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28 Mar 2007 : Column 462WH—continued

My final point is that the commercial theatre, the subsidised theatre and the amateur dramatic world are one, and we cannot put money into just one of them—they are all part of a whole, which is why we must make a dramatic contribution. In that respect, let me mention another production in which my hon. Friend took part—“Hedda Gabler”. She gave a very fine performance as Hedda, and many hon. Members may have seen it. What is interesting, however, is what the other performers in that production have done since. Pam St. Clement has gone on, most notably, to be in “Eastenders”, which is a very successful television programme. Patrick Stewart has continued to do a great deal of subsidised theatre and is in the subsidised theatre at the moment. Incidentally,
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he is also a great supporter of the Labour party. He has also done a great deal in television and was in “Star Trek”. Celia Imrie is another television performer, but she is also frequently on the stage. Oz Clarke was also in the production, but he is now better known for his contributions on the subject of wine.

If the Minister has not yet wrestled with the Chancellor over the funding for theatres in the comprehensive spending review, I very much hope that he will wrestle ferociously until he manages to get at least another £20 million out of him.

3.13 pm

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): I shall be brief because I know that other hon. Members want to speak. I welcome the debate and the contributions that have been made so far—particularly the opening speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson).

As my hon. Friend said, a look at the finances and at what has happened over the past few years reveals that the Government were responsible for some massive increases in theatre funding in 2000. There is no question about that—it was absolutely unprecedented. If we compare where we are now with where we were in 1997, we see that Arts Council funding to subsidised theatres has more than doubled in the intervening time. There is therefore no question but that there has been an enormous improvement. However, that improvement has been slowing down, particularly since 2005.

Since 2000, there has also been an increase in private funding to those same theatres, and it is no coincidence that that increase has happened at the same time as the increase in public subsidy, because private investors will put money in when they have some confidence in where the sector is going. In itself, therefore, that increase in private funding illustrates the importance of public funding.

If we look at the consequences of that investment between 2000 and 2005, we see that there has been a dramatic improvement in the financial status of many theatres and that collective deficits have been wiped away. There has also been an increase in the number of performances. In addition, it was striking that the Arts Council submission to the comprehensive spending review, which looked at the effects of the spending that I described, noted that there had been a significant increase in the number of new works that had been commissioned. I shall return to that later, but the number of such new works is a key indicator of the health of the theatre. Between 2000 and 2005, there was a more than 20 per cent. increase in the number of such works.

There have also been increases in the work force and big increases in the levels of educational activity delivered through theatres. In some of the major regional theatres, furthermore, there have been significant increases in attendance. One survey showed that 40 per cent. more people had visited such theatres over the period that I mentioned.

I spent 10 years on the board of the Theatre Royal Stratford East, although I am no longer a board member. The theatre is one of the really important producing theatres in the country and has prided itself on innovation over the years, going back to the time of Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop. It relies on developing new
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work, not on touring performances or on going back to well-known plays. In particular, it has an outstanding record on developing new work by black and minority ethnic writers and performers.

From my time on the board, I know how important public sector funding is for the theatre, and that includes the funding that it got from the Arts Council and the local authority in Newham, which was a generous supporter of the theatre. Without that funding, the theatre would not have been able to do the work that it did. Nor would it have been able to take the risks that are inherent in being a producing theatre that develops new work. When a theatre does such work, it is inevitable that things will not always come off and that there will be a flop. That is just part of the business of developing new work, but it is difficult for a theatre to take such risks if it feels that it is in the business of having to turn in a profit at the end of every week and every month.

We want to have innovation in the theatre and to encourage new writers, new performers and audiences, particularly among the black and minority ethnic communities in places such as Stratford. We would never have seen such people in the theatre some years ago, but they are now taking part in significant numbers on the stage and in the audience. However, we will not achieve that without the public subsidy to enable theatres to work. If nobody is there doing that work and taking the risks, theatre as a whole will be poorer as a result.

Public subsidy is essential for core funding. It is possible to ask sponsors to sponsor a show, and although they might be interested in big events to which they can attach their name, they are never interested in the core, day-to-day funding that keeps a theatre running. My experience from serving on the board of the Theatre Royal Stratford East, which is, as I said, one of the most important developmental theatres in this country, was that its projects would never have worked without public subsidy. I therefore hope that we shall not go down the road of cutting back. We put in enormous investment in 2000 and we have seen developments, but I hope that we will not see them start to slip away.

Let me just add to the point about the Olympics. I represent one of the five Olympic boroughs, so I shall see some development in my area, but I do not want that to happen at the expense of the arts and the theatre.

3.19 pm

Meg Hillier (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): Time is short, so I shall not go into detail on some of the issues that have already been raised by other hon. Members. Instead I turn directly to the issue of investment in audience development and diversity. I mention en route that theatre grants between 2001-02 and 2005-06 rose from £58 million to £96 million in addition to the lottery funding for theatre, and in the period from 2002-03 to 2007-08 arts funding as a whole in London has risen nearly fourfold, from £11.6 million to £43 million.

