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The Arts

Volume 888: debated on Monday 17 March 1975

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12.43 a.m.

The new National Theatre building was due to be opened by Her Majesty the Queen on 23rd April 1975. That date is a very special day for playgoers. It would be unpardonable if the new National Theatre were not fully operational by 23rd April 1976.

I am very pleased to see present the Minister with responsibility for the arts, because on 15th November 1974, in the debate on the National Theatre Bill, he said about the date for the opening of the new National Theatre building:
"I shall be the first to announce it. I do not want anyone to imagine, because I am not in a position to announce a date today, that I do not have a pretty good idea of when it will be".—[Official Report, 15th November 1974; Vol. 881, c. 777.]
If the Minister had a very good idea last November, he must have a much better idea now. Therefore, I hope that we shall have from the Minister a little more information in this debate. I must press him to take us into his confidence and give us a date.

I know that there have been difficulties. As anyone who has tried to gain possession of a new building knows, there comes a time when one has to move in, whether it is finished or not, in order to get the builders out. Perhaps we have reached this stage with Mr. Denys Lasdun's splendid building.

The National Theatre Act 1974 provided for the final finance for the construction. I put a query against that. Have we voted all the funds that will be needed to complete the construction?

What we ought to know now is whether we can have a definite promise that we shall have made available the necessary funds for the running of the theatre on a scale worthy of this splendid building. We have had quite a number of ministerial statements on that subject. I do not want to weary the House, but I must quote what Lord Strabolgi said, as the Minister responsible in the other place, in reply to a question from my noble Friend Lord Eccles. Lord Eccles had asked that all proper forward budgeting should be allowed for, and Lord Strabolgi said:
"I am sure we can give this assurance."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 21st November 1974; Vol. 354. c. 1167.]
Then the noble Lord quoted what the Minister had said in the House of Commons on 7th November, namely,
"I have indicated to the House that the Government are fully aware of the problem of running costs and that we have no intention of allowing this great new project to run down for lack of ability to maintain itself."—[Official Report, 7th November 1974; Vol. 880, c. 1377.]
That all sounds very encouraging. Lord Strabolgi had said elsewhere that the country had got a most impressive and well-planned theatre complex which would be unique and second to none in the world. He went on to say something which was perhaps not quite as encouraging as what the Minister had said in this House, because he said that it was all really up to the Arts Council to find the money to run the National Theatre, as if somehow the Arts Council had some special genius in discovering the necessary money, when we all know that it is our Minister in the House of Commons who has to extract from the Treasury the funds which will run the National Theatre.

Lord Strabolgi said that the Arts Council had
"long been aware of the future needs of the National Theatre and arc in regular consultation with them and of course with all the other theatres concerned. The Government have confidence in the judgment of the Arts Council."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 21st November 1974; Vol. 354. c. 1130.]
So have I—but judgment with what funds? That is the question. They were brave words but not quite as specific as we might have hoped.

The Minister said in this House on 15th November, at the end of his speech—and only after he had been pressed pretty hard by the Opposition:
"It is the full intention of the Arts Council that the theatre shall operate fully."—[Official Report, 15th November 1974; Vol. 881, c. 779.]
That was a nice, crisp little sentence, but we want to know a little more about that today.

If those brave words—and some words that were not so brave—were translated into action, I believe that it would be possible for two of the three theatres in the building to be operational by the autumn—perhaps one in August-September and the other in November-December. That is possible, if one looks at the building and reads between the lines of the public statements of various interested parties.

I wonder whether the National Theatre Company has yet been told that it will be provided with money even to make the move into the new building. Will the Minister tell us whether that money will be forthcoming? Does the Arts Council grant for 1974–75 which has been announced take the National Theatre into account? How is the money in the Vote we are discussing to be spent? If it is all going into the building, there does not seem to be anything left over for running the threatre within the building. We need to know a good deal more about that.

