My questions for Manchester Art Gallery

All right, Manchester Art Gallery, seems like you want a discussion after all. I’ll give you a chance.

For anyone unfamiliar with my current bugbear, so far this year I’ve been mostly complaining about Manchester Art Gallery and their stupid stunt to remove a beloved by the people of Manchester, in order to – so they claim – start a conversation. I am amongst the large majority of respondents who opposed to it. I wrote at length about my issues here; I won’t go over this again, but the TLDR version is that, at best, the Gallery staff showed no interest in any views different to their own, and, at worst, this was testing the water to see how far they could go with culture policing. But that’s old news now. What riled me more was their behaviour after they made (were forced into?) the decision to restore the painting. After thanking everyone for Contributing To The Debate™, they spent a month behaving like nothing had happened, then proceeded to do a series of interviews and articles that pretty much dismissed all the opposition as online abuse. Most suspiciously, they promised release information shortly about a panel debate that would invite speakers with a range of views. Three months later, with not a peep from the gallery about this, suspicion grew they decided asking other people for their opinions was a mistake and they hoped they could drop the debate quietly without anyone noticing.

But wait. On the 17th May, Manchester Art Gallery had their debate after all. The kept their promise. Well, some of it. Releasing information about the debate three months after it was originally announcing isn’t exactly a time-frame I’d call “shortly”. As for the wide range of views – not a chance. The panel was Alistair Hudson, the director of the gallery, and Clare Gannaway, the curator who championed the removal. They wanted to include a third panellist, Ellen Mara De Wachter, who wrote a, shall I say, “interesting” takes on this stunt, rebranding what most of use consider to be cultural authoritarism as “curatorial activism“, but she had to cancel. Regardless, this is a far cry from their original commitment to invite “inviting speakers with a broad spectrum of opinions”, and it didn’t exactly fill me with confidence that they believe in open debate.

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Stop treating Quentin Letts as a reviewer. Please.

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Quentin Letts, smirking with the news that yet another article’s been written about him, yesterday.

Quentin Letts has the right to say what he likes about a play. The rest of us should exercise our right to not listen to him.

Okay Quentin, you win, you bastard. I’ve been ignoring you for months knowing that any response to what you write is exactly what you want to happen. But since everyone else (pretty much) took the rage-bait, it won’t make any difference – you’ve already got the attention you ordered. I’m relenting, damn you.

So, as it’s pretty much impossible to not have heard already, the thing that set this all off was a review he wrote (content warning: Daily Mail sidebar) of a production of The Fantastic Follies of Mrs. Rich, where he questioned whether an actor, Leon Wringer, he believed to be miscast got the part because he was black. Cue outrage from everyone. Now, I have a rule that when someone is getting dogpiled, however much the brought it on themselves, I try my best to be fair. For what it’s worth, I can’t comment on this particular production having not seen it; but in the six years I’ve been running this blog I’ve seen a lot of plays cast ethnic minority actors in a part previously assumed to be white, and I’ve never once felt the play was worse because of it. However, that’s just my opinion, and if Mr L genuinely thinks otherwise, he is within his rights to say this.

However, I don’t actually believe what he writes has much to do with what he really thinks. For one thing, his reasoning was pretty flimsy. You might just have an argument if they cast someone who couldn’t act, but Letts’s argument is that the male love interests weren’t sexy enough. Physical attraction is subjective enough as it is, but to then extrapolate that into saying someone was a racial quota filler? Even Quentin must have known how weak an argument that is. And for another thing, Quentin Letts has a long track record of saying things that get reactions. He’s made a series of borderline pervy comments in reviews, but this passage from a review of Salome (content warning: more Daily Mail sidebar) takes the biscuit: Continue reading

Why you should worry about the Hylas takedown

Waterhouse Hylas painting obscured by Mary Whitehouse saying

COMMENT: The high-profile removal of a popular painting has backfired very badly. But this should be a wake-up call over a new emerging threat to artistic freedom.

Grief, what were they thinking? If you witnessed the unfolding public reaction to removal of a much-loved painting from a northern gallery, a thought of that nature probably crossed your mind. Manchester Art Gallery says it’s delighted that they provoked such depth and breadth of feeling amongst the public, but when the vast majority of comments outright opposed the removal – with various unflattering remarks regarding the gallery’s management – it’s clear they’re in full-on damage control. And to anyone with the slightest grasp of public opinion, it was pretty obvious what would happen, especially when your reasons for doing it smack of moralising. It was completely unavoidable, and it’s an unmitigated disaster.