We must still guard against the cumulative effects of funding changes, however. There are issues about how the Arts Council of England puts Government decisions into action, and other parts of Government policy have an impact as well. I hope that the Minister will address those matters if he has time.

I am privileged to represent a borough with a strong reputation for supporting and fostering creativity, including
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theatre. We have the Arcola theatre, which promotes Turkish and Kurdish theatre in particular and was founded in 2000. There is also Hoxton Hall, the Quicksilver Theatre Company, which I shall mention later, and the physical jewel in the crown of Hackney, the Hackney Empire. The Hackney Empire is a Frank Matcham building and was massively restored between 2001 and 2004, thanks to £17 million of lottery funding and a huge investment by Sir Alan Sugar—a local boy made good, and a benefactor.

The Hackney Empire has put its Arts Council funding of more than £250,000 to good use, but I want to talk mostly about what it is doing to reach new audiences. Hackney has a very diverse population, and it is important to remember that theatre should not be just about art for art’s sake but about audiences and reaching everyone. Hackney Empire has succeeded because diversity is intrinsic to its programming, which includes a range of performances that meet the interests and aspirations of the different groups in Hackney and London. It is not a matter of having token shows written perhaps by a black writer, or of meeting the cultural interests of a Turkish group. The theatre’s audiences number 140,000 a year in total, and 40 per cent. of that number comes from Hackney and reflects the borough’s true diversity. That applies whatever is showing, whether it be opera, ballet, drama, music or comedy.

Ticket prices are always low. The pantomime is now lauded across London as one of the best. I highly recommend it, as do my children. Tickets for it cost from just £15 and are widely popular. That price is significantly lower than at the Old Vic, which I do not patronise as it is not in my constituency. I think that it is important to patronise the Hackney Empire and I enjoy doing so.

Chris Bryant: Ian McKellen is very good.

Meg Hillier: I have no doubt of that, but I recommend the Hackney Empire’s performances.

Crucially, the theatre works with schools.

3.22 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.38 pm

On resuming—

Meg Hillier: As I was saying before I was interrupted, crucially the Hackney Empire works with schools on workshops both in the theatre and by going out to schools. It is a fair bet that the 22 per cent. of Hackney’s population who are under 16 make up a lot of its regular audience as well.

In addition to what is happening at the Hackney Empire, there are projects throughout London. One that particularly impresses me is Arts Inform, a project that works to develop theatre-going habits among secondary school children. In a project that it has been leading, 180 pupils aged 11 to 14 from six London comprehensives have been learning to go to the theatre. Each term, they choose a type of theatre. Two of the pupils go on a fact-finding mission and come back and teach the class. Then all the pupils go to the theatre to see a musical, a ballet or even an opera and they write reviews about it. That is doing a great deal to change the habits of a generation and to demystify theatre and performance art. Given the diversity of London schools, the project
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will, if it can continue to obtain funding, do a great deal to diversify theatre audiences in the long term.

I came across the Arts Inform project when I was investigating the Mayor of London’s plan to subsidise ticket prices in the commercial west end, which was originally a response to the bombings in New York on 11 September 2001. He introduced that the following January. His aim then was to reinvigorate the London economy. A secondary aim was to diversify theatre audiences. The latter aim was highly criticised by the London assembly in a report that we published—I was then an assembly member—in March 2003. Happily, though, these things work out, including my relationship with the Mayor on some issues, and he took on board the criticisms and reshaped the subsidy that he offered, recognising that getting bums on seats in the west end as a form of subsidy to commercial theatre and diversifying audiences require different skills.

I am delighted that in 2006 the Mayor launched a £240,000 drive to increase the number of theatregoers with sensory disabilities, including a guide to assisted performances in London theatres called Access London Theatre. It is part of a three-year programme to increase theatre access for those people as well as for families and young people. The project also includes a kids’ week in the west end for under-fives.

That brings me to the marvellous Quicksilver Theatre, a company of 30 years’ standing based in my constituency that not only writes and performs plays for younger audiences but works to develop young people’s understanding of the theatre. Its artistic director and chief executive Guy Holland says:

He pays testament to the money that this Labour Government have put into theatre funding in the past 10 years.

Quicksilver Theatre’s most recent project, which I had the chance to visit, was Primary Voices. It involved 600 schoolchildren aged 8 to 10 from 10 Hackney and Islington schools. The children wrote a play that was produced and performed by professional actors. Guy sums up the challenge:

That theatre company managed to get funding from Anne Currell of Currell Residential, a local estate agent personally committed to its work, but all of them struggle.

