Nativity play was an arts epiphany

24th September 2004 at 01:00
Youngsters just love drama says Joan Bakewell, the national arts campaign's new chair. Adi Bloom reports

Watching her five-year-old granddaughter playing the Virgin Mary in the school nativity play taught Joan Bakewell, the veteran journalist, more about the arts than most events she has attended recently.

It is not that there has been a shortage of significant arts events. Ms Bakewell has been an avid cultural pundit and a renowned arts commentator since the 1960s when she was dubbed "the thinking man's crumpet".

She has sat on the boards of the Tate Gallery and the National Theatre and this month was appointed chair of the National Campaign for the Arts, an independent arts lobby group.

But it was in her granddaughter's school hall that she learned an important lesson about the perception of the arts among young people today.

"Young people don't feel alienated from the arts," she said. "My granddaughter doesn't think drama is for old people. She wants to be on the stage.

"You only have to read a story to young children to see their eyes widen with excitement. A love of the arts is within human nature. But it needs to be fed."

As the new chair of the NCA, she hopes to draw attention to the importance of providing young people with access to arts education.

"Children's first experience of the arts should be visceral, not cerebral: colour and noise and people sweeping on and off stage. That's the excitement that engages them.

"The lack of school theatre visits is a serious national issue. If children are not exposed to the arts, they are not just deprived of pass marks, they are deprived of pleasure."

As a board member of the National Theatre, Ms Bakewell witnessed the success of new director Nicholas Hytner's decision to run a season of pound;10 tickets. It is exactly this sort of initiative that is needed in order to broaden access to schools, she said.

"This way, if children want to go enough, they can," she said. "I mean, how much do pop concerts cost nowadays? You could spend pound;15 on a ticket, right?"

Ms Bakewell says youth culture is "not my bag" and she is taken aback to hear that many teenagers paid pound;90 for tickets to see Madonna in concert recently.

But the 71-year-old, who asked on the recent BBC programme What I Wish I Knew at 20 whether it was too late for her to try cocaine, believes that every local authority should provide teenagers with access to musical instruments, so that they can set up their own garage pop bands.

And she would like to encourage small theatre companies to tour schools, performing productions that generate material for children to discuss in the classroom.

"The arts is one of the few areas that Mrs Thatcher didn't reach. It's not all about getting rich. People still feel it's worth doing for its own sake.

"I want to make the Government conscious of what's going on, so that they can weave it into the fabric of this country."

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