Odds and sods: January 2019

It’s going to be a short odds and sods this month. Usually by the end of January things have been picking up a bit, but this time round it’s been relatively uneventful, even with news from December to catch up on. So let’s get this over and done with.

Stuff that happened in January

To be honest, much of the news from January is a continuation of developing stories from previous months, so don’t expect any earth-shattering revelations here. There are, however, some changes on the cards that have now been confirmed.

Conrad Nelson moves on

So let’s start with the news I wasn’t expecting this time last year. It was around this time last year that Conrad Nelson was appointed artistic director and joint CEO for 12 months. He (or at least one of him or his wife & indispensable collaborator Deborah McAndrew) was the obvious choice at the time, and I’d assumed that after this 12-month period, it was most likely he’d stay as artistic director and someone else would become a permanent CEO. Then this was all thrown into question when a job advert came out for a new Artistic Director – would Conrad Nelson apply for this? Attempts to track down an answer one way or the other proved inconclusive. I was still leaning towards betting he would apply and Northern Broadsides was merely doing open applications to be fair, but I finally have an answer. It was only an incidental mention in a What’s On article for Yorkshire, but it’s official: he’s not.

In hindsight, the biggest clue that this was going to happen was Nelson and McAndrew setting up Claybody Theatre. Claybody Theatre has a very different scope to Northern Broadsides, being live drama in non-theatre spaces in The Potteries, so there was a conceivable reason to be artistic director of both long-term, but it now looks like Claybody is their long-term aspiration.

So this throws the future of Northern Broadsides wide open. Barrie Rutter and Conrad Nelson both brought unique styles to their plays, both names becoming almost synonymous with Northern Broadsides. That’s not to say this is the last we’ve heard of Nelson/McAndrew/Broadside productions – there’s nothing to stop them doing more in the future. But two plays of theirs in 2018 was an anomaly – prior that it was more like once every two years. So whether or not we see further plays of theirs in the Broadsides programme, the lion’s share of their programme will be in the hands of the new AD. We will know who this is in the next few weeks. What happens after that is anyone’s guess.

Brighton runs getting longer?

We will shortly be getting news on the size of Brighton Fringe’s programme. As always, the question will be whether the UK’s second largest fringe can sustain the expansion of recent years. Last year, it stayed roughly the same size as the year before. This time, with two extra spaces at Junkyard Dogs and one extra space at The Warren (and apparently one space less at Sweet), one would expect the numbers to be pushed upwards. We will find out whether that is the case shortly.

Before then, however, a small observation from the early bird listings. This isn’t based on the most scientific analysis, but it appears that shows at The Warren are now averaging a four performances, whilst a few years ago it was more like two or three. This may have been helped along by the addition of a fifth space allowing more space for slightly longer runs, or there might be other factors, but it’s slowly edging up.

There also seems to be a fair number of four-day runs at Junkyard Dogs too, although this venue is too different from its previous years to make a direct comparison. On the  whole, it seems that Brighton Fringe is – very slowly – moving in the direction of longer runs. If it is, will it settle on four, or will it keep moving to the 7-days runs used as standard by Sweet. We will have to wait a long time before we know the long-term trend, but this could have a big bearing on the shape of the Brighton Fringe of the future.

Buxton Fringe gains the Tap Room

Credit: Stephanie Billen

Meanwhile, over at Buxton, one small but important development from Underground Venues. The blow-by-blow account of what Underground Venues is up to is less important than it used to be, with two other managed venues now on the scene, but they are still the most in-demand venue, so minor changes there can still have a significant bearing on the fringe as a whole. (And yes, the news actually comes from February 1st, but with January being a slow news month, beggars can’t be choosers.)

Ever since Underground Venues moved to the Old Clubhouse and went down from three spaces to two, it’s been an aspiration to get back to full strength. Last year, they advertised the addition of the Tap Room as a possible extra venue, but in the end, that didn’t happen. This time, however, it’s down as a definite. This is advertised as advertised with capacity of “approximately 25-30” and is advertised as suitable for stand-up, spoken word and acoustic musical acts.

Now, before anyone sensationalises this, it is unlikely that performances in The Old Clubhouse are going to suddenly double. It remains to be seem how many acts will apply who are suited to this space. This is different to Pauper’s Pit + Barrel Room where both spaces were fully kitted for tech and had decent space to perform in – for the majority of theatre productions, it’s still the (heavily-contested) Clubhouse main space or bust. It’s also unclear whether

But this could be a big help for solo artists starting off. Buxton is currently top-heavy on big venues – the only other small space in a managed venue is the Workshop Room in the Green Man Gallery, which has limited availability. And even if the Tap Room has a fraction of the use of the main Clubhouse space, this, plus the likely extra acts made possible by the longer fringe, should push up the overall number of acts. It might even break 200. In just under two months we’ll know if it did.

The rise of corporate IP litigation

This last thing isn’t so much breaking news from January, but rather the latest occurrence of something that’s been happening for some time. But the latest incidents are a sign of a practice is becoming a real menace in the arts, and that practice is corporate litigation on intellectual property. The important word is “corporate”. When writers and artists take legal action against someone using their work without permission, few people will dispute their right to do so, either legally or morally. However, the practice I’m talking about here is when a company buys rights to a work, and then uses that to stop anyone else producing that work. They may still be within their rights legally – but morally it a very different matter.

Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird will tour the UK in 2015The event that has brought this issue to light is the cancellation of Jonathan Church Productions’ To Kill a Mockingbird following legal threats from Atticus Limited Liability Company, who are doing a Broadway production and claim to have worldwide rights. Now, it’s not quite a black-and-white case of goodies and baddies here. One obvious question is how a major London theatre came to be producing this show without being certain they had the rights – one would have thought this would be the first thing you’d check. Jonathan Church Productions says they bought the rights from the Dramatic Publishing Company, but the fact they didn’t attempt to fight the Broadway version suggests that didn’t give them the rights they thought it did, and they should have checked harder. But for the Broadway production to demand outright cancellation on the off-chance that they might tour the production to London at an unspecified point in the future and it might harm tickets sales to an unspecified degree – that’s just petty. It’s also somewhat hypocritical to go issuing legal threats when not so long so their own production was being sued by the Harper Lee estate for not keeping sticking to the story. I cannot believe the Harper Lee estate is happy that this same production is now trying to censor more faithful versions.

But the most worrying thing is that this is not a one-off. A similar stunt keeps being tried against Faulty Towers (who I reviewed in 2017 with their other interactive play, The Wedding Reception). Now, it is fair to say that there is a spat between John Cleese and Interactive Theatre International, who produced this unauthorised tribute show. Interactive Theatre International argues that they’re in the clear because their show is not one of his scripts but a homage to the series – even so, had John Cleese gone ahead with his threat to sue, I would have respected his right to do so. But it is not Cleese suing – it is Phil McIntyre entertainments suing, who have bought the rights to their own dining productions and blatantly want to suppress the competition, along with ITI’s other tribute dining experience for Only Fools and Horses. Given Phil McIntyre’s habit of starting their own dining experiences after an unofficial group makes a name for it, one might suspect he favours prefers piggy-backing someone else’s innovation and risk-taking and trying to sue them out of existence over any kind of original creativity. Phil McIntyre argues ITI are causing John Cleese considerable distress. That’s obviously bollocks. John Cleese might not like Faulty Towers, but he’s the last person who requires protection from hurt feelings. One common factor in both cases is that the litigators are never happy to keep their dispute with the alleged copyright infringer too – they also go after all the venues hosting these shows, threatening either their own lawsuits or withdrawing their own acts. That strongly suggests – in common with the tactics of most censors – they prefer causing the weakest links to capitulate that fight a straight battle in court.

However, the most disgraceful case of all is Hatchette Book Group. Like Atticus Limited Liability and Phil MacIntyre, they buy rights to other people’s works and then make legal threats against competition. Hatchette Book Group, however goes one step and made legal claims where – in all probability – they knew the law didn’t back them up. This was against a small-time fringe group doing a parody of Enid Blyton named Five Go Off On One: A Jolly Good Romp Through Childhood. This time, I have no doubt they would have lost had it gone to court – parody is now covered under fair use – but who needs the law behind you when you can afford expensive lawyers to intimidate a small group into submission? It’s not clear whether or not they fancy themselves as the saviours of Enid Blyton’s hurt feelings, but it’s pretty obvious they wanted to kill all competition for their own Enid Blyton parody books, the latest in a series of uninspired copycats dating back to Mirian Elia’s ladybird parody – and ironically also the subject of ropey legal threats.

There probably isn’t a single solution to this – this is a mixture of disproportionate responses to valid legal claims and outright abuse of power. But the one thing the arts world could do is make a pariah out of anyone who behaves this way. Phil MacIntyre wouldn’t be nearly so ligitous if all his other acts found new producers. But sadly there’s little hope of this happening. We know from the reaction to Penguin and their massive hypocrisy of the ladybird parodies that too many artists are silent when it suits their mates, or, worse, support the corporate litigators when the victim is someone they don’t like. This is way one-off outrage over To Kill a Mockingbird is not enough. As long as we spend the rest of the time ignoring or excusing this behaviour, the Atticus Limited Liability Companies of the world will know they can get away with it. Forever.

Things I wrote in December and January

Two by Two Pints: Reviews of three plays: Two, a safe bet at the Gala done well; Two Pints, a touring play supported by Live Theatre that didn’t quite work for me; and Talking Heads, a good production but not best suited to this kind of theatre.

Odds and sods: November 2018: Like this one. But November.

They Don’t Pay, We Won’t Pay – but what does it say?: I’m a big fan on Nelson/McAndrew plays – but, for once, I felt They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! was let down by over-reliance on slapstick.

The Lovely Bones: down to earth: I liked The Lovely Bones though – a play faithful to the book and quite cleverly staged.

Chris Neville-Smith’s 2018 Awards: Then it was time for this. A lot of good stuff to choose from, but in the end best fringe production went to Vivian’s Music, 1969 and best production went to The Great Gatsby.

The Wind in the Willows: the wildest wild woods: Review of the new Vic’s Christmas family show – good job done in spite of a last-minute rearrangement of cast.

What’s worth watching: Vault Festival 2019: New article now that I recognise enough shown in the Vault programme to make some recommendations.

Clear White Light: more Poe please: Live Theatre had a sell-out with an adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher – but I wasn’t quite convinced by change to the story ending.

What’s worth watching: winter/spring 2019: Rest of the recommendations apart from the Vault.

I’ve one last review article to catch up on, then it’s time to get cracking again. Have fun.

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