Mark Cousins made the most substantial high-brow British TV documentary series in about 20 years in More4’s The Story of Film: An Odyssey. In a period when almost every documentary programme puts its presenter at least in front of the camera, usually into the title of the programme and often within its content, Cousins stayed studiously and graciously off camera so that, during his programme’s mammoth 15 hours, its important subject might not be belittled. In other cinema programmes where he has appeared, he has come across to me as a man of warmth but also of quiet seriousness.
So I was rather surprised by his recent newspaper article where he appeared to be putting forward the rather reactionary idea that, in the UK, most arts venues are not sufficiently inclusive or welcoming. They are “too narrow, too defined by class…too culturally thin,” he said. They are “mirthless” and “un-tactile”.
Cousins admits that he had some great teenage experiences of cinema and theatre and visual art but seems rather bitter that the places of cultural provision felt “foreign”. Of course, many of us from his generation and older could say the same, and at least Cousins lived in a big city where facilities were available. Many young people don’t.
Cousins does concede that improvements have been made and that now “most good arts venues have children’s programmes and outreach and inclusion policies, and they really want to involve the whole community.” However, I would make that point more strongly. I would assert that, during the last 30 years of my cultural life and certainly long before the internet era, every arts centre, theatre, independent cinema, art gallery and arts festival that I have ever known has been seeking to expand its audience by such devices as (for example) cheaper ticket prices, increased touring, performances and events in schools and workplaces and community centres, varying and widening the range of events which they put on, staging those events outdoors, opening cafés and restaurants and bars of all shapes and sizes, colourful newsletters and brochures, articles in local and national newspapers and magazines, billboard and media advertising.
Cousins wants arts venues to be “broader” and more “welcoming”, and he seems to feel that architecture is important, but does not clarify what would be the best type of building to achieve that. Might it be a converted older church or school, which will usually have been better designed and built in the first place but might put off people who have unhappy childhood memories of such institutions? Or a modern big shed, visually more plain, but at least with windows from floor to ceiling? Should it be beside water or surrounded by parkland or on a main street alongside the filling station or the supermarket? Is it better to be small and cosy or big and impressive? Cousins does not say. He exalts Edinburgh’s Summerhall as “one of the world’s great arts venues” but does not tell us if it is helped or hindered by being housed in a large Edwardian building.
The Summerhall arts centre in Edinburgh, with colourful sculpture outside.
Another example of good practice which he cites is equally unconvincing. The Traverse City Film Festival in Michigan, USA, is good because it has low admission prices. Surely nobody would disagree that that might encourage attendances?
“Forgive my generalisations and my bluntness,” says Cousins. However, as far as I can see, Cousins has no case because what he wants either has been achieved or is in the process of being achieved. All arts organisations and venues and schools and parents work much harder than in previous generations to encourage young people to find out about all genres of art and culture. The one factor which slows progress, as ever, is money. Venues and festivals never have enough to organise as many events, performances or tours, and as cheaply, as they would wish.
For me, a more serious matter, as I’ve mentioned before, is how television is doing so much less to stimulate and satisfy cultural appetites than it once did. A young person finds fewer places to find out about theatre, film, literature or classical music than did Mark Cousins or I in the 1970s and 1980s.