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Archives for March 2011

Arts Council cuts revealed

Will Gompertz | 12:41 UK time, Wednesday, 30 March 2011

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Manchester International Festival is in. Derby Theatre is likely to be out. And the South London Gallery has got a pay rise, going from the £394,000 they current receive to nearly £850,000 by 2015 (having doubled it size and tripled its audience). It’s still only 8:30am but the calls have been coming in to me shortly after Arts Council England (ACE) have made their outgoing calls.

Alan Davey, Chief Executive, Arts Council England

It didn’t need to be like this. Arts Council England could have chosen to apply a 15% cut across the board and thereby avoid the inevitable hullabaloo of those who have had all their funding taken away questioning the decision. But as Alan Davey has just said on the Today programme, he felt that was not the way to go and would lead to a less vibrant sector.

I suspect that will be the fate for just over 200 arts companies who previously had funding, with a hundred or so new contracts being awarded to organisations not previously in the fold (eg Manchester International Festival).

Many have still not have heard. The bosses of theatres, orchestras and dance companies are still waiting anxiously by their phones, like politicians on election night; they await their fate. Has their bid for financial support been successful? And if so, is it with a reduced margin?

There are five possible outcomes for arts companies that have applied to ACE for funding:

  • Total rejection – no money and not a member of the portfolio
  • They still receive ACE funding but it is greatly reduced – an implicit warning that they need to do better
  • Their funding is cut more moderately, within the 15% average set by the government – I think this will be the case with all the big national institutions ACE funds
  • They get MORE money – as is the case with South London Gallery
  • Or they receive regular funding for the first time and become part of ACE’s portfolio

I think "umbrella companies" - associations and advocacy groups that represent one group or art form but don’t directly produce content - will be particularly hard hit. And it seems likely that the visual arts will do well. We’ve already seen that with the South London Gallery, and you can add large increases to the Hepworth in Wakefield and Turner Contemporary in Margate into the mix, as they are opening for the first time this spring.

I don’t think the overall spending pattern across England will change much, but understand many of the agreements will be contingent upon local councils also stumping up. So where that leaves theatres and galleries in places like Somerset where all arts funding is being withdrawn remains to be seen.

I’ve heard from several sources that £10 million will be put towards a project to enable schools and arts companies to work together - this goes some way towards replacing the £50 million that went out of arts education when Creative Partnerships and Find Your Talent were axed last year.

Most will be three-year deals, but I think there will be some that are shorter - maybe two years - and some that are longer - possibly up to six years. All 840 organisations that are currently funded have a year to adjust to whatever funding decision they receive.

I think the theme ACE will be pushing is that they have supported adventurous programming. Risk-takers who have made it happen will be rewarded, while those they think are simply surviving will be the ones in the firing line.

A final point: Although these decisions have been made within the context of government cuts, there will be significantly more lottery money available than there was before, to enable ACE to cushion the blow for those organisations that find themselves out of favour and out of pocket.

Update 1241:

The upshot, after an hour’s worth of press conference, is that there are 695 arts companies who have a multi-year deal with Arts Council England.

Shared Experience theatre company's production of Bronte

 

Some, like the Hampstead Theatre, have a three-year deal and others such as Artangel have an agreement for six years.

As I expected, Derby Theatre’s funding has been axed as has that for the Northcott Theatre in Exeter, the Dartington Hall Trust in Devon and the Riverside Studios in London.

The shock of the day was the withdrawal of all funding from the innovative theatre company Shared Experience. I saw their production of Bronte at the weekend and it seemed to tick all the Arts Council boxes: it’s collaboration with another company, gives opportunity to emerging talent, is a company which is for once mot male-dominated, and has secured a residency at the Oxford Playhouse to make it more financially secure. In a bizarre twist, the Oxford Playhouse actually received an increase in its funding.

But of course when such a comprehensive overhaul takes place it is inevitable there will be anomalies and that decisions will be made that will prove to be contentious.

I spoke to the Arts Council specifically about the Shared Experience decision and they admitted that it was a tough call and there would be project funds available to help the company survive. I would not be surprised to see them back as a RFO (regularly funded organisation)  in three years time.

It was the umbrella organisations that took the brunt of the pain, with groups such as Dance United (which just happens to be one of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s chosen charities on their wedding list) finding their funding withdrawn altogether.

Arts Council to deliver knockout punch

Will Gompertz | 11:27 UK time, Monday, 28 March 2011

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It's a big week for Big Al. Arts Council England's (ACE) heavyweight boss spent Friday working out, getting ready to deliver knockout blow after knockout blow on Wednesday morning. His targets will be theatres, arts centres and assorted musical outfits from Cornwall to Carlisle. They will fight back.

