Maggie Brown: Get children into culture young and you have them for life
One of my favourite journalists recently observed: “I thought I saw Vince Cable at the theatre and then I remembered that everyone at the theatre looked like Vince Cable.”
Having recently enjoyed a play aimed at oldies – The Moderate Soprano, about John Christie’s founding of Glyndebourne starring Roger Allam – it made me smile ruefully. Though I can inform the Guardian’s Hannah Jane Parkinson that I do not look like the leader of the Liberal Democrats.
Soon after, I read the BBC’S 2017/18 annual report. It showed BBC Television’s appeal to the coveted 16-34-year-old market is in pronounced decline and had suffered the heaviest losses compared with ITV, Channel 4, and Channel 5, amid a general desertion to Amazon Prime, Netflix and YouTube.
Yet at the same time, Love Island on ITV2 was building to its 4.5 million finale, hooking the viewers live night after night at 9pm. It appealed to young women especially, in the hottest and most ‘must be outdoor’ summer imaginable for the UK; although the World Cup also did its best to keep people indoors and in front of the box. Either way, to keep them coming back you have to hook them in early.
I was thinking about this in the wake of the news that one half of the Chuckle Brothers, Barry Elliott, had passed away. I was organising a wedding of one daughter, in the company of three other children and friends, and their sadness was palpable. All agreed they loved watching ChuckleVision after school (“More fun than Mr Bean” said my son). “Talented character actors, human beings, impossible to copy, not a cartoon”, were my thoughts.
Surely it is common sense that if you want to foster a life-long interest in the arts (and I include original television programmes), then start young. A nephew and niece at said wedding reminded me that I took them to their first play, at the Polka Theatre, and they are now frequent theatregoers. Another 20-something remembered our evening at a Young Vic production of Julius Caesar where the conspirators stripped and showered naked.
The BBC demonstrates that it has realised this with initiatives such as its worthy Proms-related Ten Pieces for school children. But could its age problem be connected to the fact it has targeted children up to the age of 11 and then stopped? BBC3 went online-only in April 2016, when it should have been recreated as a youth brand with a TV channel.
Yesterday’s children are today’s young adults, with money in their pockets. Theatres, concert halls, opera houses and performing arts venues – not just subsidised companies – should find more ways to connect beyond pricey treats such as The Lion King or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Why not promote family offers for suitable plays and get more kids in with cut-price seats? Bargain ice creams in the interval would also help.