Then there is the running of the new building, quite apart from what happens in it. A new building of 500,000 sq. ft. containing three theatres is bound to cost a deal of money to run. My guess is about £1 million a year just to keep it in use as a theatre, and probably about one-third of that a year to keep it closed. That suggests that it would be a good thing for the building to become operational as soon as possible.

It is not difficult to do the arithmetic and work out that it would probably cost £2 million a year to run the National Theatre in its new home over and above the cost of running it in its present form. So we need probably £1 million a year just to run the building—the Minister knows what I mean by that—and another £2 million to have performances in it, and we have 30 per cent. inflation. I do not envy the Minister his task, but it is important to come to a firm decision which will enable those concerned with the National Theatre to plan ahead. The Arts Council has not quite known where it was for a long time, and the Minister must have been as unhappy about that as we were. We knew that it was all the Treasury's fault, but the National Theatre should not be put in that position.

For every day that the new buildings are not in use we are losing money. That ought to appeal to the Treasury. The building contains three theatres capable of earning a substantial amount at the box office. It is no secret that the talented Director, Mr. Peter Hall, has said that he hopes that in the new theatre complex there will be greater involvement with television, film and so on, and one realises the great scope for revenue. I hope the Minister will give an indication whether my guesswork is near the mark. If it is not, we ought to know. If it is, where is the money coming from?

In talking about an artistic subject it is rather sordid to have to keep harping on finance. I have to do so because the subject is raised under the Consolidated Fund Bill. When a substantial sum is being voted, one is entitled to ask how it will be spent.

It is no secret that the new National Theatre building is aimed at being a truly national theatre. Here I paraphrase the publicity put out by the new National Theatre. The building should not be the province only of the National Theatre Company. Theatre of every kind from all over the world is the aim, and the building should be used to the fullest possible extent. The people should be encouraged to think of the place as belonging to them, a theatre for the whole nation, with all kinds of formal and informal activity taking place within it. Mr. Peter Hall used very much that kind of phrase to describe the theatre. He wants other theatre—regional theatre, alternative theatre, foreign theatre—to think of the building as theirs too, as a London platform for their work.

It is important to stress this aspect because some people have called the National Theatre a white elephant. Far from it. Provided that the money is there to open it and keep it going, it will be very much more than just a London affair. The National Theatre can belong only partly to the National Theatre Company. Theatres up and down the country will be coming to London; the National Theatre Company will be visiting the provinces. This is part of the fabric built up by the Conservative Government. I am glad to think that it will be maintained by the present Government so as to make sure that we do not concentrate the arts in London. We can go out into the provinces and also we can welcome the provincials back here.

If we do not obtain the money to open the National Theatre and to run it, we shall find ourselves as a nation looking pretty ridiculous. I cannot resist one quotation from Shakespeare's Othello:
"If I quench thee, thou flaming minister, I can again thy former light restore, Should I repent me …"
Well, not on the present financial indications, because I feel that they may have run out of shillings for the meter. In other words, we do not know where we are, and I hope the Minister can give us some enlightenment.

It must be stressed that if the theatre is used to the full, the cost per seat will not be more expensive than the present arrangements at the Old Vic, but if we are to assist the National Theatre in difficult times surely it is all the more important that it should get a good start in regard to forward plans. What is being done in that direction? Is the future of the National Theatre being worked in with the whole fabric of the Arts Council's overall planning? We must spare a thought for the Arts Council's other children all of whom are existing, so they say, on a shoe-string.

Some Conservatives have suggested that there might be merit in separating out the big spenders in the arts, of which the National Theatre will be one. The Minister was asked about this matter in a previous debate and did not give very much of an indication as to how he felt about the situation. There may be some disadvantages. Some of the noises made by the Arts Council are to the effect that "Yes, we take on board the fact that we have to finance the National Theatre, but it will be difficult to find money for other things." Covent Garden is one of our most expensive and worth-while undertakings, and the National Theatre will he no less expensive and no less worth while.

