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Editor’s View: Is it time we funded Great Entertainment for Everyone?

Ken Dodd Not many young critics would choose to review a Ken Dodd show, but surely entertainment is an important element of theatre
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Is theatre entertainment or art? Arts Council England’s slogan is Great Art for Everyone, not Great Entertainment for Everyone. The Arts Council’s forbear was the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, the smaller of two operations that staged shows for troops and civilians during the Second World War. The other was the Entertainments National Service Association. Unlike CEMA, a guardian of ‘high art’ that wanted to ‘improve’ people, ENSA aimed to raise morale and entertain.

When you look through the list of famous ENSA members, you find music hall stars like Tommy Trinder, George Formby and Gracie Fields. But, you also find Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, who performed Shakespeare for the troops in a six-week tour of Europe just after the war. Opera and ballet were also staged. There was no distinction.

While today much public theatre is funded as art, not that long ago, it was also supported as entertainment.

I’ve been reflecting on this in the context of Lyn Gardner’s long read on how theatre under-serves working-class audiences and artists (not ‘entertainers’), but also in the context of Ken Dodd’s death.

Michael Coveney describes Doddy as “the greatest live performer” he ever saw on stage, while fellow theatre critic Michael Billington (writing in the Guardian) calls Dodd “essentially a man of the theatre who could induce in a thousand or more spectators a sense of collective ecstasy”.

Michael Coveney: Ken Dodd was the greatest live performer I ever saw on stage

Peter Hepple, a predecessor of mine as editor of The Stage, happily held forth on Abba tribute acts and stage magicians alongside the Chekhov revivals or Hamlets he had reviewed.

Increasingly, though, I sense a continental drift. Much of the theatre sector no longer straddles art and entertainment, but firmly self-identifies as artists. I cannot imagine many young theatre critics reviewing a Ken Dodd show, nor many young theatremakers identifying him as an inspiration. But surely the best of theatre is both art and entertainment.

A final thought: the subsidised arts world spends a lot of time worrying about diversity. But the most diverse audiences I see are invariably for commercial productions: whether for pantomimes or popular musicals.

Entertainment is inclusive and outward-looking. If art is primarily concerned with itself, entertainment focuses on the effect it has on an audience. Art does not stop being art if nobody likes it, but you can’t claim something as entertainment if nobody finds it entertaining.

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