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British Theatre

Volume 457: debated on Monday 5 March 2007

4. What recent assessment she has made of the contribution of British theatre to (a) the economy and (b) cultural life in England. (124564)

Arts Council England research estimates that the annual economic impact of UK theatre is £2.6 billion. Research from seven of England’s biggest publicly funded regional producing theatres shows attendances rising by almost 40 per cent. between 2000 and 2006.

The statistics are dry, but all the evidence shows that the British theatre is one of the main reasons overseas tourists visit this country. It is the cornerstone of our film and television industry, and the crowning glory of our cultural life, so is it not vital that we make sure that there is a proper subsidy for British theatre? How ferociously will my hon. Friend fight the Treasury to make sure that the next settlement is just as good as, if not better than, the last?

It is largely because of that increase, as well as the history and inheritance of our regional theatres, which were on their knees, falling apart and not providing quality performances, that we are where we are now. In Sheffield, Nottingham, Brighton and Chichester—across the piece—theatres are making a huge contribution to the life and soul of their communities. As my hon. Friend knows, the spending review continues and we are discussing those issues across Government.

British theatre is clearly a showcase for British arts and culture. When I went to see Alan Bennett’s production of “The History Boys” last year, it was selling to packed-out audiences in the theatre here. It then went to New York with the same British cast and was playing to packed-out audiences there, too. It is the same when American actors come to the British theatre here in that they act as magnets for people who would perhaps otherwise not go to the theatre. We certainly get bums on seats in British theatres because of them. Will the Minister ensure that the fair exchange of artistic people, actors and actresses from the US to Britain—and from Britain to the US—carries on? It is good business and very healthy for Britain and America.

The hon. Gentleman is right. In fact, “The History Boys” received six Tony awards, including best director and best play. We have seen from the recent success of Helen Mirren, who spent a lot of time working in subsidised theatre, just how important it is for actors and actresses in this country. We will, of course, continue to explore with the Arts Council those touring opportunities.

May I first strongly endorse the trenchant remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)? I also strongly welcome the Prime Minister’s statement this week that state funding for the arts is of fundamental importance. Although the Minister has said that funding has increased under Labour—and there is no question about that—we are still well behind the continent of Europe in that respect. Will he look further to those comparisons and fight for higher funding for the longer term?

We are not behind continental Europe in terms of quality. It has always been the case in this country that there is a partnership between subsidy for the Arts Council, revenue that individual theatres can make—we have seen an increase in cafés and other facilities—and corporate investment. It is important that that partnership continues so that we see real health in the sector. When I have spoken to theatre directors and others, they have said that some of our friends in continental Europe are not seeing quite the quality that we have here, which is why we are picking up the awards. I hear what my hon. Friend says about public subsidy and our investment. He is right that we in government are very proud of the investment that we have been able to make in regional theatres.

The Royal and Derngate theatre in Northampton has recently faced a financial crisis, which I am happy to say has been resolved. However, the crisis stemmed from the subsidy provided by the local authority to the theatre. I recognise that there is Government subsidy for the Arts Council, but what recent discussions has the Minister had with his opposite number in the Department for Communities and Local Government to look into the threat to local theatres posed by the growing pressure on local authority budgets?

Spending on the arts by local authorities is £3 billion. I have spoken to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), who also raised this issue with me. It is an issue and it is a great shame, because I have to say that the money that the Arts Council has put into the theatre—and the new investment, which is only months old—has been absolutely at the centre of regeneration in Northampton. It is a matter of great regret that the local borough has decided to withdraw funds in the way that it has suggested, but I know that discussions are ongoing, particularly with the county council. The Arts Council continues to support that theatre, which has been in receipt of many millions of pounds in the last few years. I hope, particularly for the people of Northampton and the wider east England area, that we can reach a satisfactory outcome.

Will the Minister take a look at the missing middle strand of theatre in Birmingham? We have excellent professional productions and a thriving amateur dramatics sector, but a definite lack in the middle. More arts centre space needs to be devoted to theatre, so that people are not reliant on the enthusiastic vicar and the kindly teacher for the sort of infrastructure that we need if we are to give access to theatre for future generations of the kind of people who do not necessarily go to the big productions or get involved with am-dram.

I will discuss that with the regional team at the Arts Council. The creative partnerships in the midlands are important in taking into the community the work of the obviously very successful theatre in Birmingham. That work is going on, but I am happy to look at it further.