The first is the production of Yes, Prime Minister that has just transferred to the West End. It’s a great show; very funny, very well acted and rather more radical than one would have expected from a comedy institution that makes it to the stage 20-odd years after its heyday. Buy a seat now!
It plays wonderfully to its target audience but, like so much other theatre in the West End, it struggles to reach out to the next generation of audience, the ones that will keep the theatre going as a concern that moves beyond musicals and celebrity-strewn shows. It’s not just this show – West End theatre in general seems a little too content to bask in an (admittedly lucrative) ghetto. So many British institutions – from the arts to politics – are content to do so.
But theatre can, and should, be a cultural shift changer. It should be creating news events that land productions on the front pages. A first night is an event, certainly, and reviews are important, but if more serious commercial theatre is to find its way into the subconscious landscapes of the nation’s youth, then it needs to be a little more hard-arsed about marketing itself, given that traditional advertising is going through such lean times.
Theatre has done some things very well indeed and there’s no doubt that there’s a lot of money in box office for Yes, Prime Minister – a million quid in advance bookings by all accounts. It’s deservedly going to be a very successful show and the producers have done a brilliant job of providing a financial return for the investors.
But that comfortable sensation of box office wealth can lead to complacency – and that could mean that new opportunities are missed. It would be wonderful if the West End used these riches to try some of the online crowd sourcing tactics to engage the next generation of theatregoers in the same way that Punchdrunk, You Me Bum Bum Train, LIFT and Alex Poots’s Manchester Festival do. They need to remember that are living in an era where a thing or a person survives best if they can communicate successfully to the nation as a whole, not just a certain clique. They need to stir in the next generation, not just the Horlicks sippers.
Which leads me to the second conundrum of the week: Ed Miliband’s first nights as leader of the Labour Party. Labour seems to have taken several steps backwards in electing Ed as the next leader of the party, a man who looks like a truculent Portuguese Wine waiter, or perhaps the manager of an Estonian Lap dancing club. When the Mail and the Sun are so eager to attack and splash the phrase Red Ed throughout any and every article on him and given that he is an awkward, less-than-confident seeming public speaker, all I can see is Labour failing to try and regain the dialogue they had with Britain as a whole in the early days of the New Labour project. Labour has to deal with the Red Ed tag quickly – it’s one of those phrases that will filter seamlessly into the social media and digital subconscious and the British public will find themselves subliminally conditioned unless Labour move fast to stamp out its use.
Whatever you think of them, Philip Gould and Peter Mandelson were immensely effective at controlling output and creating a useful conversation between New Labour and the British public – until the relationship was indelibly tainted by their use of spin to manoeuver the country into an unpopular and illegal war. Prior to Iraq, they had dragged Labour out of the ghetto and, in doing so, helped change the face of British politics. They were mindful of the tiniest details and that is a lesson that mustn’t be forgotten.
Now, you have to be media savvy, cool in front of the cameras and able to hold your own up close. Ed’s unmarried status and his slightly ungainly demeanour is a burden for the party, given that it separates him from the majority of voters. This is not, ultimately, a game changer, but it does allow the opposition to gain an initial foothold. For this reason, David Cameron was clearly more afraid of facing David Miliband across the ballot box. Ed, at a distance from the voters and prone to having easy clichés thrown at him, does not seem likely to be anything like as much a threat. I suspect his struggle for polish will set the party back by 20 years – especially given that he follows Gordon Brown, whose lack of personability was at least leavened by many years in office. Not only is Ed not smooth and slick, he’s not long been an MP.
Clear party divisions are certainly to the fore once agian. New Labour is over: so do we have a right/left divide or do we perhaps have a Tory suited New Labour against Old Labour, finger puppets for the trade union bigwigs, looking like Arthur Mullard in a bad George suit?
Love them or loathe them, Clegg and Cameron are in the smooth and slick fit-for-purpose zone, whereas Ed Miliband and his team need to look hard at examples such as Tony Hayward – a prime instance of a figurehead dragging the whole company into the mire, as he was patently not fit to cope with the media hoo-ha. The head of a big corporate organisation or political party has to be fit for purpose. Can an organisation really afford to elect a leader on values alone in these media savvy times?
Both the Labour Party and the West End have failed to take into consideration the way the new media works, I feel. The 10-minute news cycle and the need for new audiences are paramount and, if any trick is missed and any stone is left unturned, the future will begin to look more and more uncertain.