Or is it? Some people suspect – given the level of idiocy required to not realise how badly this would go down – that this was their plan all along. Perhaps it was all a publicity stunt. After all, a lot more people know about this painting now than before. And it might have been, but I can think of two other possibilities as to their true motives. One possible motive is a little more concerning than a publicity stunt, and the other one is a lot more concerning. Continue reading

Goodbye panto, hello farce

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UPDATE: Most of you looking for this article will know this already: but there is one small but important clarification to make. This story, along with everything else written at the time, said Denise Welch quit the show. We now know this is disputed: Denise Welch has since said she was sacked after threatening to speak out. Doesn’t change what I wrote, but something to bear in mind. Will update on all the shennagins soon.

Sorry to burden you with another Pantogate article. I wrote one, and thought that would be enough. But that was before the shit really hit the fan. Oh boy. Just when everyone thought things had settled down at Times Square Panto after the celebrity walkout, it came to a head on the last day with another walkout, only this time, it was enough to get the last two performances cancelled. It would be extremely tempting at this stage for me to say “I told you this would happen,” but that wouldn’t be truthful. In all honesty, I never for a moment imagined things would get this bad.

I have a rule on this blog (indeed with life in general) that I don’t kick public figures when they’re down. For reason I’ll come on to in a moment, I think the game is up for Times Square Panto, so there’s little point dogpiling any further. All it’s fair to do now is sum up what happened and ask what lessons can be learned. However, some questions need asking over how this was allowed to get to this point. Had there been some more vigilance, I have doubts it would ever have had to come to this.

What happened

Okay, let’s start at the beginning. Oh boy.

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(Updated) Pantodrome owes us an explanation

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UPDATE 18/12/07: I’m putting an update at the top of an article because I confess I missed one important detail. It doesn’t make anything I said below wrong as such, but it does change the emphasis quite a bit, and arguably answers the questions, at least the important ones. My partial excuse for missing this is that when I’m dealing with unreliable sensationalist publications, I skim though the opening paragraphs until I reach the quotes to find out exactly who said what. On this occasion, by doing that, I missed an important detail in the heading. I said that there was an claim (unverified) that cast weren’t being paid. However, the opener to the article is more specific. That says Denise Welch herself wasn’t paid.

An important difference here is that this claim is not quoted as an anonymous source: The Sun has stated it as fact. In this turns out to be a lie, it’s unlikely The Sun can weasel out by saying they were only reporting what an unnamed source said. My reading of the article is that it’s reporting as fact that Welch wasn’t paid, and an anonymous source alleges (unverified) that other people weren’t paid too. However, there is a possibility that when they say “cast were paid late or not at all”, by “cast” they mean Denise Welch only. It would be incredibly dishonest if they were misleading readers by passing off a personal pay dispute between Welch and Pantodrome as something wider, beyond the pale by any journalistic standards. There again, this is The Sun, so who knows?

However, this does give Times Square Panto a legit reason to avoid addressing allegations over pay. As it now looks that a pay dispute would be a major factor in any upcoming legal scuffles, you probably don’t want to undermine your own case by talking about the alleged disputes with the rest of the cast. It doesn’t get them off the hook on the issue of payment itself, but it does at least explain why this has been left off the public statements so far.

I’m done asking questions, I’m not going to ask any more. My advice for Times Square Panto would be as follows: in order, settle up any pay grievances with the rest of the cast ASAP, then resolve matters with Denise Welch, then come clean over what went wrong. Doesn’t have to be a comprehensive list of faults, but it’s in their interests to convince us that lessons are learnt and it won’t happen again. Because whatever the truth is about the pay allegations, it’s going to come out anyway – if not in the press or in court, it surely will on the actors’ grapevine. It won’t pay to ignore this indefinitely.

UPDATE #2 (30/12/07): Oh dear. Not looking good. According to the Evening Chronicle, the last two performances were cancelled due to a walkout over pay. And there was me starting to think I’d been too harsh on Times Square Panto.

