Curb Your Enthusiasm
Monday 21st January 2008

Season six of Curb Your Enthusiasm debuts on More4 this evening at 10.35pm. Click here for a good piece about Curb in Saturday’s Guardian or here for my fawning Larry David tribute that appeared in the Independent on Sunday in 2006.


Should Theatre be Subsidised?
Monday 21st January 2008

Britain’s luvvies are currently up in arms about the Arts Council’s proposed funding cuts to various regional theatres. They are concerned that many of the venues that depend on Arts Council subsidies — such as the Bristol Old Vic, the Northcott Theatre in Exeter and the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond — will be forced to close if their annual grants are cut. (For a summary of the proposal and its likely impact on six performing arts centres, see this piece by Laura Barnett in last week’s Guardian.)

I’m skeptical about this. Surely, the theatres in question will only go out of business if they continue to put on plays that fail to capture the public’s imagination. It is only because they don’t sell enough tickets that they’re forced to depend on state handouts. If the artistic directors responsible for programming these venues were a little more in touch with the taste of ordinary theatregoers, their survival wouldn’t be in jeopardy.

The standard reply to this argument is that adopting such a safe, commercial approach would inevitably lead to the end of the risk-taking that is a necessary condition of creative vitality. In this light, subsidized theatres are the laboratories in which young writers and innovative directors are free to experiment. The vast majority of these productions will fail to put bums on seats, but some will be such artistic successes that they will go on to play to packed houses in the West End. A case in point is Jerry Springer: The Opera, which began life at the heavily-subsidized Battersea Arts Centre. (For a version of this argument, see this piece by Richard Morrison in Saturday’s Times.)

I’m not convinced. Take the Menier Chocolate Factory. This 200-seat venue, which opened in 2004, is among the two or three most successful fringe theatres in the UK and yet it has never received a penny of public funding. The production of Dealer’s Choice that is currently playing at Trafalgar Studios began life at the Menier, as did the production of Sunday in the Park With George that is about to open on Broadway. It’s latest production — a revival of La Cage aux Folles — has received glowing reviews and will almost certainly transfer to the West End later this year.

While the Menier’s success can partly be chalked up to the entrepreneurial zeal of its two founders, David Babani and Danielle Tarento (who run a 60-seat restaurant alongside the theatre), it also finds space for new work in its repertoire. In 2005, for instance, a play by Ryan Craig called What We Did to Weinstein was short-listed for the Evening Standard’s “Most Promising Playwright” award. It is doubtful that the Menier would have been so artistically successful if its directors had the safety net of an Arts Council grant.

The real dispute here isn’t between commercially-minded philistines and high-minded theatre-lovers. Rather, the issue turns on who you consider the best judges of artistic merit: the theatre-going public or a bunch of Government-appointed apparatchiks. The success of the Menier chocolate Factory implies it is the former.


The Culture Show
Thursday 17th January 2008

This Saturday’s episode of The Culture Show, the BBC arts programme, contained a 10-minute film about the making of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. For those who are interested in seeing it, click here and fast forward to the 22 minutes, 20 seconds mark.


The Cold War Revisited
Saturday 12th January 2008
With five Golden Globe nominations and seven nominations on the Bafta long list, Charlie Wilson’s War looks set to be one of the big winners of the awards season. This is partly thanks to the star turns delivered by Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but also because it harkens back to a period in America’s post-war history when its foreign policy commanded much more support. It is the first example of what may become a new cultural trend: Cold War nostalgia.
Charlie Wilson’s War is a lighthearted romp — based on a true story — about the part played by a renegade Congressman in kicking the Russians out of Afghanistan. Charlie Wilson was a hard-partying member of the House of Representatives who, in addition to being implicated in a number of scandals, was instrumental in increasing the budget for the CIA’s covert funding of the Afghan Mujahideen. If any single individual can be credited with bringing down the Soviet Union, Charlie Wilson is that man.

