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April 25 2012

Jeremy Hunt: Can't stop, off to Swan Lake

What has the Leveson inquiry revealed about Jeremy Hunt's taste in art? Did he get to Take That? And how big an N-Dubz fan is he?

On Monday, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt tweeted "With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come (Gratiano, Merchant of Venice)", a celebratory quote for Shakespeare's birthday. On Tuesday, "Is this a dagger which I see before me?" might have seemed more appropriate.

Perhaps surprisingly, only two of the emails released by the Leveson inquiry this week indicated that Hunt had an interest in the arts beyond the Murdochs' BSkyB takeover bid. One, from News Corp's public affairs executive Frédéric Michel to James Murdoch, reported grabbing the culture secretary "before he went in to see Swan Lake" to discuss the bid. In another, sent later that year, Michel plaintively asked Hunt's special adviser Adam Smith whether Ed Vaizey's refusal to meet News Corp while the deal was going through meant that "you and Jeremy will not be coming to Take That on 4 July".

Between them, Take That and Swan Lake suggest that Hunt has fairly mainstream tastes – and in fact, according to the Royal Opera House, the ballet was an unusual outing; a spokesperson confirms that Hunt is not a regular. Did he or did he not see Take That at Wembley on 4 July? The band's press officer says he has no idea: "He didn't get tickets from us."

In the five years since he was made shadow culture secretary, and then culture secretary when the Tories won the 2010 election, Hunt has given the impression of someone who enjoys the arts without having a deep knowledge of – or passion for – them. To be fair, though, he seems more culturally immersed than his opposite number Harriet Harman, or the shadow culture minister Dan Jarvis.

At a meeting of the rightwing culture thinktank New Culture Forum last year, Hunt said his major policy for the arts was to encourage philanthropy. But this approach ran into trouble earlier this month, after tax relief for philanthropists was restricted in the budget. Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, said the Treasury had "completely pulled the carpet from under" Hunt's attempts to encourage rich donors.

The culture secretary appears to have an interest in pop music beyond Take That: a journalist who interviewed him for the London Evening Standard last summer (shortly before the BSkyB bid failed) reported seeing a biography of N-Dubz on Hunt's desk. "Well, Tulisa is going to be gracing our screens, isn't she?" he said, of the N-Dubz member who went on to be an X Factor judge. In 2010, he revealed his classical music preferences to Guardian arts correspondent Charlotte Higgins: "I am still early Schoenberg rather than late." He also enjoys Tchaikovsky, attending Opera North's production of The Queen of Spades and ENO's Eugene Onegin, directed by Deborah Warner.

Russian literature seems to resonate with Hunt, too. He admires the poets Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, who were dissidents during the Soviet regime, and quoted a poem by Mandelstam in his first speech as culture secretary. Then there's his passion for Japanese culture; Hunt speaks the language after teaching English there.

Like other Tories, Hunt has spoken warmly about their star signing, Tracey Emin. He attended the private view of her retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, and in his first keynote speech on the arts, cited her grafitto "I need art like I need God", sprayed on the sea wall at Margate. "Sometimes graffiti – however objectionable and anti-social it is in principle – can be very thought-provoking," he noted.

But it was culture minister Ed Vaizey rather than Hunt who schmoozed Emin. In 2009, the Guido Fawkes website reported that the pair enjoyed a three-hour lunch at Scott's of Mayfair, and she has also dined with David Cameron at No 10. All this paid off when Emin declared her support for the Tories last year: "At the moment there is a government that actually likes the arts, appreciates the arts and appreciates culture."

Hunt is an admirer of Grayson Perry, too. He went to Perry's recent exhibition at the British Museum, and has a print by the artist on his office wall – alongside a photograph of him meeting Arnold Schwarzenegger in Los Angeles. He picked another contemporary work from the Government Art Collection for his office in 2010: a Mark Wallinger painting from a 1990s series called Brown's (42 sets of silks worn by jockeys riding for racehorse owners called Brown). Alerted to this by the Guardian, the Labour-supporting Wallinger groaned: "That is a shocker. As an artist, it's very hard to vet your patrons – they generally drift rightwards as they get older anyway."

Hunt's trips to the theatre point to a taste divided between blockbusters and political theatre. He saw David Hare's indictment of New Labour, Gethsemane, as well as Lucy Prebble's Enron; the latter might have proved an uncomfortable night for a Tory, though Hunt told New Culture Forum he considered it a prime example of why theatre should keep its subsidy. He has also seen hits such as War Horse, at the National Theatre, and Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, which he attended on its West End transfer in the run-up to the election.