But it could be the making of Alan Davey, a quietly spoken aesthete trapped in the body of a nightclub bouncer. His tenure as the CEO of ACE has been steady if unspectacular, as this morning's report by the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee appeared to conclude. His announcement on Wednesday morning - outlining which arts organisations will receive funding from his quango and which will not - is his big moment.

As the select committee report says, it is "inevitable" that rejecting approximately half of the 1,350 arts organisations that have applied for funding will lead to widespread complaints. Alan Davey and his Chair, Liz Forgan, will come under intense scrutiny. The report's authors are concerned that ACE's process of whittling down has been too quick. Maybe it has.

But Davey, Forgan and the rest of the ACE board will weather the storm if they are able to demonstrate a rock-solid rationale for their decisions. No flim-flam, no management speak, no "it's not our fault", just a clear and coherent intellectual argument that makes their decisions understandable - if not palatable - for all concerned.

In doing so, they will have spelt out an arts funding strategy for England that has fairness, rigour and accountability at its heart - something that by their own admission has been missing.

It won't be easy. How, for instance, do they deal with that tricky issue of audience development? The select committee report says they shouldn't "relentlessly pursue people who are not interested in the arts". But if they don't, they will be criticised for being elitist and ignoring whole swathes of the population who contribute to their funds. Added to which, both Davey and Forgan have talked about the arts in evangelical terms; that a painting or a play or an opera can be redemptive and more broadly of the arts as a catalyst for regeneration. "Do gooding" is part of the council's DNA.

And what will they do about The Public in West Bromwich? The report criticised ACE for wasting money on the arts centre in the past, but does that mean they should not invest in it for the future? They'll probably get criticised either way. And that's just one of 1,350 decisions they have to make.

So, whether he likes it or not, Alan Davey is in for a fight. On Wednesday we will find out which companies he has picked on. Will it be just the little guys? Or does he fancy his chances against the big boys? Will the likes of the Royal Opera House and the Southbank Centre take a big hit?

The select committee and many others will be watching...

The week in the arts

Will Gompertz | 14:15 UK time, Friday, 25 March 2011

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It was a week of two Dames. And Grayson Perry.

The stars came out and lit up the airwaves to pay tribute to Dame Elizabeth Taylor after she died on Wednesday.

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

 

Barbra Streisand said: "it's an end of an era. It wasn't just her beauty or stardom. It was her humanitarianism. She made life count". While Martin Landau who appeared with the "aubergine-eyed" actress in Cleopatra (just how big a gooseberry did he feel?) thought she was, "a unique talent and a singularly spectacular individual". Michael Caine simply said she was, "a great human being".

Of course there was plenty of talk about her penchant for men. She herself admitted that she tended to "sashay up to men, but walk up to women". And Debbie Reynolds - whose husband (Eddie Fisher) left her for Liz Taylor - observed that, "women liked her...men adored her". There was little mention of her friendship with Michael Jackson, which I thought said a lot about her. They were part of the same exclusive club, called Child Stars Who Were Even Better When They Grew Up And Then Became Legends In Their Own Lifetime. It is an unusual (and I imagine utterly weird) human experience that they shared; they understood each other, like nobody else could.

Another aspect of her life that went uncommented upon was just how many people she knew. I stopped counting on Thursday evening after the hundredth "the time I met Liz Taylor story" was recounted to me. Meeting Liz seems to be right up there with the first Pistols gig and Damien Hirst's Freeze exhibition, as an event an improbable amount of people appear to have experienced. Her lust for life and aptitude to "go large" given a choice was well documented. But it was her advocacy work to fight fear and prejudice about HIV/AIDS, to stand up and be counted when few others would and to use (and risk) her celebrity to do so, which showed that Michael Caine's assessment of her was spot on: Dame Elizabeth Taylor was one heck of a human being.

Dame Vivien Duffield is not unimpressive either. Her dad spent his life making money, she has spent hers giving it away. The £8.2 million pounds she donated this week adds to the £50 million-plus she has dished out since 2000. Arts and education tend to be her thing -particularly when they are combined. She's paid for education spaces to be created in theatres and museums across Britain and for their best staff to go on The Clore Leadership Programme. I don't know how good the actual training course is, but I do know that being selected to go on it is like putting afterburners on your career.

Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry who became a member of the Royal Academy this week

But her good deeds can't pay for everything. I was at a school in Jarrow, South Tyneside, yesterday. It is not a wealthy area of the country and the school has had its share of problems. But what I saw was exceptional. A publically funded programme called Find Your Talent had paid for the internationally renowned choreographer Wayne Macgregor's company to come to the school for a week or so and teach some of the pupils to dance. They loved it, were flattered by the attention and responded with enthusiasm and commitment. Their assessment of the experience was illuminating. They told me that not only had they learnt a lot, but it had changed their attitude to school in general and their school in particular. They said they were now proud to go to Jarrow School, when once they were not. And you could feel the positive vibe throughout the school. Macgregor had not only given the pupils confidence, but it had given the school confidence.

