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National Theatre

Volume 889: debated on Tuesday 8 April 1975

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2.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether he will make a statement on the progress of work on the National Theatre building, indicating the proposed opening date for the auditoria and the proposed scale of operations therein.

The completion of the theatre is the responsibility of the South Bank Board. The scale of operations within the theatre is a matter for consideration between the Arts Council and the National Theatre Board. I shall announce an opening date when the South Bank Board advises me that the theatre will be ready and when agreement has been reached on the scale of operations.

Is the Minister aware that he said only last November that he had a pretty good idea when the date would be? Can he not be more forthcoming now and tell us something about the scale of operations? Is he further aware that he said in November that this was meant greatly to increase our facilities for the performing arts? Would he not look rather stupid if it all went off at half-cock?

I would, and I have no intention of looking stupid in that respect. I readily agree that the principle that the responsibility in this matter is devolved upon the appointed bodies can sometimes be irksome. One thing I have discovered is that when such devolution takes place the Minister concerned must not indulge in premature and public barking.

Is not the blame for the delay to be laid wholly on the builders and those responsible for the construction? Is it not true that in no circumstances can the Minister or the South Bank Board be blamed? Will my hon. Friend tell us whether in his opinion there will now be sufficient money, after all the allocations which the Arts Council has made, to pay for the full performance in the National Theatre, if that theatre opens, as is hoped, some time in the autumn of next year?

I would hope that my right hon. Friend's estimate is on the pessimistic rather than the optimistic side. As he rightly says, the question of money cannot be separated from that of the timing of the opening. It is precisely these monetary questions which are being discussed currently between the Arts Council and the National Theatre Board. I am keeping in close touch with those discussions. Nevertheless, I also agree with my right hon. Friend that the contractors and subcontractors cannot be divorced from responsibility in connection with the delay.

To further the Minister in his desire not to look stupid, will he ensure that the National Theatre Company has adequate funds with which to finance a realistic running-in period of about six months before the actual opening? Second, will the Minister say what assurances he can give that when the National Theatre opens it will be fully financed, so that it will not remain an empty building?

I have already said that it is not the Government's intention to allow the building on the South Bank to remain empty. It is our full intention that the theatre shall be taken into full use. As for the question of timing, and whether one or other of the auditoria should open before others, these are matters currently under discussion. Another meeting on the subject will be taking place tomorrow. As soon as I am in a position to make a statement I shall do so.

Has the Arts Council made any substantial observations on the matters which we have been discussing?

Yes. The Arts Council has made a lot of private observations but it has been wise enough not to make public observations on the subject.