If the Minister has to do battle with the Treasury, perhaps he will remember that the British Tourist Authority says that this year we shall earn £1,000 million from tourism. What is it that tourists come to Britain to see? We are told that top of the list are our theatres and our national heritage. Surely even the most cautious Treasury Ministers can be persuaded to back a winner in this regard.

Perhaps I should return briefly to the Minister's rôle. I know that he is devoted to the theatre. He has spent all his life striving for better pay and conditions for his profession. Here is the great opportunity. The audience is waiting for the curtain to rise on a project which has taken more than a century to reach completion. I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but if Mr. Speaker had still been present I could have reminded him that as long ago as 1962 he appointed the National Theatre Board. The theatre is still not open. It was in 1848, I believe, that it was first suggested that we should have a national theatre.

At least the building is complete, and now needs fitting out. We must get it into operation. I do not imagine that the Minister plans to find himself on stage, or even on the three stages, on opening night with nothing to offer but a noncommittal parliamentary reply. I am glad to see that he smiles at that. I am sure that the genius of Mr. Peter Hall and the inventiveness of the audience on that first night could make the Minister's appearance memorable, should he have to explain that it has not all happened as he had hoped. But that is not what he is aiming at, we know.

The hon. Gentleman is on the stage now, in not a particularly full House but in the full glare of the parliamentary footlights. We eagerly await the final scene in the drama when all is made plain.

Now I have an epilogue—I hope not an epitaph. The Consolidated Fund Bill has one other item which I discovered was in order on the subject of the arts: the purchase of the site for the extension for the Royal Opera House. I could repeat all the arguments I have already used, but I shall not. They may be taken as read. We need a progress report here, too, tonight.

The Royal Opera struggles heroically. The Arts Council cannot find enough for it. We have a great deal of welcome help coming to the Royal Opera from industry, the National Westminster Bank, Imperial Tobacco and the Midland Bank. I hope that the Minister will see that these great national institutions get the credit far the work they are doing, and that the talks which he has told me he is having with both sides of industry, with a view to further participation in the arts, are going well and will soon come to fruition.

One of the difficulties is that people who have tried to help in the arts have had scant credit or attention for their work. We have the extraordinary situation that the BBC, I am told by the Home Secretary, is not allowed to put on sponsored programmes, and yet it is broadcasting "The Masked Ball" by Verdi, which the Minister saw recently. I think that he was even invited by one of the sponsoring institutions. I am sure he had a splendid evening.

I know that the Minister appreciates the work being done, yet the Home Office says that the BBC cannot put on sponsored programmes. It is doing it, yet it will not give the National Westminster Bank or Imperial Tobacco a credit line on the title of the opera saying that they sponsored it. Those institutions are only human. They deserve a little bit of good public relations in that direction. I hope that the Minister will consider the matter. He heard me tackle the Home Secretary, who said that I should have a word with him. Now I have had a word with him. I believe that the BBC needs only a gentle nudge and that the hon. Gentleman will find that the other side of industry is not unreceptive.

What about the forward planning for the Royal Opera House? The site is purchased. May we have a progress report? If we get these new facilities, have we provision for running them? It will be a pity if we have a splendid new building adjoining the Royal Opera House and nothing going on inside it.

I end by referring again to the Minister's previous speech, when he said:
"We have bought land earmarked for a future extension of the Royal Opera House. We are finding money to complete the building of the National Theatre. Go where one will—it is all happening."
Is it? The hon. Gentleman also said:
"Soon I shall be issuing a publication provisionally entitled ' Arts with the People'. Those who read it may find it difficult not to take pride in belonging to this nation and in being one of these people."—[Official Report, 10th February, 1975; Vol. 886, c. 104.]
Those of us interested in the arts take pride in the achievements of this country in recent years. A crisis point has now arrived. These two great institutions are worthy of a little more consideration and support. I know that the Minister is doing his best. We shall do our best to back him in extracting from the Treasury, with which we have all battled in the past, sufficient funds to make both great institutions an effective reality in the future.