The Find Your Talent programme was a victim of the recent cuts, as was another major arts education scheme. The £50 million pounds that has been taken out of this grass-roots type of activity is bound to have a material effect. Next week Arts Council England announces its funding decisions; who's for the chop and who is not. I suspect that they will want to reverse some of their cuts to arts education. But will any new figure come remotely close to the £50 million that has been taken away. And will there be money put aside to cover the costs of artists such as Wayne Macgregor to work in schools, which according to some is a vital element of arts education. Or will it simply be money to employ people to 'build bridges.'

And finally, congratulations to Grayson Perry RA - for becoming a member of the Royal Academy.

The arts on a budget

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Will Gompertz | 12:57 UK time, Thursday, 24 March 2011

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Some advice: if you are not a morning person, if it takes you a while to get going, to collect your thoughts, to syncopate with the day, then do not arrange an 08:00 GMT interview with Dame Vivien Duffield. By this time the jewel-eyed philanthropist is as feisty as a terrier in a field of rabbits.

Vivien Duffield

As I found out when we met today on the National Theatre's rooftop terrace. It was a chilly but beautiful morning. A Monet-like mist, lit by a rising spring sun, made for an evocative scene as boats glided calmly up and down the Thames going about their daily business. Not that we chatted about that. No, we got straight down to business.

"What do you think of the budget" she asked.

"Err...well...I was..." I began.

"A good start don't you think?"

"Hmm...perhaps...I thought...do you think they've got any coffee around here?"

"Jeremy's [Hunt, the Culture Secretary] done well to wrestle those concessions from the Treasury"

"You think so...?"

She does. She is delighted with the tax breaks announced yesterday by George Osborne in his Budget, which she calls "a step in the right direction". And has visibly warmed to the culture secretary. The last time we met she wasn't that pleased with him. He'd made a big play about writing to all the country's philanthropists, but Dame Vivien - one of the most generous - had not heard from him. Communications appear to have improved since.

And having spoken to other philanthropists and the recipients of their generosity in the arts, there is a general feeling that Jeremy Hunt's initiative to encourage more philanthropic giving is starting to pay dividends. His simple and ultra cost-effective idea of making philanthropists feel more appreciated is proving effective. But, as the culture minister made clear when launching his campaign last year, philanthropy is no substitute for government core funding. Nor for that matter, are one-off lottery grants.

Theatres, museums and orchestras say they need core funding on either a three, four or five year contact, to enable them to plan and run their businesses. Any additional money provided by philanthropic gifts or a one-off lottery grant is extremely helpful, but doesn't compare. It is the difference between an employee earning a wage and then receiving the occasional bonus, you can plan your life around one, but not the other.

So while arts leaders acknowledge the efforts the government has made to increase philanthropy and the positive changes they have made to the lottery, there is still a great deal of concern about the cut to their core subsidy which ranges from a minimum of 15%, up to nearly 30%. This, they say, is significant and will affect them materially. Their programmes will have to be reduced, with many citing their educational outreach work being particularly susceptible.

Already Creative Partnerships - the nationwide programme to connect schools with the arts - has had its funding withdrawn, all £40m of it. That is a huge sum to remove from children's arts education, an area many consider to be the most crucial role played by the arts in Britain. And because education is not seen as "front line", it remains very vulnerable to further cuts. If you look at most fundraising proposals prepared by arts institutions, you will see that they are for - or at least contain an element of - education and outreach.

By most measures the subsidised arts sector in Britain has been successful over the last decade. But the one area that almost all arts companies have struggled with is in diversifying their audiences; the vast majority of their customers are white, middle class and tertiary educated. They want to change this, to reflect and serve their communities better, and recognise that education is the way to do it. As does Dame Vivien, but she can't do it all on her own.

A nasty case of sequelitis

Will Gompertz | 09:00 UK time, Wednesday, 23 March 2011

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Who'd a thought it; they've only gone and turned Chitty Chitty Bang Bang into a camper van.

What's more, Truly Scrumptious has had to take a back seat while the Tooting (geddit) family hit the road and surf the sky. It wasn't like that in my day.

Joe Berger's illustration of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

But that was before sequelitis, a highly contagious condition that publishers, literary estates and movie moguls are particularly prone to. None more so than those responsible for Ian Fleming's estate, who have succumbed to repeated outbreaks, most notably around their James Bonds. Now it has spread to their Chitty Chitty Bang Bangs, hence the camper van.