What is fascinating about the film is its completely revisionist attitude towards the Cold War. The conventional view of this conflict, as propagated by novelists like John Le Carre, is that it was characterized by deep psychological unease and moral uncertainty in which both the Soviet Union and its Western opponents were fatally compromised. Not so, according to Charlie Wilson’s War, which depicts the 1980s as a period of almost carefree innocence. Back then, we knew who are enemies were, we knew where they were and, most importantly, we knew how to defeat them. Contrast this with the geopolitical quagmire we find ourselves in today.

Of course, one of the main reasons we can now look back on the Cold War era as the Good Old Days is because the West came out on top. Waging a covert military operation — and winning it — seems infinitely preferable to waging an actual war and losing it. Nowhere is this more apparent than if you contrast the record of the West’s intelligence services in Afghanistan in the 1980s with the record of their armed services in the same region twenty years later. How could a few well-placed operatives mastermind a successful war against the Soviet Union, while the combined might of our armed forces be humbled by a handful of Islamists? No wonder we feel nostalgic about the recent past.

The other appealing thing about Charlie Wilson’s War is that it conjures up a period when the public did not require its leaders to be quite so virtuous. Wilson’s scandalous personal life didn’t stop the voters of Texas’s 2nd Congressional District re-electing him (and nor should it have done). Perhaps the lesson is that if we want to win the War Against Terror we’ll have to replace men like George W Bush and Tony Blair with men more like Charlie Wilson.


Things to Look Forward to in 2008
Monday 7th January 2008
Only a fool would recommend something he hasn’t seen or heard yet, but hope springs eternal. So here are the things I’m most looking forward to in 2008:

1. Charlie Wilson’s War. A political comedy in which a corrupt congressman finds redemption by helping the Mujahideen kick the Russians out of Afghanistan. With Tom Hanks as the hard-partying Congressman, Philip Seymour Hoffman as a renegade CIA officer and Julia Roberts as a rich widow. Opens Jan 11.

2. The Vertical Hour. I prefer David Hare when he’s got his reporter’s notebook in hand than when he’s inventing things out of whole cloth and The Vertical Hour falls into the latter camp. To make matters worse, a production has already been staged on Broadway where it opened to lukewarm reviews two years ago. Nevertheless, it will still be worth a look. Opens Jan 17.

3. Uncle Vanya. Peter Hall directs a new translation of Chekhov’s masterpiece at the Rose Theatre, Kingston. With Nicholas Le Prevost in the central role, this promises to be the theatrical event of the year. Opens Jan 25.

4. Juno. After the success of Knocked Up, you’d have to be a very confident director indeed to attempt another romantic comedy revolving around an unwanted pregnancy. Luckily, Jason Reitman is that man. Released February 8.

5. Major Barbara. Nicholas Hytner directs Simon Russell Beale, Clare Higgins and Hayley Atwell in a revival of Shaw’s provocative attack on high-minded do-goodery. Opens March 4.

6. Something to Tell You. More middle-aged angst from Hanif Kureishi, this time in the form of a novel set in Shepherd’s Bush about a successful psychoanalyst struggling to come to terms with the sins of his youth. Published March 6.

7. The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Anthony Minghella directs this one-off BBC adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith’s novel from a script by Richard Curtis. March.

8. The Second Plane. Martin Amis’s fiction may not be what it once was, but, as a critic and polemicist, he is as strong as ever. The centerpiece of this collection is ‘Terror and Boredom’, a long essay on the West’s inability to respond to the challenge posed by Islamic fundamentalism. April.

9. The Dark Knight. British director Christopher Nolan just gets better and better and this follow-up to Batman Returns looks set to be the biggest blockbuster of the summer. Opens July 25.

10. How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. It’s shameless, I know, but the thing I’m most looking forward to in 2008 is the big-screen adaptation of my own best-selling memoir about working for Vanity Fair in New York. Starring Simon Pegg, Kirsten Dunst and Jeff Bridges. Opens October 3.

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