Art beat

Lord Puttnam was on passionate form last week, advocating a place for the arts at the centre of the curriculum. He warned against the kind of ruthless efficiency which drove Japanese education until recently and said we must guard against sacrificing the arts on the altar of literacy and numeracy. The arts, he said, are not just entertainment, but about how we lead our lives.

He was speaking at the Barbican launch of two television programmes about the work of backstage staff at the Royal Shakespeare Company (reviewed on page 30). Schoolchildren and students mingled with RSC designers and the likes of Adrian Noble, artistic director of the RSC, and Michael Jackson, chief executive of Channel 4. Karina O'Malley and Henry Jeckel, both teachers at Seven Kings School in Ilford, were there with some of their sixth form students.

Karina feels "it's a bit of a myth" that the language of the plays is difficult and finds that teenagers respond well to them. At the Barbican her students could investigate make-up tricks, handle the authentic-looking divorce document from Henry VIII or read Cyrano's letter to Roxane, as penned by Antony Sher.

The previous evening I had watched in some astonishment as the actor Tom Conti "gave birth" while pretending to be Joseph miming the Virgin Mary. Conti had invited selected guests (I'm not sure on what basis) for a drink at his sumptuous Hampstead home to watch his performance of Jesus my Boy. This short one-man show, due to open at the Apollo Theatre in London on December 7, is clueless Joseph's version of the life of Jesus. An RE teacher who had seen it the previous evening said it would be the equivalent of a term's lessons.

On my visit, a Jewish member of the audience said politely he thought it was blasphemous since it made out that the life of Jesus had achieved nothing. If you want to start a debate at school, though, this could be for you. The acting is certainly convincing; Conti must have been hanging about in labour wards.

Good news for next spring. The Tate Gallery is to mount the first Jackson Pollock retrospective in this country for more than 40 years. The leading American artist of his time, famous for his "drip" canvasses, he influenced a generation. The press launch of this exhibition took place in a Soho studio purpose-built in 1904 for the painting of scenic backdrops. With its lofty, paint-splattered spaces, it was the perfect place to watch the classic 1951 Hans Namuth film, Jackson Pollock, showing the artist at work at his East Hampton home. A punctilious, thoughtful, depressive character, seen carefully structuring his work, he is a million miles away from the slap-happy action painter of popular myth.

The exhibition, which runs from March 11 to June 6 next year, will be supported by a full education programme including a teachers' preview and study day and A-level workshops. Dates will not be confirmed until January.Further information: 0171 887 8756.

Long before that, you may be wondering how to dress the school play. The Royal National Theatre costume and furniture hire could solve the problem. A wide selection of desirable items can be viewed at Chichester House, 1-3 Brixton Road, London SW9 6DE, 0171 735 4774 (for costumes), 0171 820 1358 (for furniture).

A brand-new orchestra, the National Musicians Symphony Orchestra, will give its debut concert at the Royal Festival Hall on Monday with a programme which includes Julian Lloyd Webber playing the Elgar Cello Concerto. Encouraged by their president, Lord Menuhin, 150 young music college graduates will tour major cities giving performances of classical repertoire and new work. For information: 0181 993 3135.

Belfast is gearing up for a unique month-long, city-wide festival, Young at Art, which will include 27 projects and 100 events covering all art forms. Among the highlights is Houseworks Belfast, in which Theatre Rites UK moves into No 1 Lennoxvale, Belfast and fills it with installations, surprises and secrets to delight under-fives. The opening concert will involve Urban Strawberry Lunch playing - literally, we are told - the building of the Waterfront Hall. They will work with young adults to create a musical sculpture from urban waste.

On November 29, Vantage Point, by VSB Wheelworks will bring young people together to work on design, costumes and parades to present an image on the West Belfast Hills which will be visible from the city. Festival programme: 01232 667687; box office: 01232 665577.

Heather Neill

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