Hunt's most recent direct intervention in the arts world was his decision to fire Liz Forgan as chair of Arts Council England, saying that a new appointment was necessary in order to encourage greater private giving to the arts, and to help the arts sector "make the most of technological changes". John Tusa, Veronica Wadley and Peter Bazalgette have been mooted as possible successors. Whether Hunt will still be around to appoint one of them seems doubtful – unless, in the words of Take That, everything changes.

Correction 26/4/12. The article suggested that Hunt's opposite number is Labour's Dan Jarvis. In fact Jarvis is shadow culture minister. The shadow culture secretary is Harriet Harman. This has been corrected. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

September 26 2010

James Murdoch's Sky scraper

What does this building say about BSkyB? James Murdoch gives Jonathan Glancey an exclusive view of his first big architectural commission: a colossal TV factory

'It's not meant to be pretty," says James Murdoch, chairman of BSkyB, of its new broadcasting centre. This might seem an odd thing to say about the first building BSkyB has commissioned, yet this steel and glass colossus – rising from the heart of BSkyB's jumble of buildings at Osterley, on the Heathrow flight path – is no conventional beauty. In fact, Harlequin 1, a colourful and even comic name for a decidedly serious building, has the look of some futuristic power station: a strange way, perhaps, to express BSkyB's corporate values.

As Murdoch, lean, personable and surprisingly ruminative, emerges from the long shadow of his father Rupert, you might expect to find him and his bright young staff (average age: 27) plotting an expanding empire from some racy new structure designed by Rem Koolhaas or Zaha Hadid. But I get the impression that BSkyB has grown so quickly that, until now, there has been no time for the luxury of architecture.

Founded in 1990, the company's turnover has grown from £93m in 1991 to £5.4bn last year. It now employs 16,500 full-time staff up and down the country, and broadcasts 26 Sky channels. As it's grown, its Osterley base has sprawled out into a ragbag of old industrial sheds and rental offices. The company itself doesn't even seem to take these buildings seriously: in the lobby of the head office, larger-than-life Simpsons mannequins sprawl on a sofa.

"It's very dangerous when companies start building," Murdoch says. It's a curious notion, yet one that makes sense for a business that still has the feel of a muscular young streetfighter looking to take on all comers – rather than that of a long-established and self-consciously cultured set-up like the BBC, whose Broadcasting House looks like an art deco ocean liner carved in stone. "We don't want to build monuments," says Murdoch, "but we've tried to ask what would be the building Sky would build?"

And the £130m Harlequin 1 is the answer: a vast glazed steel box, interrupted by towering columns that prove to be chimneys removing hot and stale air from studios and editing suites. Clearly, Harlequin 1 is not meant to be a contemporary version of the BBC's elegant Broadcasting House. No: with its factory-like bulk, its sleek cladding and forest of chimneys, it's a refined brute of a building. As for its green credentials, it boasts the world's first naturally ventilated recording studios and, despite its scale, daylight and fresh air reach virtually every workspace.

"We've lived in a Portakabin world as we've grown," says Jeremy Darroch, BSkyB's chief executive, sitting alongside James Murdoch. "No, we haven't been after a 'great' building, but one that allows us to change and grow and move on. Harlequin 1 is a factory where we can make and record programmes, edit them and broadcast them under a single roof. It's got eight flexible studios, so we can experiment as we move forward. We've come a long way from the BSkyB people once seemed to associate solely with TV in pubs."

"We're young, slightly raw, dynamic," adds Murdoch. "But we also put out a greater coverage of the arts on Sky than the entire BBC."

As I walk into the lobby with architect Declan O'Carroll of Arup Associates, the building begins to make sense, especially in terms of how Murdoch and Darroch pitch BSkyB. Although essentially hard-edged, Harlequin 1 manages to be both dynamic and even tasteful. A striking black steel stair climbs up to a glazed roof, far above. One wall is sheathed in polished plaster: a crafted and, dare I say it, luxurious touch. Another wall, glazed, offers glimpses of the distant West End, and of jets making their final approach to Heathrow. It's like having a ringside seat at an aerial parade.

The lobby stair leads to cafes and "break-out" spaces for informal meetings, all sharing these panoramas. This part of the building, the place where it relaxes and puts its feet up, is housed in a cantilevered steel and glass tower that seems to be breaking away from the main structure. It promises to be a lively, attractive spot when Harlequin 1 goes live next year, ahead of schedule and £5m under budget.

"The building really is a big machine," says O'Carroll, as we take an exhaustive tour. The eight studios are cave-like spaces fronted by huge sliding steel doors. The Sky Sports studio sits at its heart: set behind clear glass screens, it will be on view to the public as they tour Harlequin 1. "We definitely want people to come and see us," says Murdoch. "We're not trying to hide out in the boondocks. We're already involved with local schools and the community. We want Harlequin 1 to be somewhere people feel they are a part of."

