The Southbank Show

One of the plus points to the 24/7 society we are now living in is that the gnawing tedium of Sundays that most of us endured as children has ended.

When I was young in the 70s and early 80s, Sunday consisted of going to Mass, dinner (not lunch, this was Birmingham) – often cooked by my father if Old Mother Baby was at work as a nurse at the old Ear Nose & Throat Hospital – and very little else.

As we were lucky enough to have a car, we’d go into town to collect her and sometimes we’d go to the City Art Gallery or the now sadly closed Science Museum, thus giving me an early taste for the arts and museums that has lasted all my life. But there was very little sport on TV, which was generally rubbish on a Sunday in any case, with an emphasis on old films and religion (and we got enough of the latter anyway), and the shops were closed. Occasionally we went to the cinema, but not often enough.

Fast forward to 2011, and football gets played on a Sunday – too often, for the liking of some of us – the shops are open for at least six hours of the day, cheap-ish eats abound, and if you’re lucky enough to live in or close to London, there’s a huge array of museums and art galleries to visit which are free. At the time of writing, anyway.

And there’s been a new development over the last couple of years. Theatres open. Not every show, but a number of productions and playhouses are adopting the American model of closing on Monday, but playing on Sunday afternoons, thus giving options to out-of-towners to get here for a matinee, and giving joy to the locals in the form of not having to dash to a show after work.

So it was I found myself down on the South Bank last weekend, having bunked off Mass (yes, I still go but admit to being a Bad Catholic as opposed to a Good Catholic. Like Julia Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, I can’t shut myself out from His mercy). And it wasn’t just bunking off cos I couldn’t be bothered, having been at a party in Pimlico on Saturday night, but it was with a specific purpose.

At the time the National Theatre opened booking for the spring/summer season, I was slightly financially embarrassed, burdened as I was with the fag end of the football season and a proliferation of family birthdays. So it was a choice between The Cherry Orchard and One Man, Two Guvnors. I could get a Travelex for The Cherry Orchard at £15, and OMTG cost a minimum £26. So I chose the Chekov.

Fast forward to the last week in May, and OMTG opened to phenomenal reviews. Suddenly you couldn’t get a ticket for love or money for the scheduled run. But you can get a Day Seat for £12, or a standing ticket for a fiver, with the box office opening at midday for a Sunday matinee. I pitched up at 10.45 to find about 10 people in front of me in the queue, some of them looking as if they’d been there since the crack of dawn, with folding chairs, rugs and thermos flasks.

Maybe they were in training for the queue at Wimbledon. For me, 75 minutes is nothing. When you’ve spent 6 hours sitting on a rug in Hyde Park waiting for the Pope to pitch up, just over an hour’s a doddle.

So I propped myself against a hoarding, and settled for the wait. Had a long chat with Old Mother Baby and read the papers. It’s amazing how a smartphone (even one like mine that isn’t particularly smart) can while away an hour or so.

At midday precisely the doors were opened by a security man, presumably engaged partly in an attempt to resolve any disputes regarding queue jumping, and we shuffled into the foyer in an orderly fashion. By this time the queue behind me was probably 15-20 strong, and even with a small number before me, I guessed it would be touch and go as to whether I actually got a seat, as I stood there with my fingers and thumbs crossed.

I got to the counter and asked if they had any seats left. “Yes” answered the nice young lady “but they’re demi-restricted view”.

“Fine”, I said. “I’d like to redeem my credit note”, which meant that they ended up paying me, being in possession of an £18 credit they’d issued me after I’d booked in about October 2010 to see 12th Night on 1st March, when we had a gap in the fixture list. We subsequently found ourselves engaged in an unexpectedly re-arranged game, over which I will draw a veil. So there I am at 12.15pm, with one of the hottest tickets in town, plus a further credit note for £6. Result. Time for a pre-match meal.