1.6 a.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Cooke) for raising this matter. He is especially well informed on the National Theatre, so much so that I sometimes think that he must have special sources of information. It is valuable to have the matter raised by someone who has the welfare of the theatre very much at heart.

The more often the House looks at these problems the more likely we are to arrive at a true appreciation of the difficulties and to see what we can do to achieve our ends. Happily there is no difference about what those ends are. All of us want to do everything we can to maintain and advance the great eminence which this country currently enjoys in every form of artistic activity.

However, before we discuss the problems we should recognise that they are aspects of our success. This is not, as it used to be, a Philistine country spending nothing on the arts, content with a short season at Covent Garden, with the National Theatre just a pipe dream, with the BBC struggling away at the foundations of music, with Shakespeare at Stratford for the summer and the Old Vic and Sadlers Wells doing marvels on a grudging pittance, which used to be the case; with nothing outside London but a collapsing commercial theatre and where strangulated voices and amateurish dancing filled a West End which was a great deal less glamorous than the roseate haze of memory sometimes deceitfully pretends.

At that time, before the war, Britain counted for little on the world's stage. Now the situation is greatly changed. Britain is one of the few Western countries where opera plays all the year round. We have two major houses in the capital, we have Scottish and Welsh opera and one or two others. In addition 57 publicly-supported theatre companies are operating in their own buildings, including 11 in London, and a great theatrical building is nearing completion on the South Bank. As I said in the House once before, "It is all happening".

This is our problem. Theatres used to lose money because they were empty. Now they are full and they lose even more. How has this come about? The answer is that our attitude to the arts has changed. We no longer take the view that only that which pays can and should be done. We now say that we must do it the best way it can be done. We must do it even if it is expensive, because the theatre is as necessary to urban civilisation as an art gallery, a library or a museum. If we cannot take enough at the box office with reasonable prices, just like these other necessities of a full life, the State has the duty to step in and fill the financial gap. The trouble is that the gap is growing larger, not because public appreciation is falling away but because it is expanding and the demand is increasing all the time. The demand comes not only from our own people but also from those who come from abroad to visit us.

In these circumstances, the hon. Gentleman is right to point out that limitations on public expenditure are hard to bear. We are in a growth situation and much of the growth cannot be stopped. If we were to stop the completion of the National Theatre at once and leave the great building empty, it would cost several hundred thousand pounds a year for it simply to stand there, warmed, guarded, protected but empty of theatre.

There are great problems and the hon. Member has touched on some of them. I have said repeatedly both in relation to the arts in general and in relation to the National Theatre that the Government are fully aware of the situation and will do what is possible to safeguard the arts in general against high costs. In particular we have no intention of allowing the National Theatre to become a monument to the incapacity of capitalism to resolve its contradictions.

The hon. Gentleman is clearly seized of the nature of the problem at the National Theatre. I shall make further reference to it in a moment. Before doing so, however, I want to refer to the fact that I was able to announce in this House on 3rd March that the Arts Council would receive £26·15 million, subject to parliamentary grant, for next year, including £25 million for current expenditure. So far as total expenditure is concerned, this represents a 22½ per cent. increase on spending in the current year. In his introduction to the council's annual report for 1973–74, the chairman said that the £25 million I have mentioned would be needed to keep going the activities sustained in the current year.

As I have said previously, I think that the mention in public of figures of this kind before the Government are able to announce their decisions on the level of grant-in-aid for the ensuing year can carry a risk of being counter-productive. Various kinds of confusion can arise, including on what basis the figures are compiled. For their own part, of course it is the established policy of the Government—and the same was true of previous administrations—for forward planning purposes, that prices are on a constant price basis, and this enables a true measure to be given of actual growth.

