It’s not a familiar sound in the arts community to hear toasts being raised to Boris Johnson. The 2008 financial crisis saw the both major parties pass over theatre and the arts and austerity subsequently saw the industry hollowed out to devastating effect. When the pandemic struck it looked like government was going to allow the ravages in the West End to run wild.
While there have been increasingly loud shrieks of desperation and prophecies of doom emanating from the arts over the last few weeks, government seemed to be distracted at best. The theatre adage ‘break a leg’ appeared to have been taken to heart, with both legs smashed and left for dead. So in a surprise move last night, the Prime Minister pledged funds to save the arts. And not only that, it was far more money than anyone expected.
Part of the problem facing the arts, and particularly theatre, is the fact that unlike other parts of the broader hospitality industry, theatres are still forced to close due to coronavirus infection fears.
While theatre has been given a provisional reopening date of 23rd July, you can fairly easily just reopen a pub but a theatre needs plays which take months to prepare, cast, rehearse and fund. Dame Judy Dench last week claimed that she doesn’t think theatre would be able to recover ‘in my lifetime’.
Dame Judy Dench last week claimed that she doesn't think theatre would be able to recover 'in my lifetime'
The package announced by Boris includes a £1.15bn support pot for cultural organisations in England (which will be made up of £880m in grants and £270m in loans), plus a further £100m of specific targeted support for England’s national cultural institutions and English Heritage. There will be £120 of investment for construction projects on cultural infrastructure and for heritage construction projects in England plus devolved administrations will get cash to the tune of £97m for Scotland, £59m for Wales and £33m for Northern Ireland.
The money can’t come soon enough. Southampton’s famed Nuffield Theatre finally announced it had ceased to exist just last week while the Royal Albert Hall was uncertain if it would survive to its 150th birthday in spring without urgent funding. Similar SOS calls were put out by The Old Vic and Shakespeare’s Globe, joining a throng of theatres on the brink of collapse.
The industry had hoped for a bail-out, but the mood music from the Treasury lately has been down-key and expectations were low. But the government’s announcement goes well beyond what anyone had dared to hope for, especially given the industry’s experience at the hands of the Lib Dem, Tory coalition during the last downturn. But £1.57bn is a huge vote of confidence in the arts, and fulfil’s the chancellor’s pledge that the government will ‘do what it takes’.
Given the post-match analysis of the government’s coronavirus response will make for rather mixed reading for those at the top of government, it’s all the more crucial that they come out of the crisis with some success stories (furlough being another), and it looks like this may well be a key element of the silver lining.
Which also means that panto may be back on. Britain’s bawdiest institution after Prince Philip, panto is part of Christmas as much as the John Lewis ad and sherry swilling flatulent great aunts. Summer is traditionally when panto gets going, with the wheels being set in motion for winter extravaganzas in June and July. It’s hoped that this intervention from central government will mean that by the time Christmas rolls round we’ll be able to say of coronavirus ‘it’s behind you!’