I should explain. In November an all-new Chitty story will be published by Macmillan Children's Books, which carries on where Ian Fleming left off.

It has been written by Frank Cottrell Boyce - who, after scripting 24 Hour Party People, can do pretty much whatever he wants in my book - and has been given the disappointingly unadventurous title, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again (a post modern gag?).

Chitty joins a long list of literary "brands" to be given a facelift by someone other than their creator. Winnie-the-Pooh, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, and Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca have all been given the treatment.

Why? I suppose because the public like new stories that take well-liked characters on new adventures while creating a nostalgic link with times past. Literary estates like them because they are in effect brand extensions, a way of making their core asset sweat. And publishers like them because it reduces the inherent risk of fiction publishing.

Of course the movie business has been at it for years. There's an old story about a new owner of a Hollywood studio commissioning some very expensive research to find out which films were the most profitable. Many millions of dollars later they got their answer: sequels. Books are no different, there's a formula to these things. A star actor is an important ingredient for a film sequel; a star writer is generally required in the book world.

Personally, I can't help but feel a little squeamish about the whole thing. The characters that we have come to know and connect with are the product of an individual author's imagination. No other writer or computer programme can capture the magic, because in many cases it has bubbled up from an unconscious mind sitting in front of a blank page.

There is certain magic to creating memorable characters and stories, which most authors will attest to. Turning the process into a hand-me-down franchise seems to devalue what is a truly remarkable human faculty.

World Heritage missed list

Will Gompertz | 11:34 UK time, Tuesday, 22 March 2011

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Have you ever been to the former RAF airfield in Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire? It is a dump. Literally, stuff gets dumped there, cars mostly.

But until today it was in the running to be one of the 11 places put forward by the government as worthy of consideration for World Heritage Site (WHS) status. It failed. The Forth bridge, the Lake District and the Jodrell Bank observatory are in, having successfully fulfilled the criteria for attaining potential World Heritage Status by "representing a masterpiece of human creative genius or containing superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty".

Forth Rail Bridge

There are currently 911 sites on the World Heritage list including the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef, the Taj Mahal and the Acropolis in Greece. The UK already has Ironbridge Gorge, the Tower of London, Stonehenge and the City of Bath listed. But the list of criteria published by WHS also allows for sites of great anthropological significance. And I would have thought RAF Upper Heyford ticks that box.

The application makes the point the RAF Upper Heyford represents a near perfect example of a military base with nuclear capability dating back to the Cold War. It was home to F-111 fighters and the United States Air force Strategic Air Command. It was an American run and occupied strategic position, which was used for bombing raids on Libya and the Gulf War. They left in the mid-1990s and it hasn't been used for military purposes since. But the ghosts remain.

The application goes on to say that the site is an historic monument and that, "as yet there are no military sites on the WHS list which represent the period in the history of mankind during which there was both the capacity and the plan to destroy most if not all the people on the planet".

Jodrell Bank

It is an extraordinary place to visit: haunting yet weirdly alluring in a Ballardian sort of way. The fact that the vast majority of the huge acreage of prime Oxfordshire that the site takes up consists of roads, runways and increasingly derelict housing probably went against their application. It's certainly a scar on a beautiful area of the country, but that's the point.

In a way it doesn't really matter now; their application has failed. But it does highlight an often overlooked aspect of the heritage business, and that is those creations that are no longer new, but aren't very old either.

At what point does something become "heritage"? Constructions from the latter half of the 20th Century are now coming into range. Perhaps our next shortlist of tentative applications for World Heritage Status should include poignant examples of 20th Century life such as the M1 motorway or the Excalibur prefab housing estate in South London (if it hasn't already been destroyed).

Arts Council cuts - the X Factor special

Will Gompertz | 12:00 UK time, Monday, 21 March 2011

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Simon Cowell and Alan Davey do not look alike. The pop impresario's slender body is topped-off with a full head of dark hair that starts growing just above his eyebrows. Whereas the chief executive of Arts Council England is... well, as I say, they don't look alike.

But next week, Big Al gets to play at being Oh! Simon, in his very own version of X Factor, called Ex-Actor (or theatre, orchestra, gallery). He too will have a couple of cohorts. Dame Liz Forgan (Chair, Arts Council England) will take on Cheryl Cole's role as national treasure and Andrew Nairne (Director of Strategy, Arts Council England) will be the straight-talking Louis Walsh.

Obviously there are some differences in the format to avoid embarrassing accusations of plagiarism from Mr Cowell, but generally the idea is the same. A bunch of talented but vulnerable hopefuls give it their best shot in front of some informed but impartial judges, who will decide their fate. The judges' decision is final, there is no recourse, no debate, no second chance: you are either in or you are out.

