Bros' purchase of Leavesden Film Studios in Hertfordshire is a big deal. It's a big deal for Warner Bros; it has committed to spend over £100m expanding and updating the facility which, when completed in 2012, it predicts will sustain around 1,800 jobs and rival any in the world.

It's also a big deal for the UK film industry. Warner Bros' second home near Watford is being seen as vote of confidence from a major Hollywood player in the skills of all those involved in film-making in Britain. It also provides a pointer to its future intent: more blockbusters must surely be coming our way.

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David Heyman, the producer of the Harry Potter films, knows the American studio well. He's the guy who, along with colleagues, spotted the film-star potential of JK Rowling's young wizard. Warner Bros funded his vision and the Potter franchise has gone on to become the world's most successful, taking around £3.5bn.

Potter's box-office magic has worked for myriad support businesses around the film's UK production base, from the local taxi firms near the studio to high-end visual-effects companies in Soho.

Paul Franklin is the CGI whizz and co-founder of Double Negative, the London-based visual-effects company that is behind much of the on-screen wizardry that Harry and his chums rely on. He told me that without Warner Bros' decision to base HP in the UK, the British visual-effects industry would still be getting by adding sparkle to commercials for household cleaners and fixing the odd frame or two on the occasional mid-budget movie.

Instead, London has become a world centre for CGI and post-production. A-list blockbusters are constantly rolling into town as ideas and out again as fully-realised, freshly-minted hits. Franklin reckons London alone accounts for 20% of the global CGI market, his company sitting at the top table with the very best in the world. He says that Warners' decision 10 years ago has helped British-based companies like his to develop the skills, software and contacts that would previously have been inconceivable.

He notes that if you walk into your local multiplex the chances are at least one of the movies will be substantially made in Britain. He alone has recently worked on Kick Ass, Harry Potter and Inception.

He showed me the CGI scene in Inception where a Parisian street folds in on itself; he then explained how the three-minute shot required three years, 100 people and a large team of photographers filing over half a million digital images. A huge investment for just 180 seconds?

Not really, says Franklin, when such a scene is the movie's "signature moment", defining in a few seconds of an advertisement the film's scale, ambition, quality and imagination to a public spoilt for choice.

The growth in the British visual-effects market has been between steady and dramatic. At the moment, Franklin says his company is full-to-bursting with major Hollywood blockbusters but has fewer smaller-budget films, a situation he puts down in part to the recent global recession.

Having recently interviewed Ray Harryhausen, the king of old-fashioned stop-frame special effects, I asked Franklin if he would ever turn his hand to directing as Harryhausen had done. Yes, he said, it was an idea that interested him. But he then made an interesting remark about British screenwriters.

They have yet to truly embrace CGI, he said: they still think it's there to fix problems and, if you're feeling terribly vulgar, specifically for a few shots. But few are constructing whole scripts around the technology.

This is unlike their Hollywood cousins who greedily indulge their imaginations knowing that CGI can turn even the most bizarre fantasy into cinematic reality. Franklin says the Brits have a habit - or a taste - for thinking around the European traditions of social realism and auteur movies. He wasn't suggesting that we should import American culture wholesale, or denigrating the current culture, but he sees an opportunity to build on what we have.

So perhaps the UK film industry could be an even bigger player in the global movie business. With CGI specialists becoming directors, with digital screens potentially reducing the dominance of American companies in distribution and with a domestic infrastructure of production companies and skilled technicians who are already among the world's best, this could be the next stage.

There is the issue of finding and retaining the talent. I was surprised how relatively little a senior CGI expert gets paid - more Hounslow than Hollywood - and Franklin said that the restrictions placed by the government on hiring large numbers of non-EU staff makes scaling-up difficult. Employing 50 programmers from Tokyo or California can be done - the points system favours such specialists - but it is a hurdle that must be overcome.

Barry Meyer, the Chairman and Chief Executive of Warner Bros, appeared genuinely excited about the Leavesden purchase when I met him yesterday. His high opinion of British film-making talent - in which he includes videogame companies and television production - was heartfelt.

