Jude Kelly: “In another hundred years, men and women will play different roles altogether”

The artistic director of the Southbank Centre takes the NS Centenary Questionnaire.


Illustration: Ellie Foreman-Peck

What is the most important invention of the past hundred years?

Contraception. It has allowed a part of the population to be economically independent, in terms of monitoring how they want to use time in their lives. That’s why I still find it extraordinary that the world doesn’t look upon the Catholic Church as if it’s trying to prevent human rights.

What is the most important scientific discovery of the past hundred years and why?

String theory. It allows you into the extraordinary imaginative proposition that space and time are the same. You can see how vague I’m being – it took me three attempts to pass A-level science. It’s theory I find the most exciting and creative.

What is the greatest sporting event of the past hundred years?

The first Paralympics in 1948 – they changed our understanding of what human beings are capable of doing.

Who is the most influential or significant politician of the past hundred years?

Nelson Mandela. To have used his time in detention to build a picture for himself of what peace could look like and then implemented it is politics at its finest.

And author?

Doris Lessing. She was an extraordinary intellect and an amazing charter of the sexual, political and economic conflicts of women. I’m amazed she got the Nobel Prize so late in life.

And playwright?

Samuel Beckett. He’s an absolute minority taste, an example of an artist who reshaped form. He is the ultimate playwright, who dramatised our existential quest for meaning.

How about anyone in business?

Anita Roddick. When I was growing up she was overt and unabashed about saying that business could and should be ethical. She was often ridiculed and was very much a lone voice, so she has been a huge influence.

And sportsperson?

Muhammad Ali. Boxing is something I instinctively want to turn away from, as I feel slightly repelled by the idea. But he used his celebrity status and incredible talent to speak about politics and racism.

What is your favourite quotation?

I love the thought that went into “the price of everything and the value of nothing”. If economic value is the most valid proof that people want, it’s a bit like wanting to prove that love has fiscal value.

What is your favourite speech?

Prospero’s speech in Act IV, Scene One of The Tempest. It’s a speech about understanding mortality. It is wonderfully poignant and is essentially about being able to say farewell to everything on a daily basis.

What do you think will be the most significant change to our lives in the next hundred years?

The next phase of women’s emancipation. Life is already unrecognisable in some countries in some ways. Although progress feels slow, you look back to women still trying to get the vote at the turn of the 20th century and you think, “That’s extraordinary change.” I’m convinced in another hundred years men and women will play different roles altogether.

What is your greatest concern about the future?

Climate change. Because it’s another one of those things that can be abused. First of all, none of us has any idea of the real impact of what could happen. Millions could become refugees – and then how would other countries cope?

What will be the most dramatic development in your own field of work?

Speaking about the coming 100 years, can everyone learn to read and write? Could they or should they? No one asks that any more. In my field of work there is still the idea that some people have artistic feelings and others don’t. I don’t think that’s true: everyone has a powerful imagination and the capacity to be expressive. The most radical thing is already happening. And it is that the population will participate in the arts not as audiences, but they will become part of the expressive work. It will become part of their normal activities, and will change their cultural status.

What is the top priority for the future well-being of people and our planet?

Learning how to navigate the brain. Neuroscience is telling us an enormous amount about what triggers operate in us; where we store our memories and our feelings. We’re beginning to understand scientifically and intuitively a great deal about our sense of being. That could change both domestic and community life.

Jude Kelly is the artistic director of the Southbank Centre

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The God Gap

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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