Dame Liz Forgan

 

And just like the TV show, the sense of "jeopardy" is cranked up by using the old "musical chairs" formula; except this time it's not one chair being removed, but half of them. About 1,350 arts organisations across England have applied to receive a three-year funding agreement from Arts Council England. Roughly half of them will be refused and receive no money. Many of those that do receive a grant will be disappointed by the amount of money on offer. They will all find out by 8am next Wednesday 30 March.

It is a momentous occasion: the single biggest arts funding event this country has known since the Major government created the National Lottery. Its importance goes beyond who are the winners and losers, but points to the strategic thinking of the council.

Will they address what many see as an unacceptable inequality between the funding of London-based organisations and those in the regions? Will there be any high-profile casualties of poorly performing outfits? What will their criteria be for making the decisions made? Will they get it right?

I hope so. Alan Davey is a decent man who cares deeply about the organisation he is running and the arts sector in general. He has worked hard since becoming chief executive to add some rigour and accountability to the council and those that it funds. And he has done the hard yards; he's gone out there and met, listened to and encouraged arts institutions, local councils and central government. But now it is decision time, his moment of truth.

Ultimately leadership is not about being a good administrator or a good bloke; it's about judgement. Great leaders call it right, the duffers don't. Some have already privately questioned the process leading up to decision-day on Wednesday week.

Arts Council England appears to be attempting to achieve four goals in one process: to reduce the amount of arts organisations they fund, to bring previously un-funded organisations into the fold, to implement a more rigorous and accountable funding process, and to alter the way in which they fund organisations. That's a lot for one process.

And it might cause problems. Most of the arts organisations I have spoken to are asking for more money, not less, although they know the overall pot is reduced because of the government cuts. They tell me they have been encouraged to do so, in a way Oliver wasn't. Don't come to us with a begging bowl half way through the year, they have been advised - tell us what you really need. Frankly, that's like asking a racing driver how fast his car goes when really they should be saving fuel.

Oliver Twist

 

Some have also questioned the wisdom of trying to reduce their existing portfolio of regularly-funded organisations because of the government's cuts, while at the same time encouraging applications from companies that are new to the council. What was once a cutting exercise due to reduced government subsidy has become a strategic process brought about by the need to reform an outdated system. Cuts that could have been blamed squarely on government have become an Arts Council England initiative to reform the way it funds the arts. At least that's how the government is likely to spin it.

Few doubt that the council are trying to do the right thing, but maybe they're making life less than easy for themselves. At one time they were going to have to disappoint a hundred or so of the 750 organisations they regularly fund. But now with 1,350 applications, they are going to really upset 700-odd companies, plus many, many others who have put in for more money, only to be given less than they had before. A handful will get a bit more.

All of which leaves Arts Council England and Alan Davey in particular, quite exposed. He will have to have rock-solid rationale for each and every decision that is made. Meaningless platitudes such as "great art for everyone" will not wash. He will have to explain why one perfectly good theatre has had its funding withdrawn, while another equally good - but not obviously better - theatre is cut.

The criteria will need to be absolutely clear. Any ambiguity, any silly blandishments, and one of the many disaffected companies will launch the only weapon available to them - to question the whole process. And if that happens, well, it wouldn't be good...

The week in arts

Will Gompertz | 16:14 UK time, Friday, 18 March 2011

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So, what happened in the arts this week? Well, there were some awards ceremonies, obviously.

Sheridan Smith won an Olivier for her starring role in Legally Blonde.

Sheridan Smith

And boy, did she deserve it. I saw the show and it didn't spark into life until she came on, and then it was good. She's now in Flare Path at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, where, if anything she's even better: a Maggie Smith for the 21st Century.

La Boheme production

A fringe production of La Boheme beat off the mighty ENO and Royal Opera House to win Best New Opera Production, which everybody seemed to think was a jolly good show.

Except for the production's chorus singers who thought it was a jolly bad show that they didn't get paid. The producers told them to put it down to experience.

The Plumen 001 low energy light bulb won the Design Museum's Brit Insurance Design of the Year Award. Will Self said it was not the dernier cri of light bulb design, which Deyan Sudjic, the director of the Design Museum, suggested had already been arrived at more than 100 years ago. But, Sudjic said, the Plumen design "goes a long way to make up for the loss of the Edison original".

Plumen 001

If I was on the panel I may have been more inclined to have chosen this chair.

There were lots of festival announcements this week:

Manchester's biennial International Festival announced its 2011 programme, which looks a lot like its 2009 and 2007 programmes.

