There was a time, not so long ago, when ‘culture’ was almost a dirty word. A ‘culture vulture’ read a broadsheet newspaper, spoke in a drawling upper-class accent and ate smoked salmon sandwiches during the intervals at the opera. But recently the definition of culture has broadened; it now recognises and encompasses a far wider range of activities in many fields. This has brought with it a greater egalitarianism and many activities are now considered cultural where previously they were given other labels. Does this matter, you may ask? Well, yes, I believe it does. Not the labelling per se (a rose by any other name …) but the importance placed by society on the full development of the individual. Exercise for the brain as important as exercise for the body. As we become more and more a nation of shoppers (as opposed to shopkeepers) the need for balance in our lives becomes even greater.
The government added its cachet to the importance of culture when about three years ago it announced its ‘aspiration’ for every child at secondary school to have five hours of culture per week. Like most aspirations this is very laudable, though how it can be achieved does beg many a question. And there is probably nothing like the label cultural activities to put off a teenager and achieve the opposite effect from what was originally intended. Many schools and colleges already offer much in this field and it could be argued that including it in the current curriculum rather than presenting it as an add-on is a far more subtle way of influencing young minds.
As a Londoner and a theatre-goer I have for many years observed the shepherding of hordes of teenagers to West End plays. Indeed, as a former teacher, I have been guilty myself of the shepherding! I think I can say that I now feel less trepidation when sighting said hordes than I have in the past. Students from all areas of the education system are present, and generally speaking they are less disruptive than they have been previously. But almost invariably there are aspects of behaviour that seem peculiar to this type of member of the audience. First, there is the ritual of sitting next to your friends. This enables many of the young girls (and occasionally boys) to rest their heads on their neighbours’ shoulders, perhaps to have a comfortable shut-eye. Then there’s the question of mobile phones. Not just the young but people in general have thankfully learned to disable the ringing tone before the start of a performance, but teenagers seem unable to be out of communication for an hour or so and the lit-up screens of those intent on texting or playing games during the performance can be most distracting. But whatever the involvement with the play, there’s no doubting the enthusiasm of young audience members when it’s (finally) over. Even those who have slept or texted their way through the entire performance will whoop and cheer the cast as they take their bow as if they were a Jerry Springer audience. Maybe they’re just thankful it’s all over!
Jeannette Nelson Jeannette is a bit of a culture vulture who enjoys art exhibitions, cinema and classical music, but her main interest is the theatre. For several years she ran theatre discussion groups for which her MA in Modern Drama together with teaching skills stood her in good stead. She prefers to concentrate on the many off West End and fringe productions as well as that real treasure of the London theatre scene, the National.