Last month, the Premier League signed a £5 billion TV rights deal with Sky Sports and BT Sport. It smacked industry gobs – a 70% per season increase on the previous deal, 45 times bigger than the equivalent deal twenty years ago. It is a filthily huge sum for the best of times, and so much more so during Our Austerity Years. Meanwhile, virtually every arts organisation in the country fumbles down the back of the sofa for coppers and puts on its Sunday Best to go cap in hand to funders, who themselves are hardly papering the walls with £50 notes.
Something has gone wrong here. The relative value put on these two aspects of British culture is barmy. No-one is in a ten figure bidding war to beam big screen live theatre into our homes seven nights a week. No-one puts their family in penury to support their local ballet company. But call it ‘market forces’, call it ‘philistinism’, it really doesn’t matter, because while the arts sector sits wringing its hands and fearing for the future, the rest of the country is gawping at Inter Munich vs Real Gothenburg in the Europa Superchampionship, knocking back a Carling and hi-fiving when Wayne Van Messi slots it away! “GOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAALLL!!!! Sorry mate, what were you saying, summat about the theatre closing…. awwww c’mon REFEREE! WHAT THE….?”
It needn’t be this way. In fact, it never used to be this way. Football in the 1970s was ugly. Grounds were tatty, tackles were career-ending, manners non-existent on and off the pitch. Women didn’t go. Ethnic minorities didn’t go. Politicans never casually dropped into conversation that they were an “Arsenal/Aston Villa/Liverpool fan, for my sins” to try to curry favour.
On the flip side of the coin, go back a little further in time and, be it music hall or cinema, ‘the arts’ was what you did with your Saturday night. You went somewhere to watch people perform song and dance.
Then, from the 1990s onwards, all this changed. Football became The People’s Game, something every man, woman and child is expected to know and like. Run-of-the-mill midfielders dated models and made millions. At the same time, those that used to enjoy the ‘turns’ down their local club or music hall gravitated to their sofas to watch Strictly and The Voice.
How did football achieve this and what magic ingredient does it have that the arts doesn’t? They’re both forms of entertainment, a good way to spend a couple of hours. They’re both good for you, (or, in wonk-speak, help achieve public policy objectives) – sport supporting health, the arts supporting education. Yet one more than stands on its own two feet, to the point it can hold the Murdoch empire to ransom for billions, the other, in most of its manifestations, struggles along on dwindling subsidy.
Maybe the time has come for the arts to look to football and learn some lessons. After all, it’s often blithely trotted out that price is a barrier to arts attendance. Tell that to the family who’ve just shelled out a few grand on season tickets to their local club, a Sky Sports subscription and replica kits all round.
So what makes the Beautiful Game so beautiful to the masses?
At ‘the big match’, there’s a sea of people dressed like you, singing the same songs as you and hoping for the same happy ending. Providing you have the right coloured scarf (or if you’re at the wrong type of club, the right skin colour/religion – football doesn’t have it all right), you belong. The closest the arts gets to this is Sing-a-long-a-Sound-of-Music.
In the main, our theatres and art galleries are seas of boho chic, fashion eyewear, ridiculous facial hair and air kisses. If you’re reading this, you might fit the stereotype so much you have grown oblivious to it. Yet you (or us) ‘arts types’, as well as looking odd and ‘individual’, are often there not simply to enjoy, but to critique. It’s as if you were at a football match, and instead of being surrounded by folks calling the referee a self-abuser, you have a herd of Alan Hansens solemnly dissecting every pass and dribble, not wanting to enjoy it, an endless Newsnight Review of the soul. It all screams to the casual observer ‘this isn’t for you, you don’t belong.’ I sport both fashion eyewear and ridiculous facial hair and have been reviewing the arts for ten years. Even I feel I don’t actually belong.
Now, I happen to have an almighty provincial chip of inverted snobbery on my shoulder, but then so do many of the other people that need to be brought through the door if the arts is to pay its way. There may be some who, upon getting a first whiff of the rarefied arts atmosphere, come back for more lungfuls of it, but that doesn’t work for everyone. Arts venues need to be messier, scruffier, lived-in places where anyone can feel they belong. They need to look more like the Wheeltappers and Shunters’ Club† and less like Jazz Club.