But it is called a movie business for a reason: when the wrap party is over, the accountants count the cost. Sure, we may be good at stuff, speak the right language and make a decent cup of coffee. But that's not why the bean-counters really love us: it's because we're cheap.

The government gives foreign film-makers and studios attractive tax breaks to encourage them here. According to the UK Film Council, with the current favourable exchange rate and flexible working practices, it is now cheaper to make a film in Watford than in Hollywood.

This is an advantage, of course. But what has happened over the last 10 years is that the UK film business has taken that advantage and built a sizeable industry. By the end of this year, inward investment from foreign film-makers will be near to £1bn. And who do we have to thank? Well, Warner Bros for sure: it was Warners' lead that others followed and that has helped build the infrastructure and skills base Britain currently boasts.

And then there's David Heyman, the British producer of the Harry Potter films, who steered the project with such skill. But behind it all lays an unsung hero: somebody who put her foot down and insisted that if there were to be a Harry Potter film, it would be made in the UK.

So, who is this champion of the British movie business? Step forward JK Rowling.

High Times: The influence of drugs on arts and culture

Will Gompertz | 09:26 UK time, Wednesday, 10 November 2010


I spent yesterday making a package for last night's News at Ten about High Society, an exhibition that's about to open at the Wellcome Collection in London.

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It's an interesting show that neither condones nor condemns the use of mind- or mood-altering substances (alcohol and caffeine are included in the explorations).

It's in two parts: the first presents the informal collaboration that took place from the mid-19th to the mid-20th Century in which scientists, including psychiatrists, encouraged writers and artists to take drugs and report back.

The scientists reasoned that gifted communicators such as poets would be better than them at describing the subjective experience of an altered mental state in words or pictures.

The second part of the show looks at the concept of collective intoxication: the phenomenon where an individual's experience is subjugated to a shared experience.

The rave scene of the 1990s is an obvious example, but the curators argue that it is a universal human impulse that can be traced back thousands of years to the temples high in the Peruvian Andes where participants carved sculptures depicting various stages of their intoxication.

John Cooper Clarke

John Cooper Clarke

I interviewed the poet John Cooper Clarke for the piece. He was terrific but rather succinct. With news packages the rule of thumb is that the interviewee's answer needs to be between 15 and 20 seconds.

Given that it is not normal to think and talk in such a truncated timeframe, most people take about 30 seconds to express what they want to say.

That means that either I have to introduce the clip with a precis of how the answer started or the video editor has to use the infamous "noddy", where a shot of me nodding provides a way of cutting out extraneous words.

All of this is quite normal in the making of television. What is unusual is for an interviewee to talk in soundbites of a few seconds. That's tricky.

Such clarity and precision of thought is admirable - but tricky in TV terms. You need at least five seconds to bring up text on the screen explaining who the interviewee is, not to mention the viewer's need for a bit of acclimatisation along the lines of "now I know him/her, don't I?"

John Cooper Clark talks in four-second soundbites. They are pithy, pertinent and profound, but they are too short for telly. I was re-watching one of my favourite YouTube clips where JCC is being interviewed by the wonderful Tony Wilson for the 1970s Granada show So It Goes (a reference to the recurring phrase in Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse Five).

Tony Wilson was more able than most when it came to precision and phraseology. His line at the beginning where he says that JCC is the brightest performing poet since Cassius Clay is pitch-perfect. But when it comes to being clear, funny and pointed, few match the Bard of Salford:

Tony Wilson: What do people think about you being a poet?
John Cooper Clarke: Not many of them know; they do now you've blown my cover.

He told me that two weeks after the interview, he had left his job at Salford Tech and became a full-time performance poet. He also talks in the piece about why he uses rhyme, explaining it as a device to stop him being verbose. Well, it's worked; he's cured.

I asked if there were any publications due that would cover all the decades he has been writing and performing. "Oh, I've had some offers," he told me with genuine modesty, "but it's a big job."