And Robert Redford popped over to tell us next year he's going to bring a little bit of Sundance into our lives. A little bit, meaning the American bit. He wants to show us the very best of American Independent cinema. That was Winter's Bone last year, which was very good - and on general release here.

The Bolshoi ballet got itself into a fine mess. Just before a major tour to Paris their artistic director has quit because of a photo of someone looking just like him, but without any clothes on, was posted on the internet (who would do a thing like that?)

So, now he's off to the naughty step where he will meet Brian True-May, the producer of ITV's Midsomer Murders.

Neil Dudgeon (centre) in Midsomer Murders

In a Radio Times interview Mr True-May was asked what's with the lack of ethnic representation in Midsomer. Because it was the "last bastion of Englishness" he said. Cue journalist looking down at their tape recorder to make sure it was switched on.

What else? Oh, yes. There was nearly the "third British invasion" of America. This is where UK pop acts dominate the US charts. It happened in the 1960s with the Beatles 'n' all. And again in the 1980s with the New Romantics (who had a little help from Led Zep and Pink Floyd). It nearly happened again last week when the top three albums in the Billboard 200 were British acts (Adele, Marsha Ambrosius and Mumford & Sons). That's the first Brit one, two, three since 1985 when the line up was: Dire Straits Brothers in Arms, Sting's The Dream of the Blue Turtles and Tears for Fears 'Songs from the Big Chair (which explains why it's taken them so long to forgive us). But a top three doesn't make an invasion, more dropping round for a chat. In 1985 UK acts had 41 albums in the chart, last week there were 15. Mind you, anybody going to this year's SXSW in Austin, Texas might feel differently, where a record number of British acts have rocked up.

And finally, still on pop music (sort of). Professor Brian Cox, the good-looking chap who used to play the keyboard in D-Ream, has been upsetting people with his music. Just when he thought things could not get better, having won a Royal Television Society award for his science programmes on the BBC, he found himself being criticised for using too much music in his latest series Wonders of the Universe. The BBC pointed to its audibility report, which reveals that a mumbling presenter can be difficult to understand. Reveals?

Shining a light on design

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Will Gompertz | 16:58 UK time, Tuesday, 15 March 2011

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And the winner of this year's Brit Insurance Design of the Year 2011 is:

Plumen 001

A designer low-energy light bulb. So, instead of having what looks like a nasal drip hanging out of your ceiling socket, you can now upgrade (for around £20) your existing low-energy bulb with this curvaceous alternative: the Plumen 001.

Will Self, one of this year's judges, was quick to point out that neither he, nor any of the other jurors, considered the Plumen 001 to be the "dernier cri in light bulb design", but thought it was "definitely a light leading the way". Deyan Sudjic, the director of the Design Museum added, "it goes a long way to make up for the loss of the Edison original".

Both men seem less than totally thrilled by their choice and might have been tempted by the Branca chair in less austere times. The British designers Industrial Facility have crafted a very good-looking chair that owes something to Robin Day, the brilliant furniture designer, who died at the end of last year. Giving the Branca chair the award would have been a nice nod to great man, but perhaps that's a bit mawkish in modernist circles.

The Plumen light bulb is not without merit though. It does have the design chromosome that most of its low-energy competitors lack. And it has a sense of joie de vivre - as Will Self might say that many products that are "good for you" lack. I'd happily trade a few earth years than spend the rest of my life eating low calorie food that tastes like cardboard and having to wash it down with some alcohol free beer, which does have a flavour, but it's indescribable.

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The design judges would rather pop a Plumen in my socket than most of the other low-energy options. And they'd be willing to pay the extra money too. Which makes it a good piece of design. And according to B&Q they're not alone. They are increasingly finding that their customers will pay more for products that have aesthetic as well as functional appeal. Which probably means the owners will look after them better, which means they will last longer, which in itself is helpful towards the environment.

Terence Conran, the founder of the Design Museum, calls it "intelligent design". It's a better term than "good" design, which is nebulous and too subjective. And the Design Museum awards have a decent record of acknowledging intelligent design.

Last year Min-Kyu Choi's folding plug concept design won, which is now going into production. The year before that was Shepard Fairey's Obama Hope poster and the year before that the One Laptop Per Child system. I think all these winners will stand the test of time, but I'm not so sure about the Plumen light bulb. Now, if the Branca chair had won, that might have been different...

Twenty Twelve: Missing the heart of a good sitcom

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Will Gompertz | 10:49 UK time, Tuesday, 15 March 2011

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Humour is a matter of taste. A joke that has one audience howling with laughter can leave another simply howling. The same applies to television comedy. Which is why it's not surprising that the reviews for BBC Four's new spoof doc, Twenty Twelve, were mixed. I was in the equivocal camp.

