HC Deb 23 March 1960 vol 620 cc628-38

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bryan.]

9.59 p.m.

Mr. James Watts (Manchester, Moss Side)

I wish to raise the question of the desirability of the Royal Covent Garden Opera Company coming up to Manchester. Parliament has just approved a large increased grant from the Consolidated Fund to the Arts Council, which, I believe, arranges the programmes for the Covent Garden Opera Company. At present, a large area in the North-West—

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bryan.]

Mr. Watts

—is excluded from the Opera Company's tour. This area ranges from Preston, in the north, to Whit-church in Shropshire and, from west to east, from Liverpool to Sheffield.

Of that area Manchester is the geographical centre. I understand that I am right in interpreting a recent Answer to a Question of mine from my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury that the omission of Manchester from the tour is due to certain physical difficulties. If these difficulties relate to the fitting in of special large scenery from the Opera Company in London in either of the two large theatres, the Opera House or the Palace Theatre, in Manchester, I think that they could be overcome by the following obvious fact.

All of us who live in the area have from time to time witnessed the whole of the Wagnerian sequence of operas— "The Ring", and so on—and we have heard all the Italian operas in these theatres in Manchester. There must, therefore, be a lot of standard scenery available which, perhaps, could be got out and put into these theatres if the scenery of the Opera Company is too large.

I have had telegrams from two Lord Mayors, from the Lord Mayor of Manchester, who supports what is being done, and from the Lord Mayor of Liverpool, who supports what is being done but is not sure whether people would wish to come over from Liverpool to Manchester. There is a strong indication all over the North-West that this is a popular and necessary move, because I have had telegrams, copies of which] have sent to my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, from the Mayors of Altrincham, Ashton-under-Lyne, Bacup, Blackburn, Blackpool, Bolton, Bury, Chester, Chorley, Clitheroe, Colne, Eccles, Leigh, Middle-ton, Oldham, Preston, Prestwich, Rad-cliffe, Rochdale, Sale, Salford, Swinton, Stockport, Stretford, Warrington and Wigan. There is, therefore, evidence of support for what I am asking. The managers of the two theatres in Manchester have been good enough to fell me that if physical and financial arrangements—naturally, agreeable to them—can be forthcoming, they would welcome a tour of this kind.

I do not want to be pompous, particularly after our serious debates of the past week on Government responsibility, but when I was a young gentleman, many years ago, I read a book by, I believe, Professor Maitland, explaining the principle which was formulated many hundreds of years ago that "grievance must precede Supply." Perhaps this is still true, but if the Opera Company does not visit us, an awful lot of people in my area might even think that the House had reversed the old principle and that there was now a new pattern based on the policy that "supply precedes grievance." I do not know whether I am right in that, but I think there would be a suspicion that something of the kind had taken place, and I think it is very upsetting for Ministers at present, who have to answer questions from boring old gentlemen who have to represent their constituencies and do what they can, that it is not really certain whether they are responsible or not responsible for these matters.

I was not allowed to ask a second Question because the Financial Secretary was. not responsible. If that is so, then it may be true that the money which goes out through the Consolidated Fund and finds its way into the hands of this and other outside bodies is often directed without control from Parliament and without control by a responsible Minister. Unless this is made clear, I think Ministers may find themselves in a very difficult position, because till the matter is clarified they do not know whether or not they really are responsible to this House for the expenditure of money once it leaves the Consolidated Fund. That, I think, is really what was discussed last week.

So I am most grateful to Providence that I should have been lucky in the Ballot, and to you, Mr. Speaker, who, I believe, made the choice of the subject, for thinking the matter worth while debating, and I am very grateful on behalf of all the people in the North-West to have been able to raise this matter of such importance. I should like to thank the Financial Secretary for his kindness in writing to me and for keeping me informed of what was happening during the last three weeks, and for being so kind when I have kept him up. I hope I have not been a great nuisance.

10.7 p.m.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

I am very glad indeed that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Watts) has raised this question and that he was kind enough to say that a word in support of the North-West, and about the provision of opera in the North-West, which he has urged, might come from me. I am, of course, delighted to give him that support, because, as I think my hon. Friend and the Financial Secretary will know, it has been a source of great distress to all opera lovers in the provinces that there has been such a restriction placed by the Arts Council on provincial opera.

I do not know, of course, what the correspondence is which has passed between the Financial Secretary and my hon. Friend, but I rather gather from what my hon. Friend has said that there is difficulty in Covent Garden touring. I am not at all satisfied by that, because when the grant was withdrawn from the Carl Rosa Trust, which was a provincial touring company, we were told that Covent Garden and Sadler's Wells would provide opera for the provinces, which is undoubtedly their right, because taxpayers' money comes from the provinces to maintain the grant to the Arts Council. Nobody can deny that the taxpayers have a right to get something for the money they pay.

