Letter from London

Contrasts – the affluent and deprived, the young and elderly, megalopolis and suburb – are what make a real city. London’s contrasts are as great as any in the old world, and its character equally varied and exciting. It is a wealthy city that remains a great draw for visitors from other parts of Britain and Europe. But this time there was a difference. Watching some central areas – Victoria, Paddington, South Kensington, Bloomsbury – that have been taken over by hotels, I somehow got the impression that today’s tourists were no longer in tune with the mood of the 1970s, which was one of consumerism – and even conspicuous consumption. Even the Greek tourists that boarded the OA flight from Gatwick to Thessaloniki last Thursday (what a strange coincidence: The pilot’s name was Alekos Payiatakis. No relation whatsoever) were not laden with parcels as they used to be some years ago. The largest English-speaking city outside North America (incidentally the place which speaks the best English of all), London is also the place with the best live theater in the world – plus some of the most fashionable restaurants, pubs and wine bars. It’s also a place with an inimitable street life, especially during the holidays when London may look as though it is packed with tourists. The tourist industry is an important part of London’s economy. Since tourism is now the world’s largest industry, that has serious economic implications. By the way, Greek show business could surely learn a lot by looking at Britain. London’s West End theater businesses have developed a marketing flair that Athens or Thessaloniki couldn’t even dream of. There are special deals for students and schoolchildren, a booth in Leicester Square that sells cut-price-same-day tickets, telephone credit card booking, and tie-ups with British Rail, which have all helped to transform audiences in the last decade. Unlike Greece, Sundays are out for shows in London. Instead, you can usually get into even a nominally sold-out show (the new Mel Brooks musical «The Producers» and Lloyd Webber’s latest, «The Woman in White,» excepted) on a Monday night. Normally, Monday is the day off for theaters in Greece. In one respect – the growth of tourism – the theater has been helped by events outside its control. But it knows that it cannot rely on tourists alone. As audiences and revenues grow, so more investors are interested in putting their money in both new theaters and new productions. In the past two decades, the theater has been helped by the tax-break Business Expansion Scheme. In that respect, government policies have aided the street-cred economy. Yet things will probably change for the worse. Just as in Greece, the Arts Council of Britain and key theater bodies across the UK will come under scrutiny as, in the coming days, a parliamentary committee is launching a comprehensive inquiry, which could – and most certainly will – change the face of publicly subsidized theater. This coincides with rumors of similar changes in Greece, as well. There is a significant difference though. At least the British have a proper way of saying «well done» to their artists. For in Britain, the New Year is always marked by the publication of the honors’ list, in which the great, the talented and the good join the rich and smarmy in winning titles to put before their names, or initials to put after them. Though nobody closely associated with the arts that we would know here in Greece was elevated to the ranks of knight and dame on the New Year’s honors list, there was a strong theater presence among the OBEs (Order of the British Empire) – which is a somewhat minor title in the elaborate British system of distinctions. Ray Cooney is also well known in Greece, even if only as a comedy playwright and not so much in his acting and directing capacities. Other personalities who received OBEs were pop record mogul Pete Waterman, Royal Ballet star Leanne Benjamin and «Only Fools and Horses» writer John Sullivan. Christmas is probably not the best time for the sophisticated theater-loving viewer who happens to be in London. At present, most shows are more traditional than a Christmas pudding, with titles such as «Cinderella,» «Peter Pan» and «Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.» All the same, Soho and Covent Garden now represent what the British do best: musicals. Until World War I, Britain was a prime recipient of theatrical changes; after the war and more specifically about 30 years ago, it became a primary source of them. The essential role of British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, 56, author of a dozen hit musicals including «Cats,» «Evita» and «Phantom of the Opera,» who has been a member of the House of Lords since 1997, cannot be denied. He actually owns more than a dozen West End theaters. His latest work, «The Woman in White,» adapted from a Victorian best seller, has received so much prior publicity, and so many cash-in-advance bookings, as to render his recent musical show at the Palace Theater on Shaftesbury Avenue virtually critic-proof. Effectively designed for and aimed at tourists, London’s West End is what New York’s Broadway was to the world in the glorious 1950s. Offering the craft, the kitsch and the vigor of Brd’way at its best, «The Producers» is at the moment «the most fun you can have in London with your trousers on» as the critic from «Time Out» notes. And the most promising shows to watch out for are at the National Theater, which is actually three theaters in the South Bank complex that also houses the National Film Theater, the Hayward Gallery and the Royal Festival Hall. With theater bookshops, restaurants, art galleries and a breathtaking view of the Thames, one could spend days there. Last week I saw there «His Dark Materials,» a thrilling journey with rebellious angels, soul-eating specters and armored bears, based on the novels of Philip Pullman. It was an epic, spectacular production involving new technologies. A great experience, it was as meaningful for us adults as for 13-year-olds.

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