From the right to offend to cancelling Dickens: culture war conundrums Laurence Fox should consider
Of all the unlikely stories to emerge this year, the fact that Laurence Fox is launching a political party, ‘Reclaim’, is one of the strangest. The actor, who wants to see a return to British values which he feels have been lost by our current politicians, also wants to fight the culture wars which have become intensified since lockdown, particularly in the world of arts and entertainment.
Clearly Fox is a divisive figure and there is a problem that as an actor with privileged connections, he will end up being a figurehead for those in the arts to rail against – further toxifying the debate rather than moving it on. Nevertheless, it is clear that we are at a crisis point, where ideological debate has come to dominate discourse around the arts, at the expense of alternative insights. So what should be top of the Lewis star’s to-do list when considering how to improve our cultural sphere? Here are a few ideas (and knotty problems).
At the top of the list has to be the growing (pernicious) idea that much if not all of the existing canon is disreputable and even discardable on the grounds of being the product or period-relation of patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism (insert whichever lumpen term is most applicable). Just look at the woeful idea embedding itself at Rada that Restoration comedy be abandoned. Fox could in theory insist that as a condition of funding, subsidised theatres should dismantle any incursion of critical race theory into their way of working, and, where not solely devoted to new writing, commit to a minimum quota of works from the thus far established theatrical canon. DC
Distributing fairly what little money the government supplies for culture is a highly sensitive issue for the Arts Council. Opera is particularly vulnerable: inevitably a labour-intensive business, it has always been enormously expensive to mount. It has also suffered through the post-war period from being identified – perhaps falsely – with a relatively small ‘elitist’ audience that is predominantly conservative in its taste, white, middle-class and middle-aged. Yet it also offers experiences of unique intensity and beauty that represent one of the peaks of European culture. Should it continue to consume disproportionate amounts of public subsidy at the expense of more novel and populist art forms? RC
Classical music is deeply embroiled in the culture wars, because it sins three times over: it’s too elitist, too male, and too white. Oh, and too European and evilly colonialist. Should classical music plead guilty to all charges? Well it’s true many really fine BAME classical composers have been shamefully ignored, as have many women. Fox will need to navigate the need not to damn a whole tradition for those sins, given that the ar tform is now striving to put them right. Also call off those who praise any new or rediscovered piece that comes along, just because it ticks the right boxes. That would just replace one sin with another. IH
So, Fox: how about looking at transparency at Britain’s (wonderful) flagship dance company, the Royal Ballet? The overwhelming majority of the best work it performs at Covent Garden (with its annual eight-figure Arts Council subsidy) is more than 40 years old; first-rate new pieces from the past 10 years are countable on one hand. So, exactly why have consistent, proven underachievers such as Alastair Marriott and Liam Scarlett repeatedly been commissioned? (And female choreographers mostly ignored?) And, given that the company told us back in March, after the independent investigation into accusations of impropriety on Scarlett’s part, that there were “no matters to pursue in relation to alleged contact with students of The Royal Ballet School”, exactly why, then, will Scarlett now “no longer work with, or for, The Royal Ballet”? The complete lack of public explanation from company and so-called feed school alike was bizarre. MM
Museums and galleries
Toppled statues, the defacement of Churchill’s doughty bronze likeness in Parliament Square with the graffitied word “racist”, the high-profile demotion – or “re-contextualisation” – within museums of artefacts linked to slavery (e.g., a terracotta bust of the British Museum’s founding father, Hans Sloane): the visual arts have certainly been in the front line of the ongoing culture war in recent months. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, the big question now bedevilling museum directors is: what should we do with all the splendid cultural patrimony in our galleries and stately homes that may be “tainted” by association with the British Empire? Junking it by hiding it in storage betrays our history. Yet, refusing to acknowledge its darker aspects risks gross, damaging insensitivity. How to unravel this Gordian knot? Over to you, Laurence. Good luck! AS
If Fox had control of the Exchequer he could help bring about his desire for “a respectful nation where all are included” by giving large subsidies to publishers who seek out and nurture authors from racial minorities - something publishers are dismally failing to do under their own steam. But the money should come with a condition: publishers must not censor contentious material in any of their authors’ work, discourage authors from writing about characters of a different race, sex or identity from their own, or drop any authors who express cancel-worthy opinions. There is no reason on Earth why active pursuit of diversity and freedom of expression should be incompatible. JK
Another day in film news, another casting controversy over ethnicity or sexuality leading to a mismatch between actor and role. Per current thinking, Scarlett Johansson was too white to play an Asian heroine in The Ghost in the Shell; Eddie Redmayne not trans, and therefore wrong for The Danish Girl. These debates will keep flaring up, but how much more rigidity will casting processes be able to adopt? There’s a lot of resistance to the idea that actors must have the same background or life experience as the person they’re playing. Still, push back too hard, and we risk undoing the industry’s long-awaited diversity drive. Even Fox, who griped about a “token Sikh” actor in 1917, was moved to apologise when the historical statistics were cited against him. And Armando Iannucci’s David Copperfield cleverly did away with “authentic” casting – just in a non-white direction. Fox will need to find a balance between these opposing forces. TR
British costume drama is the envy of the world, but we are running into danger as some of our greatest writers risk cancellation. We may well reach a stage where adaptations of Charles Dickens (now persona non grata for his support of the suppression of the Indian rebellion, among other things) are no longer commissioned by wary executives. This would ignore not only his social campaigning, but the greater emotional truths that we can glean from his works. Fox, of course, would not need to hammer home this point; more that he would emphasise what a new adaptation of Great Expectations or Oliver Twist does, both in world standing and in healthy overseas sales. BL
When it comes to culture on radio, the BBC is the first, and currently only, port of call. Hardly any commercial broadcasters have even tried to make drama, scripted comedy, multi-part documentaries or long-form speech radio in general in this country, so, unlike popular and classical music radio, the BBC doesn’t have any real competition in those areas. Currently there’s not much commercial incentive for anyone else to try, either. However, podcasts are gaining ground, and perhaps a new initiative to support independent podcast production would expand the cultural broadcasting landscape for the better, and broaden the conversation being beamed into people’s homes, workplaces and cars. CR
The hasty removal of shows like Fawlty Towers and Little Britain from streaming platforms in the wake of the uptick in Black Lives Matter protests in the summer points to a wider issue of complainers and pressure groups holding far too much sway over content-providers and thereby comedians. Fox should make the right to give offense an inalienable right of any comedian working in any live or recorded context, provided their material doesn’t qualify as incitement. Comedians must be able to shoot their mouths off for the sake of a laugh, however distasteful their ‘jokes’ may be considered. The only ban should be on overly smirky late-night Radio 4 comedy. DC
Contributors: Dominic Cavendish, Rupert Christiansen, Ivan Hewett, Jake Kerridge, Ben Lawrence, Mark Monahan, Tim Robey, Charlotte Runcie, Alastair Sooke