I do not have time for the schools’ and pupils’ comments about what they achieved, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) said, it is a mark of a prosperous nation to invest in the arts—particularly for people who do not get the chance to go to the theatre—and to make them available to all. We see the benefits in Hackney—the multicultural challenges that we have managed to address, the help that theatregoing and creativity give in dealing with the huge issues of
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confidence and self-esteem, creative learning for our children and language development. For all of those we need investment, not just reliance on lottery money.

3.42 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): By way of preface, I pay public penance for missing the performance of “42nd Street” by the Hayes and Harlington Operatic Society, now the Hayes and Harlington Musical Theatre Company. I place on record my grovelling apology. In mitigation, though, as the chair of the Barra hall regeneration committee I announce that last year, as a result of eight years’ work, we renovated our derelict open-air theatre. We reopened it last season with a series of performances—children’s plays and professional productions—and it is a thriving success. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson). She proves again that she can work with and without a script on every occasion.

To return to the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), I am a member of the performers’ alliance parliamentary group, which was formed recently by three unions—Equity, the Musicians Union and the Writers Guild. They have raised with us the issue of poverty wages in the sector. My hon. Friend mentioned that actors are subsidising our theatres, but I did not realise until I received the details of the unions’ briefings just how low the levels of pay are. If the conditions in which such people are having to live as a result of poverty pay were occurring in other sectors of our economy, we would be marching in the streets.

The true picture of actors’ earnings is that in regional subsidised theatre the minimum wage is about £327 for a 36-hour week. That is just £9.08 an hour, which would not be that much even if it were earned for 52 weeks—it would come to just £17,000. But the reality is that most actors do not work for 52 weeks of the year. Most spend significant amounts of time between jobs. In subsidised repertory, the average wage is now only £383 a week. Due to limited work opportunities, the average annual earnings of a British actor are as little as £10,500. Only a tiny fraction of performers, 13 per cent., earn more than £20,000.

In 2004, the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport made its own statement about low pay in subsidised theatres:

Those are my sentiments entirely. Of course actors undertake the work because it is the work that they love, but as a result of their commitment they are exploited. Research by Equity and the Arts Council of England in the late 1990s discovered that about half of UK actors are now choosing not to work in regional subsidised theatres. An out-of-London allowance is given to subsidise them, amounting to about £114 a week, but by working outside London they lose opportunities for a wide range of work that could be done elsewhere. We have discovered that even in west end theatres, 55 per cent. of actors do casual work during the day to supplement their earnings.

Much has been said about the Government’s investment so far, and I agree. I congratulate the Government on
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what they did following the theatre review. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) mentioned the increase in the number attending performances, the number of young people participating and the number of plays being produced, but we are finding that as a result of low pay in the sector, many actors cannot travel out of London to work in regional theatre. If they do, they incur significant debts from other responsibilities and are unable to afford a decent standard of living.

I do not believe that we should rely on the exploitation of workers to subsidise the theatre. That is why, like others, I urge the Government to maintain the momentum of the funding that they have achieved and that has been so successful. I share some of the anxieties that the Olympics might draw away theatre funding, but I think that they can be addressed in discussions at the London and national level. However, we need stable and consistent funding, not only so that we can enjoy the theatre but so that actors can enjoy working in it again.

3.46 pm

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): I join hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson). During the opening remarks, I was looking at my notes, hearing what was being said rather than listening to the individual words. It reminded me of something that I realised to be the many impassioned passages that I heard the hon. Lady deliver in her previous career as an actress, for which I admired her greatly at the time.

We have heard eloquent accounts from all Members who have spoken of the value of the theatre to education and society, to the economy and to them personally because of how it moves people. We heard from the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) about the appallingly low wages that are all too often the norm in the industry.

As we have heard, public subsidy to the theatre is £120 million, but £100 million of it comes back in VAT, so we are talking about not 0.02 per cent. of public spending but less—£20 million net, once the VAT return from the sale of theatre tickets is taken into account. It is a very small sum. What do we get for that small investment? We get a contribution to the UK economy of about £2.6 billion, 19 million theatre visits and the social, not just economic, enrichment of theatre activity.

Public funding is less in this country than in Europe but more than in the USA, where reliance on sponsors puts a dead hand on innovation and the theatre’s ability to experiment. The balance in the UK might be seen as quite a good one. It is enough to encourage innovation and creativity and promote healthy, cutting-edge theatre without creating a complacent, overfunded public sector or imposing the dead hand of commercial sponsorship.

Public investment also enables the development of creative and technical skills on and off stage. It helps subsidised theatre to provide a training ground for many performers and technical staff who then go on to work in commercial theatre. Subsidised theatre is often the breeding ground for performances such as “The History Boys” and “Jerry Springer: The Opera” that go on later to the commercial world. It is the same sort of argument that we often hear, and that I have certainly made, for the BBC and funding through the licence fee, because of the knock-on value to the rest of the sector, although the theatre is much less well funded than the BBC.

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