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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Tessa Blackstone - The Red Baroness swoops in

By Norman Lebrecht / June 27, 2001

IF there is one member of the second Blair Government who knows whereof she speaks, it is Tessa Blackstone, Baroness of Stoke Newington. The new minister for the arts sat for 10 years on the board of the beleaguered Royal Opera House, six of them as chair of the Royal Ballet. No need to submit her to an arts quiz. She knows the repertoire better than the present Covent Garden chairman, Sir Colin Southgate, whose tenure is now in her gift.

Blackstone is Tony Blair's sop to the luvvie lobby, a token of reassurance after he dropped the sympathetic Chris Smith from Culture, Media and Sport in favour of the apathetic Tessa Jowell, whose four years as minister for public health and women's roles made no appreciable impact. Blackstone, at Education, was busily scrapping student grants and introducing unpopular AS-levels.

Life is not fair. Jowell got rewarded with the Cabinet seat and big salary, while Blackstone gets tickets to the Halle - or so it must seem. In practice, the two Tessas will be more closely interknit. Blackstone will cover all departmental questions in the Lords, while Jowell will be primus inter pares in relation to her ministerial team. "Tessa said to me, we're doing this job together, it's a partnership," says Blackstone.

It is too soon to talk policy. Two weeks in office, Blackstone is still reading her way in. The department was almost abolished in pre-election leaks. It has no permanent secretary and has been foisted with additional ragbag responsibilities for gambling, licensing, film censorship, horse racing and the Queen's Golden Jubilee. Top of its agenda is a rebranding. Jowell would like to be in charge of a Department of Free Time. Who wouldn't?

The only action so far has been an order to the Arts Council of England to freeze its presumptuous abolition of regional arts boards, a decision that outraged local councils and was sprung on Smith at short notice.

"One of the first things on Tessa Jowell's and my desks was to ask both sides to sit down together and try to find a way through," says Blackstone. "The abolition is on hold. It is not in the interest of the arts to have a terrible struggle taking place between the Arts Council and the regions."

Her tone is censorious. The Red Baroness, as she was known in academia, is not renowned for taking prisoners. While she approves of cuts in arts bureaucracy, she dislikes the ACE's grab for power. "The aim must be that more money ends up in the hands of the people who are putting on artistic endeavours," she stipulates.

Smith, who emasculated the ACE by keeping his door open to arts chiefs, toyed with eventual abolition. Blackstone is less radical. "I doubt if I'll come to that conclusion," she says drily. "I need a bit more time to see it in operation."

Landing on her desk any day now, she knows, will be the fetid mess of the South Bank Centre, a Labour emblem whose redevelopment has been stalled by procedural disputes and personal tiffs between its sluggish board, her department and the ACE. The best British art seldom reaches the regions and the BBC will need a good bashing to restore culture to television. Blackstone has sat on the BBC's advisory council and knows the channel controllers' egregious ways.

She is more Old Labour than New, all high culture and no Cool Britannia. Don't ask her what's in the charts or on the catwalks. A Cabinet Office adviser under James Callaghan, she rose through the LSE and the turbulent ILEA to become Master of Birkbeck College at the University of London. Brought onto a creaking ROH board by an academic mentor, Sir Claus Moser, she introduced herself to grandees as a former usherette and cloakroom attendant.

"I used to do it to see the Bolshoi," she relates. "We were paid 12/6 (63p) a night. I got to know the opera house from below and above. It was appalling that the amphitheatre had a separate entrance from the upper levels. What's great about the new opera house is that the divisions are all gone. I think the atmosphere is less elitist than it was."

"Appalling" is a pet word. She snapped it out on the BBC's docu-soap, The House, to gagging noises from the board. She was forever having to defend ballet rights from encroachments by the opera majority. "She was staunch," says a Royal Ballet source. "I was," she agrees, grimly. "I fought for them. I really did."

Finding the ballet squeezed to 104 ROH nights a year, she pushed the troupe out on tour to renew its national roots. She also came up with Chance to Dance, the education initiative that put prima ballerinas on some of London's worst estates.

"I claim credit for having the idea," she says. "Seeing this wonderful mix of children from every ethnic group, seeing their enjoyment and the benefit they got from the discipline of ballet - that I found really moving. I am going to go back quite soon, and I hope I can persuade Tessa Jowell to come with me, because the Royal Ballet are doing it now in her constituency, Southwark."

The e-word, however, often applied to Covent Garden in her day, continues to irk. "Was it elitist?" she wonders. "The perception was far worse than the reality. I would say to everybody who thinks about going, don't be put off by the elitist image - go. If you can afford it, of course. There are always some seats that people can afford, unless they are really on the poverty line."

Shortly before the 1997 election, expecting to serve in government, she left the ROH. After a short hiatus, the ballet chairmanship passed to her then companion, John Eatwell. "I had absolutely no involvement," she declares. Eatwell is now a prime candidate to succeed the bumbling Southgate as ROH chairman. This could prove a testing choice for the new arts minister.

Although she was gone by the time Covent Garden crashed in a welter of financial and managerial crises at the end of 1997, she shares responsibility for a decade of dither. Typically for a tribal politician, she heaps the blame on "Tory underfunding" and maintains the ROH is now "adequately financed" under Labour.

While welcoming the current inrush of private cash, she remains an old-fashioned interventionist who believes in the state's duty to support art. The proportion of public funding in the budgets of national companies, she insists, must not fall below present levels of around 40 per cent. She is an access fanatic, eager to bring the best to the most.

This loyal, glamorous, idealistic and acerbically intelligent think-tanker has been demonstrably under-rewarded with two junior posts when the Cabinet is not overflowing with intellect. If she feels hard done by, Tessa Blackstone does not let on. She has, at least, been allowed to work with what she knows and, when she refers to "the other Tessa", it is without a twitch of envy. "I have been very lucky," she laughs. "In my case, I think Tony has shown genius in putting a round peg in a round hole twice running."

But, at 58, she must feel that promotion has finally passed her by. No one ever rises from this Department of Leisure, or whatever. Its Trafalgar Square office is the death row of political ambition. On the other hand, to a restless mind like Blackstone's, a last post might represent an opportunity - another pet word - to reform the doddering arm's-length ethic of Keynesian subsidy and replace it with an edifice better suited to a multi-cultural society.

Somehow, I do not expect this minister to give the arts establishment an easy time.

14 June 2001: The problem with Chris Smith - he was just too effective
6 June 2001: 'We stand for excellence' [article about current state of ROH]
7 June 1997: The dark lady of New Labour [interview with Tessa Blackstone]

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999