Apparently JCC's archive doesn't share the same precision and order as the man in interview. It is scattered throughout his house, in no chronological or subject order and all hand-written. And then comes the problem of his perfectionist streak: "Every time I pick one up I want to re-write it - I know I could do better".

It seems a job that needs doing. He was one of the great punk-poets, touring with the Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, the Fall and most of the other remarkable bands of the time. He seemed to share their attitude to life, summed up with lines like "I'd consider killing you / If I thought you were alive".

Who knows when a complete anthology might come out; in the meantime, you can read some of his work here.

Looking forward to transparency in arts funding

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Will Gompertz | 09:05 UK time, Tuesday, 9 November 2010


The Department of Media, Culture & Sport (DCMS) has published its business plan, introduced with great optimism by the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt:

Jeremy Hunt

Jeremy Hunt, October 2010

"This sets out how we will, over the next four years, boost economic growth, equip the country for future success and transform the way we deliver culture, media, sport and tourism".

Unsurprisingly it is simply a summation of what the coalition government has said and done since it came to power in May. The summary page contains, however, a couple of ambiguous lines that could do with a bit of clarification.

We will support the sector to move towards more sustainable business models

What, I asked, does that mean? The sector appears perfectly happy with its current business model consisting of varying degrees of state funding, philanthropy and commercial enterprise. It is a model that has worked for years and delivered an extremely successful arts sector, so where is the unsustainability?

I was told it meant that the ministers don't want the sector to be so vulnerable to large-scale government cuts, should they occur again in future. Ah, so does that mean weaning the arts off public subsidy? Apparently not: the subsidy is secure.

The other phrase that caught my eye described the government as:

liberating organisations so they can raise and spend money as they see fit

Really? Does that mean that in future arts institutions will be able to borrow money from a bank when they next want to buy a painting or build an extension? No, it doesn't. It means that they can carry on their commercial activity just as they have in the past, but with less regulatory burden on when and how they spend it.

The report also states the department's determination to be transparent about its activities - I look forward to it!

Arts Council funding shake-up

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Will Gompertz | 10:45 UK time, Thursday, 4 November 2010


The Arts Council England (ACE) announces today a transformation to the way it funds the arts in England.

While the arts sector has been doing extremely well with a booming box office and largely-satisfied customers, ACE feels it could be doing better. Especially when it comes to handing out taxpayers' money to the organisations it regularly funds.

National Theatre

The National Theatre, London

So it will ask all 850 of them - big and small - to apply for their grants, starting in April 2012. Whether you are the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, the Royal Opera House or a tiny publisher in Yorkshire, the same rules will apply: if you want funding, you need to fill in a form and sign up to some agreed goals.

Remarkably, up until now, the Arts Council says there has been no proper application process. If you were in the club, you tended to stay in the club; if you weren't, there was no obvious way of joining.

In an attempt to break that inner circle, the council will be asking all those companies that receive regular funding not only to make an initial application, but also to re-pitch every few years. In effect, it is moving from a system of rolling contracts to one of fixed-term contracts.

When I spoke to ex-Arts Council Chair and business guru Sir Gerry Robinson yesterday, he scoffed. "Are they going to stop funding the Royal Shakespeare Company?" he asked. And then answered his own question by saying "Of course not!" And then qualified it by asking "So why bother asking them to go through this charade every three years or so?"

Arts Council form

He feels that ACE is fudging. If it wants to stop funding some organisations, he argues, it should do so, but otherwise let the companies get on with it and keep bureaucracy to a minimum.

Few are likely to disagree with his sentiments. But perhaps the proposal is worth giving a chance. It hasn't come out of the blue; nor is it a knee-jerk reaction to the coalition government's recently-announced funding cuts. It's the result of over a year's work driven by a genuine desire to break up what has been seen as too cosy an arts club.

Clearly part of the motivation is also to clear out what ACE feels is some dead wood. But the council does appear to making a sincere effort to create a more open, fair, accountable and accessible funding system: one that allows new start-up companies or the previously overlooked to make their own pitches rather than waiting for an ACE talent-spotter.

