PASSING BY... Diversify and conquer? Not necessarily
Antony Thorncroft thinks the constant search for new audiences is misguided – there’s plenty of life in the old ones
I never listen to BBC Radio One, but, as a retired pop music critic, I thought I ought to get up to speed with the television coverage of the BRITS, the annual prize giving for the business. I did not linger long. The latest fad, grime, apparently the lingua franca of London’s mean streets, sent me quickly on my way.
Which is exactly how it should be. Pop music is for the young, created by young people for young people, and reflecting their lives and interests. It is perhaps worth recording that few art forms can compete with pop music in its ability to take its audience with it - the first pop songs of the mid 1950s, aimed at that con dent new breed, the teenager, can still excite and entertain the youth of today - but most over 30s quickly lose their interest in contemporary pop and start twiddling the radio dial, or whatever, to- wards BBC Radio 2.
I encountered the other side of the coin recently when watching a performance of The Miser at a matinee at the Richmond Theatre. Sean Foley and Phil Porter had very freely translated Molière’s satire into a lively farce, allowing Griff Rhys Jones and Lee Mack to run riot. By keeping the action in 17th century France the production managed to make the links between then and now with more subtlety than if the play had been trendily updated. The audience loved it. And the audience is my point. I doubt that very many were under 50, let alone under 20. This was a play cleverly directed at its target audience just as Radio One aims for the teenage spot.
What is wrong with the arts appealing to different markets? It is what every business does to survive. Yet so many arts administrators seem to kick against this obvious fact and want their operas, plays, ballets, classical concerts, etc, to attract a broad audience, encompassing all ages and classes. It is little wonder that they are usually doomed to disappointment
It will be interesting to see whether Rufus Sewell, who runs the National Theatre, will rue the day when he decided to make the National much more diverse in its productions. Of course he has done just the reverse, commissioning lots of new plays, often by women writers, on themes likely to appeal to a nebulous new audience, in particular women and ethnic minorities. The classics have been sidelined. This ignores the fact that the great majority of the population, the majority that pays its taxes towards the National’s subsidy, is white, and that the great majority of the National’s own audience is not only white, but middle aged and middle class, the kind that enjoys a good old fashioned, well crafted classic play, something perhaps by Maugham or Coward, Priestley or Stoppard, Jonson or Sheridan.
They are facing a challenging year. There are only two revivals scheduled among the new productions and neither Angels in America or Follies (why this sudden obsession by British theatre directors with American product?) can be considered traditional mainstream fare. In his attempt to broaden the appeal of the National, Sewell has trampled on traditions which have served it very well since its opening. The box office will decide.
Sewell can be adventurous, or foolhardy, because he has three stages to ll. The other highly subsidised national arts company, the Royal Opera House, has much less flexibility, which has not stopped its departing director, Kasper Holten, moaning about his audience. Indeed he has a go at the entire nation complaining that the British “need to know how to love opera”. To help them the ROH is collaborating with the Victoria and Albert Museum with an opera-promoting exhibition this autumn, Passion, Power and Politics – the title says it all. The hope is that the show will give opera the boost that a V&A display gave pop with David Bowie and fashion with Alexander MacQueen.
Holten’s diatribe seems weird. The Opera House has no difficulty in achieving high audience figures. It is doubtless a cryptic attack on the makeup of its audience which is white, middle aged, etc etc. The English National Opera also often publicly despairs that its supporters prefer Verdi and Mozart to new operas on modern themes, though it is careful to ensure that the new opera by its composer in residence, Ryan Wigglesworth, an adaptation of The Winter’s Tale, which received mixed reviews, was preceded by a house packing revival of The Pirates of Penzance. One wonders whether The Winter’s Tale will get a quick revival.
Why does the arts establishment find it so hard to let the audience decide what it wants to see? Why is it always looking for new punters? It usually works out OK in the end. When I first started to go to the opera and classical music concerts 50 years ago the audience was middle aged, or older, middle class, and white. Now I am among that majority and doubt- less in time, when this generation passes on, it will be succeeded by an- other, very similar.
If I had to seek a cause for this disparagement of the audience I would point to modernism. Sometime after 1900 the high arts changed and became the preserve of the few, the highly educated few, who had lost political power and instead asserted cultural leadership. So we got James Joyce and Ulysses; Picasso and Cub- ism; Stravinsky and The Rite of Spring; the second Viennese school; Henry Moore; Brutalism in architecture; and so on. Anything to feel superior over the traditionalist public.
I say let’s keep horses for courses. If I want to swap Bizet for Berg I am quite capable of making up my own mind. Directors in the arts should stop criticising popular taste in pursuit of an illusory diversity. The true diversity comes through personal choice.