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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Only one man can save the South Bank - and that's Mandelson

By Norman Lebrecht / January 16, 2002

The Hartlepool MP has the vision to transform the beleaguered centre into a gleaming popular attraction.

THERE is something to be said for cronies. When a leader appoints his chums to public positions, it is reasonable to assume that they will have ready access to the seat of power. If Caligula's horse needed more hay for the Senate, he knew where to get it.

The difference with Tony's cronies is that, once appointed, they only ever get to see the ruler on CNN, like the rest of us. That's how it works in the arts, at least, where New Labour gave the two top jobs to party donors and promptly cut off their hotlines. This was a clever ploy: it made them try harder to please.

Royal Opera House chairman Sir Colin Southgate whirled aimlessly for a while, running through three chief executives before hauling in Tony Hall from BBC News to sedate the house and put a positive spin on its vapours. The sight of BBC News vox-popping a black opera-goer after Luciano Pavarotti's jurassic Tosca was testament to a PC job well done. Ethnic opera fans are few and far between, especially on £250-seat nights. But the cameras were pointed towards a token guest and the correct New Labour image was delivered. Never mind that the stage machinery keeps breaking down and the stalls reek of kitchen smells. Sir Colin can now gracefully leave the stage - his successor is being actively sought - without having tackled any of Covent Garden's embedded deficiencies.

His triumph has been matched by Gerry Robinson at the Arts Council of England. The ACE used to debate arts provision and priorities. Under Robinson's twinkling eye, it has become a desert island for BBC castaways and Blairite policy wonks.

Its attempt to centralise arts power in London by scrapping regional boards, hilariously botched, is under costly revision. Its lifeboat service is charmingly capricious. Liverpool's orchestra was "saved" with a £5 million ACE "stabilisation grant", only to need £2 million more; now the Hanover Band, based in Hove, is about to go under, owing players up to £10,000 each in unpaid fees.

The ACE has ignored Hanoverian appeals. A policy change, it seems, rules out grants to period-instrument orchestras. Why? That's policy. Does Parliament have a say in it? Don't be silly. This is a crony protectorate.

The next sinecure in line is the South Bank Centre, a concrete slurry-heap that has failed in 15 years to come up with a credible development plan. It has neither a chief executive nor a functioning chairman in the absence of Elliot Bernerd, who has been undergoing cancer treatment in the US. One of his deputies, Maya Even, faced a Commons committee grilling yesterday on the delays, along with Robinson, who is regarded by members of the South Bank Board as the principal impediment to progress.

The ailing Bernerd was due to address the board last night for the first time in months, as soundings were being taken on a successor. First up is Lord Hollick, a generous donor to New Labour, who has been asking friends whether he should take the job. Some wonder whether the job is right for a man who sold Express Newspapers to a soft-pornographer and his ITV stake to Gerry Robinson's grunged-down Granada. If media fare has degenerated in the past decade, blame bottom-liners like Robinson and Hollick.

The Hollicks are well known around Notting Hill for their elevated cultural interests. Lady Hollick chairs the London Arts Board, a parochial body that she has turned into a flaming scimitar of equal opportunities, assessing artistic merit by ethnic representation.

So can Lord Hollick redeem the South Bank and revive the Festival Hall as a stage where artists are pleased and proud to perform? He has not been formally offered the job, but members of the existing board are queuing up to resign.

At this juncture, only one man can save the South Bank. You may know the name. His grandfather built the venue as a public utility. He booked it for New Labour's coming-to-power party in May 1997. Step forward Peter Mandelson, Tony's king crony and ex-chairman of the all-parliamentary music group. The Hartlepool MP may be in political exile, but he has not lost the PM's ear. He needs to regain public favour before he can resume high office.

Here's his chance. Let Mandelson reclaim the South Bank as family heritage and convert it with all the touchphones at his fingertips into a gleaming popular attraction, as Grandad intended. He has the vision, the emotion and the means to make the South Bank work - not just as a personal vehicle to power but as a vindication of the Blair Project, and a national atonement for the Millennium Dome.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001