Issue 116:2017 08 03:Normal culture for Norfolk(Frank O’Nomics)

3 August 2017

Normal culture for Norfolk

Have arguments for staying in London been undermined?

by Frank O’Nomics

It was not my finest hour.  I had been given the simple task of applying early for tickets to see the National Theatre’s major production for the summer, Angels in America, which stars academy award nominee Andrew Garfield.  Quite why I dragged my heels and missed the boat I don’t know.  Perhaps I was put off by the prospect of a play in 2 parts, each almost 4 hours in length, or maybe I was just busy doing research for my next Shaw Sheet article.  Either way, I was left scrambling to apply to the National’s periodic ballots of further tickets, all to no avail.  Then came two saviours.  A good friend had a spare ticket to the first part and kindly invited my wife, so at least one of us was able to see it.  To our huge surprise, the second came in the form of The Princess Theatre, Hunstanton, which announced that they would live stream part 2 during our holiday in Norfolk.  This seemed a tremendous result on a number of counts, not only did it address the issue of my reticence, it also looked like saving me a lot of money – the view on a cinema screen would be equivalent to that of a top priced ticket to the National at less than one quarter of the cost.  However,  it also set me thinking about one of the major justifications for not living outside of London – that of access to culture.  If we can now see current cutting edge theatre at the seaside, a major barrier to migration might have been overcome.  Unfortunately, I was to discover that there are distinct limits to regional cultural appetites.

For many years the extent of live entertainment in Norfolk has been little beyond end-the-pier seaside summer specials or endless tribute bands, with the occasional dusting off of faded stars.  However, in recent years, in response to so many deciding to holiday in the UK, rather than to suffer the costs of a declining currency and discomfort of delays and overcrowded airports, the range of cultural experiences in places like Norfolk has expanded significantly.  For the smart set, black tie opera has come to Holkham Hall, with recent productions of La Cenerentola and La Boheme providing an opportunity to see to quality productions in a splendid marble clad setting.  Holkham also has less formal music recitals that go well beyond the standard holiday season.  For the younger or more bohemian, Norfolk has not ignored the growth in festivals, and has tended to go for the more cerebral end of the genre.  The recent Holt festival had speakers as diverse as Robert Winston, Sue Macgregor and Margaret Hodge, alongside stand-up, circus and all genres of music.  For the livelier, Houghton Hall has a festival which features top DJ acts (successfully charging prices to rival Glastonbury) while also hosting an art exhibition by Turner prize winner Richard Long.   The point is that the economics of putting on cultural events such as this seem to be working outside the major conurbations – or at least to some extent.

Sadly, while there is much to be celebrated regarding the export of culture to North Norfolk, my Angels in America story does not end well.  Last week we received an apologetic call from the Princess Theatre to tell us that, sadly, they felt compelled to cancel the event.  Despite the play selling out the major auditorium at The National Theatre for a long run within minutes, it seems that we were the only 2 people in Norfolk who wanted to see it.  Apparently 2 people had also turned up to watch  the first part the previous week, but did not make it to the second act.  A number of reasons might be behind this failure.  Perhaps it was poor marketing on behalf of both the National Theatre and the Princess Theatre. Maybe the subject matter of the play, which has a subtitle of “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes”, did not appeal to the local demographic – although this would seem strange given the influx of holiday makers.  For whatever reason, it seems that there are limits to the successful export of culture, and those limits are driven by basic economics.  While there is appetite for established theatre and music, generating interest in anything beyond the mainstream would appear to be very difficult, and there is a marked reluctance for anyone to take a risk.  There is some degree to which the arts can be subsidised in major centres, but when it comes to producing events in smaller towns there is a need for it to be cost effective.  A private showing of a live screening might be an attractive proposition, but I doubt that we would have been prepared to pay what was needed to cover the costs.  For me the result is further attempts to secure tickets via the ballot, or camping on the South Bank for returns.


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