(† without Bernard Manning and the casual racism, obviously)
I once worked as a volunteer steward at a small, struggling (but unfunded) theatre in Bradford. Shows almost always played to half-empty houses. The only time the place was packed to the rafters was for an Indian variety show. It rolled on raucously for hours, with audience members flitting to and from their seats, talking on mobile phones, chatting to family members in the foyer, dropping in and out of the show as it suited them. Rather than celebrate this culture, which clearly wasn’t in keeping with traditional British theatre, but was bringing in a wad of cash, fellow stewards ran around, ordering people back to their seats and chastising them for using mobiles. Message: this place isn’t for you, you’re not behaving properly. It’s the same message that implicitly hovers around many arts events.
Someone who spends their working week slopping out bedpans, cold-calling people about PPI claims or carting boxes round a warehouse may want to let off some steam of an evening with a drink and a laugh among like-minded folks. They are not going to find what they are looking for in a silent theatre full of goatee-bearded creatives getting earnest about climate change.
For all the lame jokes about the offside rule, football is simple. One team tries to put the ball in the other team’s net, and that’s it. At your first football match, you pick a side (or have one thrust upon you) and it soon becomes obvious when to cheer, when to sigh, when to shout abuse at the goalie/ref. Arguably, this simplicity is one reason football thrived while the bigger, more complicated and ultimately, more fascinating sports of the nineteenth century, cricket and horse racing, with their LBWs and stewards’ enquiries, declined. That is not to say football is dumb, but it gets you hooked on the basics of ball-in-the-net first. Then, before you know it, you’re discussing the merits of employing a sweeper or dropping someone in behind the front two.
Most of the arts fails on this. Newcomers can have an expectation, rightly or wrongly, that what they are viewing should mean something, that there is a ‘right’ way to think about it. Sitting and watching a dance performance purely as a visual spectacle can be thoroughly enjoyable. Trying to discern some deeper meaning to it can be tortuous. How many people marvel at gymnasts at the Olympics? How many of those same people would be taken to a dance piece only to find “I didn’t get it” or “it was a bit weird” because they had assigned it to a different plane of experience?
This isn’t helped by people who write about the arts. Too many times shows are described as “exploring the boundary between such-and-such” or “challenging perceptions around so-and-so” or “a dialogue between artist and performance”. There’s a place for this, but it isn’t in brochures, press releases, anything that the general public are likely to get their hands on. If ever we want the public to shell out to keep our precious arts events afloat, it needs to be made more OK to say, “I loved it. They were throwing some crazy shapes to some funky music. You should go.” Twitter during an episode of Corrie reads along the lines of ‘hes fit’, ‘shes fit’, ‘carnt beleive they did that’ [sic]; during an arts conference it reads as buzzword bingo. Until Twitter starts looking more like the former and less like the latter after a big arts event, however much it may grate on our souls to read it, we are doing something wrong.
Easy money-spinners, like touring musicals and arena-style comics, have none of this cerebral baggage, while ‘difficult’ corners of the arts are made more so by draping them in artspeak. “I love that Michael McIntyre, he’s dead funny” pays the venue’s bills. “McIntyre’s finely-tuned juxtaposition of detonative delivery and unequivocally perspicacious experiential mirthfulness” doesn’t.
You know where you’re at with football. Same shirt, same stadium, same team, ninety minutes of kicking leather, then down the pub to moan about it. All heavily ritualistic. Where is that same sense of ritual in the performing arts? Those of us immersed in it may ritualistically dissect a theatre/cinema/concert hall programme to see what’s coming up, but for those with no reference point, it is just a catalogue of miscellaneous playwrights, directors and performers.
What if, having seen John Byrne’s recently revived The Slab Boys, you thought the guy was the best thing since sliced bread? What if you wanted to binge on Byrne, box-set style? Where do you find the rest of his stuff? When’s his next one on? Who knows – it’s at the whim of artistic directors and theatre companies. Let’s see – next month there’s some ballet, then that comedian you don’t like, then a musical… It could be months or years before someone like that is back through the door. If every month, or quarter, or season, they had another play by this new guy they’ve just found, they would be back, and bring their friends with them.
Venues do have seasons by particular directors or writers, and themed festivals. There was also a recent call by Ali Robertson of Tobacco Factory Theatres for longer runs of shows to familiarise audiences, build up identification with theatre companies and allow word of mouth to spread.
This is good, but why not go further? Why is no-one writing the equivalent of a theatrical soap opera – a Shameless, a Game of Thrones, a Coronation Street – something that would make an excited rabble ritually turn up at the same theatre every season at the same time to see the same characters do more or less the same things?