All I wanted to say about that really was that it may be impossible for Covent Garden to tour; I would not know; but what I do know is that Sadler's Wells does not want to tour. Therefore, we were left really only with a touring company which did want to tour, and that was the Carl Rosa Company, which has a record over eighty years of touring, but the Arts Council withdrew the grant. I am not in any way criticising either Covent Garden or Sadler's Wells, both of which have centres in London. Very naturally, they want to perform in London, and I am delighted that there should be good opera, provided it is good opera, in London—but not to the detriment of the provinces.

I want to draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to what he said in the debate that took place the other day. As my hon. Friend the Member for Moss Side has quite rightly pointed out, the difficulty, of course, is that the Financial Secretary— I am not in any way criticising him personally—just announces as policy what the Arts Council guides him or instructs him to state. I want to draw his attention to this phrase, because it makes me absolutely hopping mad. In replying to the debate on the fine arts, on 26th February, he said: The Arts Council has arranged that the provinces should have altogether between 40 and 50 weeks of opera and operetta for 1960–61 "— Of course, that is very right. In its view"— that is, the Arts Council— this is all that really could be absorbed at the present time."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th February, 1960; Vol. 618, c. 777–8.] I think that of all the condescending statements to be made by a grant-aided body getting a large additional sum out of the taxpayers, that one really is the limit.

I do not for one moment blame my hon. Friend. I do not know how much he loves opera and appreciates and enjoys music, but I suspect that he does very much indeed. My hon. Friend is a provincial. I am well aware of the musical productions of the City of Birmingham, part of which he so adequately and ably represents in this House, and I am delighted to tell him that his own provincial Press, the Birmingham Post would very much appreciate Carl Rosa as a touring company rather than Sadler's Wells, which does not want to tour, although I do not want to suggest by any means that Covent Garden and Sadler's Wells would not be very welcome in all the provincial towns.

My hon. Friend has read out—I counted them—28 towns which would welcome Covent Garden. But the Arts Council has told the Minister to say that the provinces cannot absorb more than 40 or 50 weeks of opera. I think that my hon. Friend referred only to towns in Lancashire and possibly over the border Cheshire, so the whole of the rest of England, Scotland and Wales have hardly any opera provided at all.

I will not commit my hon. Friend, because he does not really know the wiles of the Arts Council yet, but the Arts Council exercises patronage in London and among the people to whom it wants to give patronage and not always with the seal of integrity upon it. I am absolutely certain about that, but I will not develop that tonight. It is well known over a very wide field.

I want once more to put on record that we have a tremendous admiration, and rightly so, in this country, for Sir Kenneth Clark, but he is not, of course, interested in the provinces, and part of the reason we are in this difficulty over opera is because Sir Kenneth Clark spent quite a portion of his time while Chairman of the Arts Council being the Chairman of I.T.A. That enabled Sir William Williams, the General-Secretary of the Arts Council, to get his claws into the administration and he has never dropped them and will not drop them until we have a strong-minded chairman, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Goole (Mr. Jeger) when he asked a Question yesterday.

I am sorry that I was not here then, Mr. Speaker, to catch your eye, because I would have also pointed out that we want a strong chairman to give the provinces what is their due. It is simply wonderful for the provinces to have my hon. Friend the Member for Moss Side in the House, prepared to do battle for the North-West. The more we battle the better it will be for the future of the arts in this country. We want a strong chairman and we could very well do with a new general secretary, and then perhaps we might get the provision of opera on a fair and reasonable basis. I shall not say any more than that, but I hope that we shall have a satisfactory reply.

10.16 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Sir Edward Boyle)

First I would like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Watts) for kindly giving me notice of the points which he proposed to raise, for the very courteous speech he has delivered and particularly, at the end, his kind reference to myself. I was very pleased particularly to hear him pay tribute to the writings of F. W. Maitland, who has always seemed to me, with the solitary exception of Gibbon, easily the best and most readable historian this country has produced.

I shall deal with the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward), but I must say at the start that it has always been the practice that our grant-in-aid to the Arts Council is the Council's responsibility when it comes to splitting it up. It would be quite impossible if we in the House started to lay down in detail how that grant should be divided. I hope that I am as fond of music in general and of opera in particular as any hon. Member. I am lucky enough not only to represent a constituency in Birmingham, which has a first-rate symphony orchestra, but also to live only forty minutes by car from Glyndebourne Opera where I shall be going several times this summer.

I expressed quite clearly in the debate a few weeks ago that the Government want to see a fair balance between support for the arts in the Metropolis and support for the arts in the Provinces, but however keen we may be on the arts in the Provinces we must leave it to the Arts Council to decide in detail how its grant-in-aid should be split up. While I do not want to go back over what I said in the earlier debate, I would remind the House that no one can say that the increase in grant will result in the Provinces being neglected; I had encouraging figures to give, for example, about the provincial theatre. As to grand opera, there are very considerable practical difficulties. The productions of Covent Garden are on a scale and of a lavishness which make it extremely difficult to do more than a certain amount of touring. For example, I am told that the cast for the current production of what are popularly known as "Cav and Pag", or "I Pagliacci" and Cavalleria Rusticana", includes 106 men, 68 women, 25 small boys, 13 small girls, and a pony, quite apart from the orchestra; and a whole battery of green rooms, wardrobe rooms, bathrooms and workshops is needed backstage to keep the cast and their settings and accessories in good order.

