Christopher Fildes

Forget about heritage, that’s been done — unless it’s a West End theatre

Forget about heritage, that’s been done — unless it’s a West End theatre

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Archie Rice urged his audience not to applaud too loudly: ‘It’s an old house. A very old house.’ This may explain why The Entertainer (Archie in the lead) has not been revived in the West End. Too warm a reception might make the theatre fall down. Now all these fragile old houses have found an unlikely friend in Tessa Jowell, who wants to pull £125 million out of the proceeds of the National Lottery to keep them going. In its earlier days the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which is her fiefdom, was known as the Ministry of Free Tickets. Since then it has had a modish makeover and is now the Department of Access and Outreach. Worldly-wise theatre managements will take the hint and trim their acts accordingly, just as worldly-wise museums have gone all relevant and interactive. Their boring old exhibits can be earmarked for de-accessioning — the word, if such it can be called, that museum curators use to mean selling or dumping. To a gathering of conservationists the other day, the minister’s minion put it plainly. Her view, they were told, was that heritage had been done. Soon enough she might turn the tap off for good. It was time to focus on this century’s priorities — health, education, the environment — thus, as she did not need to add, taking the strain off her colleague, the Chancellor. Never mind what the past thought it knew or what the future might want to know — but then, there has always been a touch of the Pol Pot about this government. Everything has to start again from Year Zero, except, by some quirk, some two dozen aging West End theatres. Just don’t call them heritage.

No offence meant

’Tis the season of inoffensive goodwill, so make sure that your office party books its act through Clean Comedians of California. No jokes that might upset anybody. Otherwise you might be an accomplice to harassment, sexism or discrimination and go down for millions. Make sure that the script has been vetted by Human Resources. That is a certain recipe for good clean fun. More and more American companies are getting sued on the morning after their parties. I would have thought that the remedy was worse than the complaint, but both must be on their way here, hurried on by the Home Office’s vigilant draftsmen, so ready to take vicarious offence. Rowan Atkinson complains that they will put him out of business. NB: any jokes in City and Suburban are supplied at readers’ risk.

Grand and lofty

The Midland Bank’s boardroom stands empty. I am told that it is a Grade One listed building and cannot be touched. Grand and lofty, like its inmates, this temple of corporate governance had been designed by Lutyens to be worthy of the world’s biggest bank. The decisions that cost the Midland’s independence were taken here. First, the board funked and fudged appointing a chief executive. Rather than choose between two rivals who were barely on speaking terms, it appointed both of them, jointly. One of them set out to make the Midland international, seaching for the deal that would crown his career. One American purchase fell through, another, in California, presented itself, he urged the Midland to buy Crocker and the board rubber-stamped his choice. This was the second of its two fatal decisions.

Duty and purpose

Money poured out of Crocker. Geoffrey Taylor, who followed the rival chief executives, strove to stem the flow, and now, after his death, has been invited to share in the blame for it — but that belongs to the board. All that Taylor’s successors could do was to find a buyer for the Midland. In the end, HSBC got a bargain, and moved its purchase out. Jacques Attali, needing a home for his boondoggle, looked the boardroom over for his office but decided that it was not grand enough. He preferred marble halls. We are left with banking’s answer to Miss Havisham’s room, as conjured up in Great Expectations — dust gathering on unhappy memories, twilight seeping in through the clerestory and glinting on faded municipal escutcheons. Now it should be reopened as a school, not a temple, of corporate governance. Boards would learn that their special duty is to hire and (if need be) fire the chief executive, and that their first purpose is to make the company prosper. No codes and committees of independent directors — the Midland had dozens — can be any substitute for that.

Too much like work

It’s the stress, you see. Unemployment may be a thing of the past, but instead we do not go to work because we are not feeling well, days off sick are a speciality of the public sector, and the Department for Work and Pensions enjoys the most sickies of all. On any one day, 7,100 of its staff (total payroll: 142,000) are at home, getting over something. When at work, they might have to decide whether other people cannot be expected to work or are just swinging the lead. No wonder it gets to them. In his pre-Budget report, Gordon Brown promised to put employment advisers into doctors’ surgeries, until (of course) they are carried out screaming. We might prefer to privatise the Department of Not Working and see if it feels any better.

Bearing fruit

Those of us who like to pretend that we came to the City when the Ark grounded on Ludgate Hill have been reminded that Derek Tullett beat us to it. This week he celebrates his first half-century in the City, almost all of it spent in the specialised world of money-broking. He set up his own firm, which was backed by Postel, the Post Office pension fund, and proved as rewarding a long-term investment as it can ever have made. Along the way he became Master of the Fruiterers and was honoured for his services to the financial markets. Now Tullett Liberty has joined forces with Collins Stewart, and he has gone on to endow the Olive Tree Foundation, which brings Arab and Israeli students to live and work together at the City University and, as he hopes, on their return. I have offered this fruiterer a motto from Isaiah: ‘The desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.’

Christopher Fildes’s book, A City Spectator, can be ordered from Spectator Bookshop: page 35.