Jessica Hynes and Hugh Bonneville

It had a good cast (Hugh Bonneville and Jessica Hynes) and a nice central idea - spoof fly-on-the-wall doc following the team in charge of delivering the London 2012 Olympics. And if contradiction is at the heart of a good sitcom, it had that too, in the shape of a man in charge of Olympic delivery whose own wife tells him he is "completely useless". But to paraphrase the great Eric Morecambe; they had all the right ingredients, but hadn't added them in the right order.

The result was a diverting half-hour of pleasant enough telly that lacked the bite of its two most obvious antecedents: The Office and The Thick of It. There were some nice lines. The artist was introduced as being "best known for gaining a reputation". And the boss (Hugh Bonneville) lamented having lost an argument to his wife conceded that her point of view "does make a lot of sense and it's not easy to see a way round that".

But two good lines don't make a spring hit comedy. Maybe the problem with the first episode was a lack of spoof in the doc. The characters were familiar as Stephen Bayley - the man who was creative director of the Millennium Dome project pointed out on the Today programme. But perhaps they were too recognisable, to the point of cliche: mere pastiches as opposed to fully-fledged human beings with flaws that are universal.

I thought the characters lacked opinions, which are the essential spice of life and comedy. David Brent had an opinion about everything as did Malcolm Tucker. What would Curb Your Enthusiasm be without Larry David's opinionated persona or Basil Fawlty stripped of his black and white view of the world?

Opinions are the writer's device for revealing the true character, which in turn sets up dramatic tension and gives the audience something to react to. The only person who had an opinion in Twenty Twelve was the "straight-talking" Yorkshireman, but he only got a couple of lines and I'd heard them (or very similar) before.

Then again, the show did have one vital comic ingredient on its side: timing. Last night's first episode of Twenty Twelve revolved around an artist-designed clock counting down to the Games, while on the very same day the real London 2012 team launched their own countdown clock the Games. The TV show got that right. And their London 12 graphic is better.

Olivier Awards unite two worlds of UK theatre

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Will Gompertz | 11:30 UK time, Monday, 14 March 2011

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There is a certain Eau de Brie-ness about the Olivier Awards: what with the heraldic trumpeters and the merry-go-round of troupers bouncing onto stage to knock out a show tune or two. The sense of kitsch is heightened by the incongruity of the audience: serious-minded thespians squirming uncomfortably in their seats, while chorus line hoofers hug themselves with glee.

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There was an element of the Bill Grundy interview with the Sex Pistols about the event: the coming together of two disparate worlds. That was until the 85 year-old Angela Lansbury came on and sang a Stephen Sondheim number with such conviction that she united the house. And it is moments like that which capture the essence of British theatre's success and the important role the Oliviers play in celebrating it.

There are two worlds within the UK's theatrical universe: the subsidised companies and the commercial productions. But that doesn't mean they are mutually exclusive, although their tastes can differ. Increasingly the subsidised sector and the commercial theatre are working together. For example, Clybourne Park was one of last night's winners. It opened in London at the (subsidised) Royal Court before transferring to the (commercial) West End for a successful run. It is a joint venture between the Royal Court and Sonia Friedman, the impresario behind another of last night's big winners, the musical Legally Blonde. Two shows couldn't appear further apart conceptually, but are in fact inextricably linked.

Directors, actors, technicians and musicians constantly flit between the two sides of theatre, learning and sharing skills along the way. Britain is succeeding where other countries are failing because the subsidised theatres have the opportunity to take risks, while the commercial producers help broaden audiences and interest. Of course that's a gross simplification, but the point is that both sides do better because of the other.

Which is why they are united in their concern about the impending cuts to public funding of the arts. They all know the fragile ecosystem in which they operate. What is bad for subsidised theatre is bad for commercial theatre. And of particular concern to both is the double threat looming over regional theatres that face centralised cuts via Arts Council England and local cuts by their own councils.

Producers and directors say that regional theatre is an essential part of the creative and commercial mix, and that any damage to its capacity to produce and promote a full programme of productions will directly affect the well-being of the major national companies and the West End. Which is why I hope next year the Oliviers show more of a commitment to regional theatre. Currently the awards are focused on London, but as everyone is saying the regions are just as important, surely they deserve to be treated as such?

The great book give-away

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Will Gompertz | 12:42 UK time, Friday, 11 March 2011

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One of the by-products of our information age is all the awards, "best-of" polls and honours dished out on a daily basis. They are designed to raise their subject above the day-to-day noise and clutter generated by all the stuff out there. They are part promotional tool, part editorial sieve. Book prizes, for instance, raise awareness of books in general by suggesting a shortlist of publications to try. And given that over 100,000 books are published each year in this country alone, that's a useful service.

