There is an accusation levelled against theatre that it’s ‘not for the masses’.
When Margaret Thatcher was buried, the funeral cost ten million pounds. When the Arts Council budget for the entire country for the fiscal year was announced, it had been slashed by eleven million pounds. Again.
Every year publishers seek this year’s success, and they model it on last year’s triumphs. Thus – vampires were popular in 2010, so the shelves were flooded with rip-offs in 2011. Bondage and sex was popular in 2011, so the shelves were flooded with the same in 2012.
It’s not about what we want, say the makers of TV soaps, the producers of glittering musicals and the producers of mild porn. It’s about what people want.
To which I say: enough.
I love my trashy TV, my entertaining books, silly films. I lounge in the sun and read comic books, tune in for Dr Who, turn up the radio for harmless rock.
And I love theatre. I believe that Shakespeare is one of the greatest writers in human history, that politics are for the masses, documentary should be complicated and challenging and that it would be a brave publisher in this day and age who promoted Catch 22 or 1984 over the next Fifty Shades of Whatever. My views are not elitist. It is not elitist to love good books, or be moved by a brilliant story. It is not elitist to be frightened for a character, concerned for an outcome, to be moved by music or enthralled by fact. It is not elitist to enjoy complexity, or to say that this is to your taste, and that is not, without reducing the entirely subjective thing you dislike.
And it is offensive – so unbelievably offensive – to say that there is such a thing as a ‘lowest common denominator’ in culture. How will this play, ask producers and executives, but how will this play to the stay-at-home Mum? How will this play to Middle England Grandmas, how will this play to the 18-something demographic with their iPods and smart shoes?
How repulsive – how utterly demeaning it is that those who hold the reigns of cultural power in our society ask such a question. How angry every stay-at-home Mum must be, every Gran and every iPod owner to hear themselves so grouped and demeaned by the notion that theatre is not for them, that they will not love this thing for it is elitist. Beyond their scope and their reach. So let us promote the next Fifty Shades of Whatever; let’s make sure that the world knows the airing times for Eastenders but that no one’s challenged by a documentary with too much content. Let’s simplify the news in case people get bored, let’s cut back on theatres and spend the money instead, on a day of spectacle that comes and goes with as much significance as match in the rain. Let’s fill our newspapers with celebrity tattle and not distract anyone with stories of global significance, because this is not what people want. It’s too elitist.
To which I say: to hell with that. Because time and again our culture has proven that it can love stories which are beautiful, not merely spectacular. We are held enthralled by intelligence, we – the great big ‘we’ that is far too big a demographic to be easily contained, the great big ‘we’ of a species that thinks for itself – we can delight in so many things that are powerful, not merely punchy. Yet now, where there were just a few tabloid newspapers satisfying our guilty pleasure – and it is a pleasure, and that is fine – our guilty pleasure for celebrity tit-bits and catchy headlines about stranded cats – now they are everywhere and it isn’t simply that we want a little more complexity in our lives, it’s that more and more, no one seems willing to give it. No one will promote the complicated thing; no one will risk putting the difficult story on the shelves. How much longer, I wonder, until as a society we fulfil George Orwell’s prophecy and take not-thinking for granted?