Every major business – football, coffee shops, supermarkets – succeeds by getting customers to shell out ritualistically for more of the same. I am sickened with myself for paying £60 I can’t afford to see Nick Cave, a man I have seen five times before, at Edinburgh Playhouse next month, but I did it. Even I, with pretensions to musical adventurousness, stump up out of routine. Yet certain sections of the arts are so focussed on putting the new and the challenging out there, they forget to take the rest of the world with them. The arts are only expensive when you don’t know what you’re getting for your money.
Think about it – what’s theatre at its most ritualistic? Panto. And what’s the cash cow in every theatre’s armoury?
None of this should be seen as advocacy for duller, dumber art. Blind populism is not a road the arts should travel. What helps make the arts beautiful and inspirational is innovation, ambition, lack of compromise, variety, perversity, anger, wit, edginess, provocation. But in a climate where developers have one beady eye on historic city centre venues as a nice spot for a block of flats and subsidising a ballet company looks like an unaffordable luxury when A&E queues are out the door, we need to get to grips, fast.
Only three areas of arts subsidy can really, honestly and objectively, pass public muster:
– Seed funding for genuinely new and experimental work
– Safeguarding of core arts provision in areas where economics acts against it (city centres where space is expensive, deprived areas)
– Safeguarding of arts heritage – historic buildings, indigenous artforms.
Let’s admit that all else is frippery unless we can find a way of paying for it ourselves.
This means that if arts leaders want the luxury of programming and creating work they themselves consider valid and inspiring, they also, inconveniently, have to let the sweaty masses in, in whatever guise that takes. For all the well meaning outreach work that is done, I’m not sure some of those at the top stop un-conferencing and latte-sipping long enough to realise what a big, dirty job that is and how much it might mean changing their own ideas and perceptions of value. The focus of some arts debate (witness some of the exchanges on BBC 4’s Arts Question Time) is still on defending public subsidy of ‘high’ art in the face of vast public disinterest.
We need to show, like football did post-Hillsborough and post-Heysel, that we know where our own rotten boroughs are. Football stamped out hooliganism, Showed Racism The Red Card (recent incidents with Chelsea fans notwithstanding), improved safety at grounds and is now reaping the rewards. Fortunately, we have nothing so repugnant as the thuggery seen at football. But the Whiteness and Middle-Classness of our theatres, art galleries and concert halls is our own shame, the fact that we subsidise rich people’s trips to the opera while community centres are axed a truth that dare not speak its name.
Come to terms with all this, change, and the rewards are clear. In football’s change-and-boom cycle, not only did the public get nice new, safe stadiums and sponsors get big screens to hawk products on, but the aesthetes were happy too. Far from dumbing down, football genned up – standards on the pitch have risen greatly, modern managers rule by science and stats and flair, not bullying and belligerence.
Likewise, if the arts shaped up, got real and got the lumpenproletariat in through the front door, it doesn’t necessarily mean a continual diet of X Factor: Live. In the same way that mainstream football sustains whole substrata of associated activity – fanzine writers, geeks compiling stats for computer games, memorabilia collectors – it would be easier to indulge our passions for Tibetan nose flute music or 1920s Polish theatre in an environment where the basic act of going to an arts event is more widespread.
And the money? Nowadays, a fourth tier footballer can earn between £1,300 and £1,500 per week, pay that wouldn’t shame the Chief Exec of a large arts organisation. The ‘struggling artist’ isn’t an inevitability when a clodhopping fullback for Tranmere can earn double the average wage.
No-one in the arts, I imagine, wants the bland certainties and ‘us-and-them’ dunderheadedness that accompany a lot of sport to filter its way into our precious little realm. We are sensitive, we are refined, we are superior, darling. But we do want an environment where our best artists can earn a living at least as well as a fourth tier footballer, where writers and artists don’t have to work call centre jobs so they can continue their work. With society the way it is, arts organisations need to get their teeth into a more lucrative pie quickly. Football, for all its faults, is one example of how to to do this and now offers five billion reasons why that change works.
Maybe one day, Alan Partridge will not be asking “Did you see the match?” but “Did you see the play?”
[Further reading from the literature sector on a not dissimilar topic:
Andy Humphrey on How (Not) To Put A Price On Poetry
Mike Simms on Being A Professional Poet
Kate Fox on Where There’s Poems There’s Brass?]