Last Sunday's World Book Night (WBN) ran along similar lines. Except the promotional part of the equation was rather more specific. In marketing terms it was a "sampling" exercise, not dissimilar to those we encounter at shopping centres where a tasty morsel is offered in the hope that our activated salivary glands will lead us into the shop to go and buy a packet of whatever it might be.

Volunteer hands out free books for World Book Night

And it seems to have worked. The Bookseller reports sales of the 25 titles on the list have increased and quite possibly other novels by the selected authors will have benefitted too. And there's nothing wrong with that, it's a smart idea.

But the way the concept is sold appears to conflict with the hard commercial thinking behind it. We are told that the great give-away of a million books was a celebration of the written word, designed to encourage more reading by more people, not to stimulate the market for publishers.

Now, it is very early days in the evolution of an idea that the organisers hope will become an annual event and eventually live up to its name (ie global in reach as opposed to UK only), meaning not all the thinking through will have been done. So, I have a suggestion.

There is already an established campaign across the UK to save libraries from closure due to local council cuts. Maybe these campaigners could talk to the organisers of World Book Night to see how their aims could be aligned. The authors and publishers who took part in, and financially benefitted from, World Book Night, due to the additional retail sales - could give that money to support the libraries. And perhaps the recipients of the million books given could make a donation as well?

Judging by the mass of bookish people wearing North Face coats and swinging Cath Kidston bags (into which the free books were duly stuffed) that I saw queuing in Glasgow at one of the WBN events, this promotion was neither reaching a new audience nor people for whom the cost of buying one of the selected paperbacks would have been prohibitive. There's more. Once the original recipient has read the book the intention of WBN is that it should be handed on to someone else. Well, they could contribute too.

And now the ideas are flowing, I have another one. The man behind the WBN initiative is the ebullient publisher Jamie Byng. He is a smart, charismatic, modernising individual who is passionate about books and has the energy and contacts to make things happen. Isn't he just the sort of person who should have a prominent role in helping the country's libraries in their time of need?

In short, wouldn't it make sense for World Book Night to become an annual fundraiser for libraries? Everybody would be a winner and it remove the slight whiff of commercial opportunism cloaked as a charitable undertaking that the project current emits.

Can the arts be entertainment too?

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Will Gompertz | 11:48 UK time, Thursday, 3 March 2011

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On Tuesday night I went to see the Wizard of Oz, the wonderful (not bad actually) Wizard of Oz. Because, because, because... it was the press night.

Three characters from Wizard of Oz musical

 

Talent show-winner Danielle Hope put in a good turn as Dorothy (having recently finished an intensive three-month musical theatre course), as did the expensive looking sets. In fact they barely stopped turning, much to the amusement of Graham Norton who was sitting to my left.

And there was something rather surreal about seeing Dorothy moon-walking on the moving walkway - banging on about the yellow brick road - while Toto the (real) dog looked utterly perplexed as he was carried backwards by the mechanical floor.

It is very much "a show": a slickly crafted musical production designed to do the business for all parties. As was the National Theatre's recent hit Fela! (now moving on to Sadler's Wells) and the Royal Shakespeare Company's Matilda. And there's nothing wrong with that.

And yet the speaker list at RSA/Arts Council's recent State of the Arts conference would suggest that Andrew Lloyd Webber's show belongs to the world of entertainment and not the arts. No matter that there's an orchestra working away in the pit, or that it's a story laden with contemporary symbolism - greedy bankers, freak weather incidents, the dehumanising effects of industrialisation - or that it is likely to reach a broad audience. It is below the salt.

Conferences are dull - that's a fact. But they don't have to be the visionless effort that was the State of the Arts 2011 conference. The truth is it wasn't a conference about the state of the arts - there was no speaker representation from commercial theatre, pop music, publishing, fashion, architecture, writers, design, movies - it was an event for the subsidised arts community to spend the day together, enjoy a nice lunch and have a bit of a moan.

What a wasted opportunity. Is there nothing about reaching new audiences the subsidised sector could learn from the likes of impresarios such as Sonia Friedman and Cameron Mackintosh; or the threats and opportunities of new technology from Universal music or 1xtra; or about nurturing new talent and ideas from Random House or Burberry's Christopher Bailey.

The arts in the UK are the envy of the world. It's a vibrant, successful sector delivering for the public (and its purse), which has flourished through a close working relationship between the subsidised and commercial sectors. It is about time those organising the State of the Arts conference grasped that the sector's future lies in its ability to work together and inspire each other, and not by sub-dividing it into (worryingly smug )little cliques. Dorothy understood that.

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