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10 February 2021

BBC One’s Imagine… We’ll Be Back? explores the state of the arts in the pandemic

Alan Yentob’s film was predictably starry: he favours big guns, mostly male, at whose wisdom he can nod, thus looking (he hopes) wise himself.

By Rachel Cooke

It’s a damning measure of British attitudes to the arts that the first big documentary about the impact of the pandemic on culture was brought to us by Alan Yentob’s Imagine… (9 Feb, 10.45pm). Not even the desperate situation in which culture now finds itself – there are warnings of a possible 400,000 job losses in the sector – are enough to grab the attention of, say, Panorama. Pre-pandemic, TV arts reporting at the BBC was largely limited to Will Gompertz puffing some exhibition or other: a cheery news item just before the weather. But now he has disappeared, too. At a time of crisis, something in us – something I don’t much like – cringes even more than usual at making the case for the arts. To be anxious for the future of ballet dancers or violinists is just about acceptable. To express one’s longing to see such performers again is to announce yourself a monster of privilege.

But perhaps this is about to change. It will soon be a year since I went to the BFI to see Fellini’s restored masterpiece, Il Bidone – an afternoon of such intense happiness for me that to think of it now makes me bawl (it was the last normal weekend before All This). Like the baritone Roderick Williams, the first talking head in Yentob’s film, I’ve come a long way in the 12 months since. What used to be merely lovely and enjoyable – and, yes, a sign of my great good fortune – has now been recast as close to essential: a mechanism not only for happiness, but for resilience, endurance and growth. “Otherwise, we’re machines,” said Williams, pondering this shift. Though I’m the kind of sad sack who thrills to the more obscure operas of Handel, I might once have thought such a statement glib. He would say that, wouldn’t he? Now, though, it strikes me as the kind of plain speaking with which no one could much disagree.

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Yentob’s film was predictably starry: he favours big guns, mostly male, at whose wisdom he can nod, thus looking (he hopes) wise himself. Carlos Acosta, the director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, talked about how hard it is to rehearse in a mask, and of Will Tuckett’s Lazuli Sky, which premiered last October, just days before auditoriums fell dark again. Sam Mendes, the film director, spoke of his campaign for financial support for arts freelancers. Matthew Warchus, the artistic director of the Old Vic, tried to describe how inexpressibly bleak it feels to see a theatre empty of its audience, a melancholy that was illustrated with a clip of Andrew Scott taking a curtain call to the sound of precisely no hands clapping after a live online performance of Stephen Beresford’s Three Kings. Only the playwright James Graham got into the numbers – every quid that’s invested in the arts makes £5 back, he said – which is why, I think, Dispatches and the rest should now clean up. British politicians are not like their European counterparts, always off to Bayreuth or the Comédie-Française. To stir their prophetic souls, you must show them an account book, not a First Folio.

For my part, I was touched by the sight of a warehouse in which 30,000 pantomime costumes were stored, items ordinarily delivered to 35 stages around Britain. Who knew that some enormous fake breasts and a toppling bonnet could bring a lump to my throat like this? That such cartoonish fripperies would send me to bed worrying about that uber dame Christopher Biggins? But fear not. Lockdown hasn’t sent me completely soft.

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Periodically, irritation rose inside me, like the Blue Peter totaliser after a particularly heavy delivery of milk bottle tops. Having walked with comical ponderousness across the barren expanse of the Old Vic stage – was he channelling Lear, or what? – Yentob then proceeded to eat a small tub of ice cream while watching English National Opera’s drive-in La Bohème in his car. Oh, boy. Not even poor Mimì’s impending death up on stage could put him off his stride. Each little plastic spoonful was brought to his mouth with the utmost solemnity and reverence, as if only he, of all the men in the world, could grasp the true depths of its cold creaminess; its yielding softness; its uniquely fruity (or chocolatey) striations.

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Imagine… We’ll Be Back? 

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This article appears in the 10 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, End of the affair