Blog From The Bog: Subsiding Subsidies

The Arts


This is the post where I occasionally run a past blog and rewrite it, as it seems apposite again in the light of current events. My friend Porl Cooper reminded me of this, originally posted under the heading ‘Stage Fright’. It seems appropriate as a triumphant London Mayor prepares to dump the arts and concentrate on getting permission to use his water cannons, and Theresa May prepares to massively increase the powers of surveillance in London.

Subsidised theatre has always been a Conservative target. Quality of Life is a non-profit expenditure. Why, the argument runs, should theatre be given money to ‘improve’ people when the middle classes are the only people interested in it?

The flipside of that mantra is that a healthy West End is good for the entire industry, and healthy local theatre feeds the West End. As if to prove the point, last week’s Olivier Awards were swept by a tiny local theatre, the superb 325-seater Almeida Theatre, which happens to be my nearest playhouse. This season’s roster has included hit after hit, the satire ‘Charles III’, ‘Ghosts’, ‘Chimerica’, ‘1984’ and ‘American Psycho’. And with West End prices tipping £100 a seat, it’s affordable.

I haven’t seen any of them except ‘Chimerica’ when it transferred to a bigger venue.

The Almeida is subsidised. But it’s not encouraging those who never go to the theatre to discover new plays. It’s in Islington, home of the former PM, where houses start at a million and there’s no shortage of big money, so the idea of subsidising it is a joke. And you can’t ever get tickets, no matter how early you try to book. It also runs a corporate sponsorship scheme, so that visiting middle-managers can have staff outings to the theatre while locals can’t get in.

A friend of mine stages plays in the North of England that engage local audiences with stories set in their area. The North has had its funding cut as re-zoning means that one small amount must cover all theatres in the region. The accepted idea of making a theatre work is to mix between populist seat-fillers and more demanding fare. He’s currently showing a play about Ed Snowden in between nights with local music. But he knows what people really want. At the Oliviers, the British public voted for what they thought was the best of British theatre, and picked ‘Les Miserables’, the bombastic musical which has been running for 30 years.

And while the tiny Donmar Theatre gets stars like Nicole Kidman in its plays,  you’ll never get a ticket even if you wanted to (because you really want to go to ‘Les Miserables’ anyway). The idea of the neediest theatres getting the subsidies has evaporated.

There’s another unspoken problem, also a national one; underfunded local theatres are short of directors and attract incompetent ones, whereas theatres in rich areas drawn on a more skilled gene pool. A local pub theatre in Islington, the King’s Head, once staged engaging powerful plays – now it only does operas (this has since changed – ed). Only the rough-edged Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn manages to tread the right line. You play to your catchment area.

Theatre is a deep-rooted part of British life. The one-legged actor Samuel Foote’s merciless impersonations of famous figures eventually resulted in the foundation of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, a people’s theatre that was granted a royal charter. Now that grand edifice charges the highest prices in London and only stages tat for tourists.

When I was a schoolboy, we used to be allowed into theatres through the scenery docks to watch rehearsals. By the time I was 18 I’d seen most of Shakespeare’s output. After that, I paid a couple of pounds to stand at the back and watch plays. Now, a London theatre outing for the family, with travel and something to eat, can come to £500. My mother, asked to recall the single happiest moment of her life, picked her first theatre outing.

The London Theatre Museum lost its subsidy and collapsed, so that the history of this most vibrant arm of the arts can no longer be explored by new generations. But at the moment we have a government that bans prisoners from receiving books – so for now, at least, the new philistinism is here to stay. ‘Mamma Mia’ again, anyone? It’s only a £100 a seat.

The photograph shows part of Wilton’s Music Hall.

3 comments on “Blog From The Bog: Subsiding Subsidies”

  1. Jackie H. says:

    The academies, which are taking over education, seem not to regard the Arts in general as being of any real value. At my son’s school, the Drama department has been reduced to a bare minimum and his friend was advised not to choose Drama as a GCSE option, because he was “too bright”. Like your Mother, one of my stellar memories is of going to my first real play – experiencing Ian McKellen as Richard II at the Mermaid Theatre, many years ago; transporting and life-changing, without exaggeration. Before then, I had experienced pantomimes at the Golders Green Hippodrome, which also left a deep impression!

  2. Ford says:

    Try living in Bournemouth! No proper theatre; or, does pantomime count? There are music venues; but, unless you want to see the latest girl/boy band; the bigger bands (though no too big!) like Status Quo; bands from the e Sixties who are still going with a member of one of the original lineups; tribute bands! or, bands so new, you haven’t heard of them yet! I saw one a few weeks ago, whose next tour takes them up an notch to Southampton! The annual folk festival collapsed after a year two; though the beer festival is hanging on in there! There is an Arts by the Sea festival in October. There isn’t any details yet; and it’s difficult to see what was on, last year! Our big cultural event (I use that ironically!) is the “successful” Bournemouth Air Show. This is basically a glorifies promotion for the RAF; with the Red Arrows over 4 days; lots of aerobatics (another set of planes looping the loop!) and a couple of “icon warbirds” – Spitfires, the Vulcan bomber, if it’s flying …. The same as last year then, an dtheyear before that, and …. This month, there is a Wheel Festival! Celebrating all things automotive! Ironic, as it’ll clogup the to roads with extravisitors! To be fair, The Lighthouse in Poole has a varied calendar of events, but, for the most part, for culture and the arts, you have to be willing to travel! Even, god forbid, to London!

    I’m not sure what point I’m making here, except that some of us don’t have ready access too culture – a part from the stuff in plastic pots from the chill cabinet!

    Anyone want join me to see Hawkwind in October at the O2?. No! Not that one! Boscombe of course! … and yes they are still going strong; as are a number of spin off bands, that you can see in the smaller venues of this fair town. Do checkout the Boscombe Devil! It’s not an old Sherlock Holmes, or, Bryant and May case. It was a reactions to arts, culture and entertainments though!

  3. Helen Martin says:

    The permanent company that played in the city owned Playhouse is gone through a dispute with the city. There was a subsidy but the individual productions received grants from corporations as well. It was noted in the programme and sometimes by an easel in the lobby. Drama is expensive to produce, but at least we aren’t having another series of “A Night With…” or two handers. Community theatre, by which I mean semi=professional productions, is somewhat active in a handful of venues and tries to offer a range of material but they generally don’t have enough status to pull large corporate grants which means very low advertising budgets among other problems.
    What was the last theatre I attended (not counting the mini opera world premiered at the university on Friday – don’t ask) was it MS Margolies as Dickens’ Women? Surely not. Must look into the three community theatres running. Would you believe the neighbouring municipality has a fully equipped theatre, complete with flies and all sorts of backstage stuff attached to the high school and they can’t find the money to maintain it so it sits dark.

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