Original article follows; please read it in context of this above …

COMMENT: We don’t know who is at fault for the fiasco surrounding Denise Welch’s departure from Times Square Panto. But staying silent over the allegations is not an acceptable response.

Panto is the last thing I’d expect to cover here. In general, I avoid them like the plague, because – with a few honorable exceptions – I find most of them to be predictable and formulaic. If anything, my favourite memories of panto are the ones I used to watch in Saltburn. They were sometimes great, sometimes abominable, but they were always different. Certainly not like the big-budget professional ones where, I have to say, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

Another thing that’s a big turn-off for me is celebrity names. I look at all these big names on posters and usually go “Who? … Who? …  Who?” Theatre outside of London is largely spared the marking based on who’s been in which soap and who’s appearing in I’m a Celebrity Strictly Come Dancing on Ice Factor, but I don’t see why a show is going to be any better just because the principals are famous for things other than theatre. At least when the leads are played by unknowns you’re giving someone a chance for their big break instead someone who’s already got theirs.

However, I accept that panto-haters like me are the minority, and I accept that pantomimes make a lot of money so that theatres can afford to run the rest of the year. And if casting soap stars and reality stars means they make even more money, so be it. As such, it’s not really my business to comment on how pantomimes should be run, and if what happened at Times Square Panto was just another celebrity strop, I would take no notice.

But this goes deeper than whether Denise Welch plays Mother Nature in Jack and the Beanstalk. This is a potentially a matter of employment rights of actors. So I’m going to stick in my oar whether I’m welcome or not. I want some answers, and at the moment we’re not getting any. Continue reading

What can we do about the Weinstein scandal?

COMMENT: There are a lot of things we can do to try to stop sexual predators in film and theatre. We should not let it turn into weirdo-bashing.

So, it looks like we a Jimmy Savile Mark II on our hands. One news story on reports of sexual assault by a powerful public figure have snowballed into a vast number of stories, both of the original person and other people in similar professions. Before we go any further, it is important to do this properly: as it stands, all of these reports are at allegation stage. Harvey Weinstein denies them, and we have yet to see what emerges in the legal process. However, based on the evidence that’s emerged so far (and also his own flimsy response) it’s not looking good. And even if it does somehow turn out that Weinstein is telling the truth and all these sexual acts were consensual, that is still a massive abuse of a position of power.

Naturally there has been a lot of reaction to this. And, of course, the conversation has spread to theatre. Some responses inside and outside theatre, sadly, are opportunistic rhetoric to use the scandals to push pre-existing agendas. However, on the whole, the discussion in UK theatre has been pretty, and an event held at The Royal Court appears to have handled the matter well. Continue reading

Edinburgh needs to become evangelical

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Vice-Pope Eric explaining the true meaning of the Edinburgh Fringe, yesterday.

COMMENT: The Edinburgh Fringe’s renewed commitment to open access is welcome – but they badly need to sell this benefit to other festivals.

In the legendary Brand New Monty Python Papperbok, there’s a panel discussion where Vice-Pope Eric explains the Catholic Church’s current position on sex and marriage. He explains that whilst their stance on sex outside marriage is well-known, what currently concerns them is the uncontrolled prevalence of sex within marriage. That’s not to say they oppose it outright – like it or not, it remains the best method for procreation; whilst they prefer Immaculate Conception to be used wherever possible, the Vatican has been forced to turn a blind eye to this matter, but only for outnumbering purposes mind, never for fun. When queried about where this was mentioned in Jesus’s teachings, however, his Vice Holiness admits that it wasn’t in his teachings as such, but it was an oversight they were quite happy to correct, by using St. Paul’s later writings and passing that off as Jesus’s own words quite successfully.

The relevance to the Edinburgh Fringe might not be immediately relevant here, but bear with me.

When Shona McCarty took over as the new chief executive of the Edinburgh Fringe, the first thing she did was stress her commitment to keeping the fringe open access. One year on, and it looks like she means business here. I’ve been a little sarcastic over the catchphrase “Alliance of Defiance” (a bit difficult to portray yourself as anti-establishment when you are the establishment), but I fully agree with the sentiment behind it: the true roots of the fringe is those original eight groups who turned up to Edinburgh in defiance of the International Festival who wouldn’t programme them and expected them to stay home. This story, along with the bit that these eight groups received no encouragement from the rest of the arts world, even appears on the website to all new visitors. Continue reading