Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]
When Jude Kelly rang late one night to tell me she was taking the South Bank job, I felt obliged to offer a friendly word of caution. 'You do know what you're getting into, Jude, don't you?'
Planning the content for Britain's biggest arts centre - comprising the Royal Festival Hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery - is a large step up for the sparky Liverpudlian whose last fulltime post was running the Playhouse in Leeds which, while critically admired, occupies the low foothills of the cultural Everest that the RFH represents in the post-War national mythology.
Kelly's name was last in the frame for running the National Theatre, when Trevor Nunn stepped down four years ago. Losing out to Nicholas Hytner, who had more big-city experience and superior stage credits, she quit West Yorkshire and opened a minuscule arts exchange in a noisy loft beside West Hampstead railway junction, a place where artists from all corners of the earth could come to interact, but no more than three at a time given the constraints of space.
Patience personified, she kept in with New Labour and scored points for steering the cultural strategy in London's successful 2012 Olympic bid. The day before she flew to the Athens Games, and the day she came back, she called me full of can-do, confident that London could put on a better show. When headhunters put her name up for artistic director of the South Bank, she was hailed as 'quite a catch', someone who ticks all the boxes - female, leftwing, non-London, unstuffy, non-classical music, 51 years old. Add a discreet charm and infectious laugh and the package is irresistible.
This, however, is nobody's dream job. If the South Bank has achieved anything over two decades it is the squelching of enthusiasm and the burial of reputations. Did Jude know what she was letting herself in for? 'I think so…' she said, with a nanosecond's hesitation, before reminding me wryly that she directed Leonard Bernstein's On The Town at ENO last season when most theatre folk were shunning the Coliseum as if plague ridden.
So anxious were the Board to get her initials on a contract that they have allowed her to carry on directing shows elsewhere, a license that will eat into her time at the desk. Still, look on the bright side: making plays will give her interactive access to the artists she needs to enliven the South Bank, and it will signal that the centre at last has a creative director who can do something more than sign off budgets and dine for England. It will be no small plus if she also feels a sneaking need to outshine Nick Hytner's rampantly autonomous National across the Waterloo Bridge, giving the South Bank a novel will to win.
Heaven knows it needs a dose of uppers for not much else is going right. Five weeks after closing the RFH for a £91 million, 18-month refurbishment, chief executive Michael Lynch announced last week that reopening had been set back half a year by the discovery of asbestos in the building fabric. Surprised? He shouldn't have been. Every public building of the early Fifties was fireproofed with asbestos, a material which turned out to promote lung cancer and other conditions that cause 3,500 UK deaths a year. There is a legal obligation to remove it.
The original 1951 plans for the showcase RFH are among the most detailed in existence. How the asbestos got overlooked in the restoration comedy is something Lynch and the contractors will need to resolve with their respective lawyers, but the six-month delay is disastrous - and not only in financial terms, adding £20 million to the bill. The centre's two resident orchestras, downscaled to the smaller QEH for the closure period, have lost half their 2007 bookings. 'It's a huge blow,' says the Philharmonia's managing director, David Whelton. 'We've now been told the hall will reopen in June 2007, but we may be looking at September. We have to unpick projects and we need to get our audience back. We can't afford for them to lose the concertgoing habit.'
The Arts Council has assured the Philharmonia and the London Philharmonic Orchestra that it will 'review the financial impact' of the delay, which can be taken to mean that the extra costs of South Bank mishaps will be met out of public funds, at the expense of other arts and causes which lack the South Bank's ineffable knack for farce and self-harm.
The first priority for the new artistic director will be to build confidence that the show will go on when she says it will, and that artists need no longer fear they will break a leg on the forecourt and have their handbags rifled in the green room. Apart from safety, what the South Bank needs most is an improvement in backstage ambience, from quick-fit garage to a place where artists feel welcomed and cared for. Kelly urgently needs to find a new director for the Hyaward - a concrete space, devoid of natural light, that the last chairman recommended for demolition - and to upgrade the summer Meltdown festival that draws younger audiences.
With Lynch as her boss, she will have a licence to rethink the RFH, though for all the wrong reasons: the Arts Council has demanded - as usual, behind cupped hands and without public discussion - a cut in classical nights to 60 percent. An erstwhile folksinger, Kelly can fill up the empties with what she knows best - dance, world music, jazz, musicals, crossover and superannuated pop stars on a perpetual farewell tour.
What she knows least, she readily admits, is the filigree world of symphony orchestras, each with three centuries worth of repertoire and a pack of highly-paid conductors whose merit is certified by cognoscenti but is not always discernible to the innocent ear. This was, and remains, the South Bank's chief attraction - why else spend £111 million on what is essentially an acoustic refit of an outworn concert hall?
Kelly needs all the expert help she can get in reversing recent erosions which have sent more than a few of the world's great orchestras scurrying to the rival Barbican. She intends 'to consult colleagues', but I am convinced she requires a new hire - a Classical Music Director who, from fairly low in the pecking order, will compete with the Chatelet and Carnegie Hall for key artists and events. Kelly herself lacks the knowledge, the networking and the nous to revive the wantonly neglected core of the South Bank's business. One job filled, another comes free.
Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]