Of course the status quo may persist and this initiative might be filed alongside decades of others under the heading "worthy failures". But now is not the time to judge.

The scenes behind the scenes

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Will Gompertz | 09:24 UK time, Wednesday, 3 November 2010


I was at the National Theatre yesterday and popped into their scenery studio - thought you might like to see what's going on backstage.

Here are props and scenery for their next production of Fela!

Props for Fela!

Barbed wire painted and prepared to be sent to America for the latest production of War Horse

Props for War Horse

This a painting frame for Fela!

Painting frame for Fela!

Don't forget your Book of the Dead

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Will Gompertz | 08:56 UK time, Tuesday, 2 November 2010


I spent yesterday morning at the British Museum filming its latest exhibition for last night's BBC news.

It's called Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead; it's the most comprehensive show of its kind ever mounted and it contains a huge range of fragile papyrus manuscripts and assorted objects.

Book of the Dead

And do you know what? Those ancient Egyptians sure knew how to die.

Well, they did if they were rich. For a small fortune a flush Pharaoh could commission the scribes in the Temple to knock him up his own personal Book of the Dead (except it wasn't called that then - the name was provided by a German scholar who came up with it in the mid-19th Century).

This was a manuscript typically inscribed on papyrus that acted as a sort of passport-cum-afterlife-insurance-policy for when the Pharaoh died.

Once his brains had been drained though his nose and his body duly mummified, the recently-deceased royal was then ready for the trip of his deadtime.


The Devourer

This was a perilous journey through a netherworld infested with nasties wanting to thwart him at every turn, the Becher's Brook being a monster known as the "Devourer", a hybrid beast that smacks of a pantomime horse. It has the head of a crocodile, the forelegs of a lion and the bottom of a hippopotamus.

It was at this point that his trusty Book of the Dead came in handy. It contained a series of choice spells to help negotiate safe passage through this treacherous terrain and deliver him safely into the realm of the gods.

Most manuscripts contained around 20 spells, although there is one epic Book of the Dead in the show: a scroll that when unfurled measures 37 metres and contains over 80 separate spells making it the longest known copy of a Book of the Dead.

It's a good show with plenty of text panels and technology to bring the story alive. My only small gripe is that £12 seems a lot to charge for an exhibition that, for all but a handful of objects, is made up from the British Museum's own collection.

The anniversary of the Chatterley ban

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Will Gompertz | 14:03 UK time, Monday, 1 November 2010


50 years ago tomorrow, a unanimous verdict of "not guilty" was arrived at in the Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey, in the case against Penguin Books under the Obscene Publications Act 1959 for publishing DH Lawrence's novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Lady Chatterleys Lover

Fox photographer George Freston poses as a London Underground commuter on the day Lady Chatterley's Lover went on general sale. Fox photographer Les Graves is on his left.

The trial and subsequent acquittal of Penguin Books was the culmination of a story that started back in 1928 when Lawrence's third and final version of Lady Chatterley's Lover was published in Italy. The trail caused a sensation. Members of the public, as they always do, wanted to decide for themselves what was morally good for them and rushed to the shops eight days later when the book was officially published, as you can read in this BBC account.

From the BBC's The Chatterley Affair, 2006

From the BBC's The Chatterley Affair, 2006

To mark its victory, Penguin is publishing a commemorative edition with documents and letters relating to the trial and afterword essays by Geoffrey Robertson QC and Steve Hare.

Steve is a friend of mine. He has many wonderful attributes, among which is an obsessive knowledge of Penguin Books and all matters related. I think I'm right in saying he has the world's largest collection of Penguins, most of which he has read. And so, thanks to the publishing ethos of the firm's founder Allen Lane, he is one of the most knowledgeable people I have met.

His essay describes how the intelligentsia of the day came out to support Allen Lane and Penguin in their time of need. Enid Blyton was a conspicuous absentee, having been asked but having refused to attend the trial. In the essay is this, Steve's meticulous timeline of events as they unfolded, starting in Florence in 1928:

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