Anyone who predicted exactly what inflation was likely to be a year hence would be rash indeed, but all planning bodies have to make assumptions about what is likely to happen on the best information available. It does not pay to concede defeat before we have striven. I must therefore say that our task now is to strive to the best of our ability to use the resources which we have got to achieve what we can for the arts. As I have said, the Government are in close touch and will keep in touch.

I return to the National Theatre, having set the scene. The prospects of completion of the National Theatre raise a particular aspect of this problem. The building is nearly complete, but it is not yet possible to say precisely when the various parts of the building will be ready for use. This remarkable new structure with its three auditoria will raise our facilities for the performing arts to a new level. For this we can be grateful to those who over generations have planned to achieve this ideal. But equally it raises commitments to a new level; and the Arts Council is therefore faced with an acute problem of a substantial rise in the requirements for grant for the supported theatre solely due to the size and scale of the new facilities. There is already evidence that the step in expenditure is likely to be between £500,000 and £1 million in order to bring the theatre into full operation, though the precise stages and timing have still to be determined.

I estimate that it will cost £1 million a year to run the building. Presumably the Minister is talking about another £1 million on top of that. That would mean that it would have the three auditoria in use. This would be £1 million extra for actors and productions, as well as £1 million extra for running the building.

The figures that I was giving relate to running costs, the cost of bringing the theatre into full operation. I am not in a position to give the continuing costs after that. That is a matter which the National Theatre Board will have to determine. It is not possible for me at this stage to determine the precise running costs for 19760–77. That is not possible to forecast now.

Up to the day that the theatre opens it will cost in the order of £1 million a year merely to run the building. How much extra will the National Theatre need to pay for productions to fill the three theatres over and above its present budget?

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman those figures. I am talking about the additional cost to get the building completed. The precise stages and timing of the opening and all the details have yet to be determined. The Chairmen of the Arts Council and of the National Theatre Board have kept me fully in the picture and, as I have said previously, I shall give the facts as soon as I can. I had a meeting with the two chairmen only 10 days ago. I shall be having a further meeting, if that proves necessary, before very long. The matter is under active discussion. I hope the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that at a time between meetings it is a little difficult, before matters are finally concluded, for me to supply the precise information he wants. At this moment the information is not available.

Some have argued that the National Theatre—the hon. Gentleman has mentioned this point and perhaps he will let me deal with it now—having been constructed under an Act of Parliament from capital grants paid direct to the South Bank Theatre Board and not through the Arts Council, should be in receipt of a separate grant direct from the Government. I am opposed to this idea because it would not produce any extra resources and would put the Government into the position of dictating to the Arts Council what proportion of total arts resources should be given to the National Theatre as opposed to all its other commitments. It is the duty of the Arts Council under its charter to take these decisions, and I am satisfied that it does not want this function usurped by me. Neither do I wish to usurp the function from the council.

It has also been argued that a separate grant should be made for the maintenance of the South Bank building and that the Arts Council should be responsible merely for the grants to the National Theatre Company, which operates in the building. Such an arrangement would, of course, provide no extra resources, because all expenditure on arts buildings, including the museums and galleries, has to be found from the total available for the arts. However, it is up to the Arts Council and the National Theatre Board to decide whether, in presenting the outcome of their calculations, they split their sums between these two heads for the sake of clarity. The idea that either of these two proposals would result in a net increase in total funds needs to be put on one side.

The Arts Council is naturally concerned about the implications for its grant in future years and of the need to put life into this great new building, which has been provided for the greater part at public cost by collaboration between the Greater London Council and the Government. I am aware of the importance to the Arts Council of being able to plan ahead in such circumstances. The Government will give an indication of the level of the 1976–77 grant just as soon as we can. We hope not to be as late with it as we were last year. The difficulties were then peculiarly great.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He will appreciate that I am trying to be both Front Bencher and back bencher. Is £1 million which the Minister has mentioned the money already in the National Theatre Act that is being added to complete the building, or is it some other £1 million that is coming from somewhere else? That we must know.