It’s over 20 years since I first found myself around the South Bank – I think I was visiting the now-defunct Museum of the Moving Image – and the place has changed a lot. Underneath and adjacent to the Royal Festival Hall (somewhere worth hanging around in its own right, with a seriously classy restaurant in Skylon) are a proliferation of reasonably-priced High Street-favourite restaurants, and 12.30pm found me tucking into smoked salmon and scrambled eggs in Le Pain Quotidien, followed by a summer fruit pavlova, washed down with a big bowl of coffee – yes, a bowl. Very French. I still had an hour to kill so wandered up the embankment towards Westminster.

In case you didn’t know, this is the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain, a concept created by the Labour government of the time in an attempt to cheer up a battered nation suffering from an austerity programme – sound familiar?

This in turn was a commemoration of the Great Exhibition held 100 years previously in the Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, the proceeds of which funded the establishment of the South Kensington museums, aka Albertopolis, better known these days as the V&A, the Natural History and Science Museums.

The Southbank are trying to recreate the spirit of ’51 this summer with a festival curated by that great icon of popular music, Ray Davies, whose music still influences artists today. Also, just by Waterloo Bridge, a temporary beach has been installed, and there appears to be some sort of flight simulator. At £4.00 for the flight simulator I wasn’t going to find out what it was. Also the stretch from the National to the old GLC building appears now to be populated with street entertainers, Charlie Chaplin and Frank Sinatra impersonator and those odd people covered from head to toe in silver paint who stand completely still, and then move, presumably to give young children and the gullible a fright. I’ve never really seen the point.

Of course the front of the GLC building is now dominated by the London Eye, and the building itself houses a SeaLife Centre, and the whole area’s crammed with tourists, even on a blustery Sunday threatening rain. And I found myself thinking that maybe the Festival’s creators would be pleased to see that their vision for the Southbank was living on, 60 years after the festival, although I imagine they’d probably blanch at the prices the tourists have to pay.

It now costs £18.60 minimum for a walk up ticket to the Eye. I was one of the first to ride it, on 9th March 2000. In fact due to technical problem, I think that was the very day it opened, and I seem to recall it cost in the region of £10. Talk about a glutton for punishment, I visited the Millennium Dome the day after. Personally, the view from the Eye didn’t impress me much. It was a slightly cloudy day and I didn’t get the promised view of Wembley, although I was delighted to see Stamford Bridge in the distance, and there are equally good, and cheaper views available in London (try the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, or Parliament Hill in Hampstead).

Turning back towards the National, I still had a few minutes to kill and decided to visit Foyle’s. My eye was caught by “The London Football Companion” and inevitably I turned to the section on Chelsea, which had some entertaining stories, particularly relating to the 60s. I was charmed by Ron Harris describing the young ladies he saw in the King’s Road as “Thirds” – Richard the Thirds = birds.

Then it was time to go to the play, and if you can lay your hands on a ticket for One Man, Two Guvnors, don’t hesitate. Booking has now been opened for performances to August, and there’s talk of a transfer to the West End. Put aside any prejudice you might have about James Corden, he is a genuinely funny actor and a great improviser.

The play is adapted from the 18th Century “A Servant of Two Masters” by Goldoni, in the school of Commedia dell’Arte. Here the premise is that a small time crook has promised his daughter in marriage to another villain, Roscoe Crabbe. Crabbe has employed a minder called Francis Henshall (Corden) to look after him, but it turns out that Crabbe has been murdered by a posh villain (Oliver Chris) and Crabbe’s twin sister, with whom the posh villain is in love, is now pretending to be Crabbe.

Throw in original songs performed by a skiffle band, the world’s most unfortunate waiter, and a fantastic performance by Jemima Rooper as Roscoe/Rachel, and if you don’t nearly wet yourself laughing you either a) have no sense of humour or b) are dead. And if you’re prepared to stand and queue, it can cost as little as a fiver.

Who said the arts are elitist?