Gareth Huw Davies

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How Christopher Fraylng won the West – a passion for Leone

Sir Christopher Frayling,  the academic and scholar of Westerns has written a hefty coffee table tome on one of the last great films in the genre, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (£50.00).

In their notes on the book, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, Shooting a Masterpiece, publishers Reel Art Press say the film ‘set out to be the ultimate Western – a celebration of the power of classic Hollywood cinema, a meditation on the making of America, and a lament for the decline of one of the most cherished film genres in the form of a “dance of death”.’ Frayling, who has been Professor of Cultural History at the Royal College of Art since 1979, it’s probably the leading authority on Sergio Leone’s films.

This is where my and his paths tentatively cross. I developed a passion for the Clint Eastwood ‘ Dollars’ films in the 1960s. Frayling, lucky man, was able to write books about them.

Frayling was one of the guests on BBC 3’s Free Thinking  – Sergio Leone, Kubrick, Magic and the Mind. on Thursday, May 9th 2019

I met Frayling in 2006, when he was chairman of the Arts Council, and wrote this interview for The Sunday Times.

The chairman of Arts Council England, like the national football manager free to attend any match he pleases, commands the hottest tickets at publicly-funded theatre and concerts.

So in recent weeks Sir Christopher Frayling has been to Wagner at Covent Garden, Samuel Beckett at the Barbican, and a major literature prize at the V&A. But unlike Mr Eriksson, he is not paid £4 million a year. Not £1m; not even £100,000.  In fact he receives precisely nothing, apart from expenses, for a notional day and a half’s work a week, and often more, as head of the body dispensing an annual £400 million of Treasury and £150 million of Lottery money, out every evening travelling the country, attending events and making speeches.

“It’s an anomaly dating from when Maynard Keynes proposed the Arts Council in 1945. I don’t think the Bloomsbury Set [the artistic elite] could conceive of a time when the great and the good would not be chairing it. The act specifically says `non remuneration’.”

Frayling says he can cope financially as the government-appointed head of the “development agency for the arts in England” because of his day job — he is rector of the Royal College of Art. “I have an understanding employer and I can delegate bits of the Rector’s duties. But I’m trying to get it right for my successors. I think some remuneration, not a princely sum, will produce a wider field of applicants next time. We are talking to the Charity Commissioners about changing that.”

As a writer and broadcaster on the arts, and Professor of Cultural History at the college since 1979, Frayling believes he is the first person from within the world of the arts to be chairman — he was appointed in 2004 — since Kenneth Clark in the 1950s. “It is emotionally demanding because I mean it: this is my life. I think it is vital that people who have their finger on the pulse of the arts, are also there advising the government on it.”

He generally spends Monday afternoon at the council  — as a non-executive, he believes it inappropriate to keep an office there, as previous chairman have.  “I talk with the CEO about what’s on the radar and meet a lot of people who come in to see us.”  Then most mornings he is at his desk at the college very early, keeping ahead of the big arts stories of the day, skimming the newspapers, catching the Today Programme.

“I need to know what’s in the ether, what are the pressure points in the arts.  Has someone said something in Parliament?  Is there a funding company in crisis?  Is there some controversy which we are linked with?  The phone soon starts ringing and I will be expected to have a view.”

Frayling is out every evening, in London and the provinces, often at back-to-back engagements, attending events and performances.  Recent diary dates include opening a crafts exhibition at Leicester Museum, giving a speech on music at the Sage Concert Hall in Gateshead, and opening an art and design centre at Highgate School. He lives in Chiswick, and tries to leave on Friday evenings for the family home in Bath.  “But increasingly there are weekend functions which leaves just Saturday lunchtime to Sunday evening free.”

He sees his job as “being the ambassador, popping up at all sorts of things, leading from the front, and ensuring that the arts are on the agenda. I have tried to reposition the council as a more visible, authoritative, high-profile organisation, and not just a cashpoint machine for performers with a rather complicated pin number. I see it as a campaigning organisation, a development agency.

“Some newspapers and journalists don’t believe in public subsidy of the arts.  They feel the market should be doing it. Keynes had this wonderful dream in 1945. He put the public responsibility for the arts up with education, health, and inner-city regeneration. There was economic poverty, and there was poverty of aspiration too.  One part of the council’ s role was to make people look up and think about other things. I believe that still applies.”