What the hon. Gentleman said about next year's Arts Council grant is helpful. Has the Arts Council got the money in its coffers to get the National Theatre off the ground? Presumably it will not have to wait beyond 23rd April next year. May we know more about that?

It is difficult for me to be specific. On the first point, I have been referring to capital expenditure—money intended to complete the building. I have not been discussing the running costs. That question is currently under discussion. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that if we were to allow the theatre to stand empty—we have no intention of allowing that to occur—to keep it warm, light and functional would cost several hundred thousand pounds a year without anything happening in it. That was as far as I went in talking about running costs. I hope to say more about that matter before too long.

I turn now to the question of help which is given by private organisations to the arts. The hon. Gentleman referred to assistance given to productions at the Royal Opera House as an example. As he rightly said, I saw a splendid production of Verdi's "Masked Ball", which was assisted by the National Westminster Bank and the Imperial Tobacco Company.

I have been having discussions with representatives of business organisations on this matter—for example, Mr. Campbell Adamson of the CBI. I understand from other sources, not Mr. Campbell Adamson, that there is uncertainty at the moment whether business organisations would welcome the disclosure of all that they are doing in this connection. I hope that British business organisations will not feel that their shareholders would resent their doing anything for the arts but will take the same view as some American companies—that this is something of which a company should be proud and be prepared to boast about. As soon as I have an indication that such a step would be generally welcomed, I shall be glad to answer a Question in this House about what business organisations are doing and for whom with a view to encouraging others to do likewise.

I am not in a position to do that at the moment. I do not wish to embarrass or inflict discomfort upon any organisation which prefers, for one reason or another, to hide its light under a bushel. I wish to disclose those organisations which wish to be disclosed without lifting the veil on others which may wish, for perfectly valid reasons, to keep the situation private—at least for the time being.

Unfortunately I can give no undertaking about the proposed extension to the Royal Opera House. By any standard that would be an expensive project, and the Government have no plans at present to embark upon it. However, we have ensured that the opportunity provided by the move of the Covent Garden Market to Nine Elms has not been missed. We have therefore provided in the Estimate that we have discussed tonight funds for the purchase of the land required for the extension. I can announce that the Arts Council is now the owner of this land and that it will determine its usage in the intervening period.

I and my colleagues in the Government remain firmly of the opinion that the secret of the success to which I referred in my opening remarks is partly, perhaps even largely, to be found in the response doctrine support for the arts outlined by Sir Hugh Willatt in the Arts Council's report for 1973–74. We are committed as a party by our manifesto to making the Arts Council
"more democratic and representative of people in the arts and in entertainment."
That we shall do. Indeed, we have already taken the first steps in widening the trawl from which names are drawn from representative organisations. But that does not mean that we intend to change the fundamental basis of arts support. On the contrary, we are firmly committed to the view that we do not want and will not have a Minister for Culture who lays down a Government line on the arts which all who wish to be financed must follow.

The Government regard those of their citizens who promote, practise and perform in the arts as being among the most precious assets this country possesses. It is not within our power to prevent them from being frightened by the consequences of inflation—they would be foolish if they were not so frightened—but we shall do our best to see that the reality is less alarming than their present apprehension.

It is usually the case that the prophets of doom prove to be no more than people indulging in an enjoyable game which all children like to play—that of scaring the pants off the rest of us. My advice to artistes is "Do not fall for it. You have done and are doing great things." The record of Labour Governments in the arts from 1964 onwards is a proud one, and in spite of economic restraints it is a record which we intend to maintain and as soon as we can to enhance.

In that endeavour it will be our intention so far as the National Theatre is concerned not only to encourage the development of this great building but to ensure that it opens as soon as possible and brings great pleasure not only to the House but to the hon. Gentleman, who is a Front Bencher and back bencher combined. It is in the spirit of common endeavour and the intention to be as frank as we can as soon as we can that I have replied to the debate.