“Theatre eh? Bloody hell.” – David Lockwood.
Threescore and twelve years ago yesterday, an idea was brought into action by polemical Welshman and absolute smoke-show Aneurin Bevan (pictured) to fix an industry that was a mess. The part-privately, part-publicly funded healthcare industry had no shortage of brilliant staff and good intentions, but it had deep-seated structural problems. Some service providers were simply unaffordable to ordinary people, and many that weren’t teetered on the brink of financial collapse. Commercially-oriented management led to huge gaps in provision, underpaid frontline workers, and a system frequently stratified along class lines. Sound familiar?
Out of this mayhem, despite a global crisis and a drastically weakened economy, came a new, unified service, one free at the point of use for every man, woman and child. One that would transform our perception of hospitals from places of dread to places of safety, from pits of last resort to national assets. And fuck knows, it wasn’t perfect then and isn’t perfect now, but we still swing-dance around beds to celebrate it to this day.
Most people would probably be hesitant to draw analogies between the performing arts industry and the NHS. On one level, there will never be parity between the people that ventilate your gran and people like me who potter around their spare room drafting concept albums about cartoon bears. But on another, they both receive public funding, so the gulf of public esteem between them has something to do with how that money is spent, and what we get for it.
In 2001, when a different Labour government made museums and galleries free at the point of use, public perception of them was similarly transformed, and attendance at them both skyrocketed and diversified. Theatres, however, weren’t coming along for the ride, sitting as they did in a separate, more commercial tradition going back to good old bear-baiting, paper-stacking, nicking-the-theatre-to-pay-less-rent Shakespeare himself, and likely beyond. They were different, right? They could make their own way in the big wide market. No need for public funding to get involved. Except that’s not how it’s worked out.
Theatre is the most-funded genre by Arts Council England (whose founder Keynes was, ironically enough, the chair of a failed theatre), yet all of its funded organisations charge for entry for the majority of their programme. Some, like the Royal Opera House, charge hundreds of pounds, a practice that would create outrage if it happened at a library, museum or gallery. The fact that their funding from ACE is ring-fenced for administrative and “core” costs, rather than artistic spending, grants the ability for most of these organisations to pursue commercial agendas while still banking public funds, all the while casualising and undervaluing the labour of their frontline staff. This is a big part of why there is widespread public apathy, or even resentment, for the theatre establishment, a thing we who are in it often don’t see or want to see: public money goes into a thing that much of the public can’t or don’t want to use. I wouldn’t hate on anyone for applying to this bailout to safeguard their businesses and livelihoods, but those who wish to defend it ideologically must do the same for the bailouts of the airplane and car industries. An arty veneer of respectability can’t obscure the fact that both are filled with private companies who keep their surpluses when they succeed, beg for handouts when they fail, and pay top dollar to their executives throughout.
But if the Conservative Party can pull a u-turn on decades of entrenched thinking about public spending, so can we. Rather than pickle the established order in a jar for when this all passes over, we could do previously unthought-of things if theatres were transformed into public assets, unshackled by the profit motive. We could put a young company in every school, touring shows in every community hall, have salaried theatre makers delivering engagement programmes measured in years instead of days. We could open up programming to local residents, democratising and rejuvenating what people see at their local venues in the way many rural touring schemes have done. Publicly funded theatres wouldn’t have to compete with West End shows anymore, because they’d be offering something wholly different. It wouldn’t be cheap, but it would finally make theatre publicly owned, not just publicly funded, and if another crisis rolls around, it wouldn’t need an additional penny to keep functioning. And maybe at the 2076 Olympics we can baffle the world with scenes of ushers twerking over a lighting desk as giant glowing letters commemorate the National Arts Service. Just a thought.
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