Ross Stretton / Arts Council Theatre Review / Mick Jagger

April 2000

The long running saga of Anthony Dowell's successor as Director of The Royal Ballet came to an abrupt end last month when a national newspaper pre-empted the official announcement that Ross Stretton, currently Director of the Australian Ballet, would relocate to Covent Garden in 2001. It's an unusual way for dancers both here and down under to learn the shape of their future, but it confirms what we all know, that the arts world is as leaky as the Opera House roof used to be. I was more concerned with a paragraph half way down the page listing the also-rans. Apparently, I had also applied for the job. The article went on to say that although I might have been rather good, I was rejected on the grounds of excessive youth. Tempting as it was to accept two spoons full of flattery in one sentence and let the misinformation go uncorrected, I opted for a rare diva moment and demanded a retraction. Two days later the apology appeared, but as it was given its usual table, right by the kitchen door, I would imagine it went largely unnoticed. I always suspected that having my own column would come in useful eventually. I've tried hard to avoid using this very nice slice of the page as my own, national, right to reply, but the time has come. I didn't apply for the job. You read it here.

Mind you, the propensity of newspapers to make two and two add up to La La Land is really quite alarming. Stage One of the Arts Council's Review of the English Regional Producing Theatres - an understandable inflamer of passions - was published early in the month. Stage One is a detailed analysis of the current state of play within this particular area of theatre. On the basis of these findings (and the profession's response) Stage Two will point the way forward. The document provides little for the headline writers – a fact that mattered not a jot when a copy was leaked to the press. No headlines? Improvise. 'Theatres told to cut back on classics' was followed by 'the review suggests that laser, acrobatic and video spectacles should be embraced by theatres as a condition of receiving public grants'. A second paper contributed a leader on the theme and then one of my favourite journalists picked up the phantom baton and ran with it, too. Just one problem: Read the document from cover to cover and you will find that the words 'laser', 'acrobatic' and 'video' are never mentioned. True, concern is expressed about declining audiences and about the large sectors of the community which feel no connection with theatre. True, several contributing factors are noted, including the vast chasm between the realities of live subsidised theatre and the entertainment expectations of the Spielberg generation, whose education has not equipped them, as their parents' did, with knowledge of and affection for the 'core' texts. But the report does not conclude that the answer lies in 'light shows and lasers for the masses'. Complex problems usually have complex answers. Unfortunately, they rarely make good headlines.

But I suppose it is our favourite national sport, to moan like mad about just about everything until someone suggests a practical approach (heaven forbid a solution) to put it right. Then all hell breaks loose and the thorn in the nation's side becomes, overnight, a sacred cow. We've seen it with Radio 4 over the last couple of years and I'm sure we'll enjoy yet another round of it this week when Greg Dyke goes public with his strategies for the future of the BBC.

I've just come back from Dartford Grammar School and the opening of The Mick Jagger Centre, a new music facility named after the school's most famous son. Approaching from the A2018, the banner draped around two sides of the building appeared to read 'The Mick', something I'm sure many people thought was being taken when the name was first mooted. But why not? Jagger is probably the most musical of the old boys and as he himself said, 'it was either me or Wat Tyler. I guess they decided there was a better chance of me turning up'. I was there to represent the Arts Council, who supported the project with 1.71 million of lottery funds. It's hardly the largest (or the most controversial) lottery award, but nevertheless, for some reason – unfathomable, really - the media was out in full force. I had to introduce the eponymous hero of the day, a completely meaningless task unless the audience had been resident on Planet Zarg for the last four decades. Jagger spoke persuasively about the importance of the arts in educating young people. 'They have a mind and they have an imagination, and they both need to be catered for'. Committed arts people like me can weave irrefutable arguments for the arts, but there's always going to be the Christine Keeler factor mitigating against their impact. She would say that, wouldn't she? Jagger's well chosen words in Dartford will reach more ears and influence public opinion more effectively than mine ever will.