It is not hard to see how this mighty machine would be fun to work in. Part ocean freighter, part James Bond set, part Darth Vader battleship, it will suit a young, creative and energetic staff, the kind of people who find slick, corporate headquarters alien. Corridors loop around each floor like giant racetracks making everything easy to find, while floors are raised up on steel props to accommodate 50km of cabling. There is little in the way of plush carpets, exotic veneers and plump armchairs, yet the building is anything but unfriendly. "Wherever possible," says O'Carroll, "people work around the perimeter. Here, they have real control over their environment: opening windows, daylight, views . . ."

This might sound obvious, but all too many people work in buildings where they have little control over how hot or cold, bright or dark, humid or dry it is. "Energy costs should be a third less than a conventional building of this kind," says O'Carroll, on the benefits of those chimneys. "The aim has been to create a carbon-neutral design. No one pretends this is easy, and of course the cooling and ventilation system has a back-up, in case it gets stifling."

If planning permission comes through, Harlequin 1 will be topped with a wind turbine on its west side. Meanwhile, rainwater will flush toilets, and a wood-chip burner will fuel the cooling and heating systems. It all adds up to one very big green machine – or at least as green a machine as something of this size can be. But creating an environmentally friendly building was not Murdoch's only concern: "The question of how you reconcile an increasingly digital world with a real world is so important. In the end, we're producing a stream of ones and zeros beamed out to satellites and back to TVs, laptops and mobiles, but I've wanted to get something of the feeling newspapers once had."

Murdoch enthuses about the days when newspaper buildings were great story-weaving machines: the chipping of typewriters, the calls for copy, the whisky bottles. "And the way," he beams, "complete buildings used to rumble and sway as the presses rolled. I want our staff to share that kind of excitement, but brought up to date."

Murdoch is also busy with the redevelopment of News International's Fortress Wapping (a nickname he bridles at), which is to be transformed by adventurous new architecture, currently under wraps. As the rest of the BSkyB campus at Osterley is transformed, and as BSkyB matures, I hope Murdoch and his team will learn to relax with architecture. Had they done so earlier, they might have encouraged their architects to give Harlequin 1 a little more urban drama. Yes, this new broadcasting centre is an impressive beast, but if only those chimneys had been more forcefully expressed, if only those facades hadn't been so relentlessly smooth.

As I leave, Murdoch asks if the Guardian's conference room at its newish King's Place HQ really does have beanbags for staff to flop on. Sadly, no. But it does have a giant yellow sofa: Homer Simpson would approve. Harlequin 1 might be hard-edged and modern, yet, in its own dynamic, digital way it has a lot in common with the mighty media works of yore. As Murdoch says, it's "not fancy, not slick – it's there to show what it does, and not to show off". © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 16 2010

Rankin joins Sky Arts' cultural revolution

An advertising campaign that turns streets into 'the biggest gallery in Britain' is part of a smart political move by BSkyB

Sky Arts has called in the photographer Rankin to help raise its profile as a credible outlet for culture programming, with an advertising campaign that promises to turn streets in six large cities into "the biggest gallery in Britain".

Every billboard, poster, bus stop and phone box advertising space on selected main streets in Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Liverpool and London will be blanketed with images of artists and performers.

In some ways the campaign, called Sky Arts Street Galleries, marks a coming of age for Sky Arts. The channel launched in its current form in 2007, and in recent months has made a string of impressive programming announcements. Perhaps the biggest coup was signing up Melvyn Bragg's South Bank Show after ITV ditched it. Also on the way are adaptations of four Chekhov plays with stars such as Steve Coogan, and a Gilbert and Sullivan season.

BSkyB trumpets Sky Arts as proof that it does offer public-service content. James Murdoch cites the channel as an example of the good things that the market can provide. Such claims have have faced scepticism, however; this has not been a totem as successful as Sky News.

The burgeoning status of Sky Arts plays well politically for the Murdochs. As Jeremy Hunt prepares his cuts, BSkyB's claim that it can support high culture on a commercial basis pushes all the right buttons.

The ad campaign itself, which breaks today, is likely to raise a few eyebrows. Rankin has produced 16 images, each representing a different form of art, with Sky wholeheartedly embracing the philosophy that sex sells, in the arts world as elsewhere.

One particularly striking ad shows the artist and model Meredith Ostrom, sitting naked with just a smattering of paint on her body; the stylistic touch of Rankin just prevents the image from being soft porn.

Another ad makes similar use of the attractions of the Australian dancer Natasha Cudilla, pictured on her hands and knees in a little black dress.

To get full value from the ad campaign there is also a behind-the-scenes documentary, called Rankin: Sky Arts Street Galleries, which will be broadcast tonight. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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