Mr. Charles A. Howell (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

And the pony.

Sir E. Boyle

Yes, indeed. Moving such an enterprise, and moving it not once but several times in the course of a tour, must really be a very exacting task. Indeed, it is a tribute to the spirit of the Covent Garden Opera Company that it so often goes to the provinces. Moreover, unlike touring companies it does not take a single production with it and mount it every night of the week. Its normal practice is to take six different productions for a fortnight's playing and it reckons never to give the same one two nights successively.

Dame Irene Ward

Neither does Carl Rosa.

Sir E. Boyle

As the massive scenery designed for the stage in the London Opera House is never quite right for other stages and has literally to be cut down to size, it means extremely difficult problems for the scene-shifters, and constant rehearsals so that everyone is familiar with the altered placings and the lighting arrangements.

Then there is also the point about finance. Covent Garden cannot expect much financial reward for its provincial tours. Not one provincial theatre is large enough for the opera to avoid heavy losses, even when the house is sold out to capacity. Indeed provincial managements usually feel that to charge higher prices for seats would defeat their own object, because that would inevitably lead to a falling off in attendance.

The small increases that have on occasion been agreed have never brought seat prices up to the London level. This means, in round terms, that in the provinces the opera plays to audiences which pay from 4s. 6d. to 15s. for their seats, while in London it plays to an audience which has paid anything up to 28s. a seat.; This point about price is important. Today even a bad seat at Covent Garden will normally cost about 10s., and the provinces cannot charge anything like the same amount for seats as is accepted at Covent Garden.

There are many more items which must be counted on the debit side when Covent Garden goes on tour. Touring allowances are paid to the cast, all of whom have to find temporary accommodation in the neighbourhood; transport charges amount to a considerable sum; and when the company returns home again a great deal of money and time and trouble has to be spent on rehabilitating the scenery and refitting it once more to the London stage.

In view of all these difficulties that inevitably arise from taking grand opera to the provinces, it is understandable that Covent Garden has not felt able to extend its touring programme. It has been out to the provinces every year during the last ten, for periods varying from eight to five weeks. Its customary tour was omitted this year only because, when the decision had to be taken, which was nearly a year ago, an opportunity offered itself of presenting a production under one of the world's most distinguished conductors. Such an event would have reflected great prestige not only on Covent Garden but on the operatic life of the country in general. As things turned out, the conductor in question fell ill and the project had to be abandoned, but it was then too late to book provincial theatres and arrange a tour for 1959–60.

What I can tell the House, and in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Moss-Side is, as I am sure the House will be glad to hear, that the company is engaged at the moment in planning a provincial tour for the spring of 1961, which is now the earliest date at which such a tour can be arranged. In all probability, Manchester will be included in this tour. I cannot answer my hon. Friend on the point of the other twenty-six boroughs or county boroughs to which he referred.

At the same time the provinces have other touring companies, ministering to their need in a way that a company designed to mount metropolitan grand opera cannot hope to do. Covent Garden is restricted to a narrow orbit of nine or 10 cities in its provincial opera touring, simply because no other theatres are large enough to take its productions. However the two miniature opera companies, Intimate Opera and Opera for All, have played all over the country and in Scotland too. Also Sadlers Wells has been tirelessly active in taking opera round the provinces.

During the last minute or two of this debate I can say a word in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth. She has had a great deal to say, both in this House and by way of correspondence, to successive Financial Secretaries on the subject of the Arts Council, and in particular of its relationship with the Carl Rosa Company. She never pulls her punches in this House. I have always been grateful for the kindness and friendliness she has shown to me since I first became a Member here, ten years ago. But I would be failing in my duty— and I hope that this does not sound pompous—if I passed by her personal attack, by implication, on the Secretary-General of the Arts Council. I am bound to say —and she knows this—that I cannot associate myself with her views. I do not only say that because of my office. Clearly it would be improper for me to condone what she said. But I had the pleasure of leading the United Kingdom delegation to U.N.E.S.C.O. at the end of 1958. On that delegation there were a number of distinguished unofficial delegates. During our time there I had the opportunity of seeing a fair amount of Sir William Williams, and my impression of his services to this country in a number of capacities is not that of my hon. Friend. I will not say more than that tonight, but I do dissociate myself from the personal attack she has thought fit to make.

It is extremely important in everything to do with the arts that we should try to see that a fair balance is kept between the Metropolis and the Provinces, not only in opera but in everything else. We shall continue to watch this question, and I would not hesitate myself to have a talk with the Chairman of the Arts Council at any time if I thought it was desirable. At the same time, we in this House should be very careful before we take upon ourselves responsibilities which we should find it impossible to fufil. I think that applies to relatively small and limited matters as well as to great matters.

10.26 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)

Before the House adjourns. I would like to thank the Financial Secretary for what he has said about the Arts Council, and particularly for his reference to the Secretary-General. We on this side of the House associate ourselves with what he has said and deprecate the references which the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) made to Sir William Williams.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Ten o'clock.