HC Deb 21 March 1961 vol 637 cc210-3

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether he will now announce a decision on the National Theatre.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Selwyn Lloyd)

I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, answer Question No. 65.

Yes, Sir. The Government have carefully considered the proposals put before them by the Joint Council of the National Theatre. These proposals include the immediate building of a new theatre on the South Bank with two auditoria, and the full integration of the Ol Vic and Stratford companies to form the nucleus of a company of 150 actors and actresses to sustain a repertory in London, at Stratford and on tour. The cost of the new theatre would be upwards of £2 million and the whole project would require a heavy annual subsidy.

The Government believe that there are better ways of using the resources which can be made available to help the living theatre. They are ready to make additional funds available through the Arts Council for assistance to the Old Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, provided that satisfactory arrangements can be made through the Council to govern the expenditure of such funds. Such assistance could take the form both of capital provision for improving existing buildings—particularly the Old Vic building in York Road—and of increased annual subvention to help improve standards and meet touring costs. The Old Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre each has a great dramatic tradition of its own, and the Government would like to see these distinctive traditions preserved.

The Government are also prepared to increase the support already given through the Arts Council to provincial repertory theatres both by way of grant to repertory companies and by contributions towards the cost of renovating existing theatres and building new ones.

I am inviting the Arts Council to submit proposals to me on these lines.

Sir H. Kerr

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that his announcement of these considerable increases will be received with great satisfaction in the country, by all parties? Will he bear in mind the importance of retaining an option on the site on the South Bank so that, in case of future development, the theatre might be situated there?

Mr. Lloyd

Yes, Sir. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the first part of his supplementary question. The question raised in the second part of his supplementary question will now need careful consideration, and we shall certainly have discussions on that matter with the London County Council.

Dr. Stross

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman bear in mind that a national theatre company, which, if properly used and properly supported, would help to keep the theatre alive, certainly in the provinces as well as in London and at Stratford-upon-Avon, is not a cheap instrument and will require considerable funds to make it effective? Has he a specific sum in mind? Is he aware, for example, that about £350,000 a year would be needed? If he could find such a sum, does he realise that nothing but benefit would flow from such a subvention?

Mr. Lloyd

I have considered this matter very carefully and discussed it with a large number of people. There are very differing viewpoints about this. Although some people believe that the right thing is to have a large new building, costing a large sum of money, on the South Bank, and then form a national theatre company to put inside it, there are other people who think that the better way is to build up the existing institutions like the Old Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon and, at the same time, help repertory in the provinces.

Dame Irene Ward

Now that my right hon. and learned Friend appears to have interested 'himself in the provinces and the provincial theatre, will he have an investigation made into how much money is being spent on the royal schools of music, the royal colleges of dramatic art, scholarships to universities, and things for the fine arts? Will he consider whether the amount of money which is being given to the Arts Council provides sufficient openings for those who are trained to make use of the talents which they have been supplied with funds to develop?

Mr. Lloyd

I have been examining these matters, and I propose to continue to do so with the Arts Council. I will be grateful for any views which my hon. Friend has upon them.

Mr. Strauss

I personally agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman's approach to this question and think that this may be the best way of establishing a real national theatre. Is he aware that the success of his decision will depend on how much money he is prepared to spend on this project and how that compares with the amount of money which would have been spent on building immediately a theatre on the South Bank and the necessary subvention? Can he give us any idea of the total amount he has in mind which may be spent, not necessarily this year, but perhaps during the next five years, on this important project?

Mr. Lloyd

I do not think that my alternative suggestion will cost less annually than the estimate I was given for the cost of a national theatre. One of my difficulties was that I did not think that that estimate was likely to be achieved. I thought that it would be a great deal more costly than the estimate given to me. One estimate was about £300,000 and another was about £450,000. I think that my alternative proposal will probably come within that bracket.

Mr. Strauss

Will that include capital expenditure?

Mr. Lloyd

On capital expenditure, I think that the obligation to build theatres in the provinces should rest on local authorities. I therefore propose to make something more by way of a contribution to encourage them to do it themselves.

Sir B. Craddock

In his discussions with the Arts Council, will my right hon. and learned Friend be good enough to urge that it give more encouragement to young British artists?

Mr. Lloyd

I am certain that the Arts Council will take note of what my hon. Friend has said.

Mrs. White

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman realise that many of us feel that he has taken the wrong decision on the building of a new theatre, although we fully agree with him about the need for work in the provinces? Does he not realise that there will be a great development on the South Bank within the next two or three years, and that it is rather lamentable that we do not have in that prominent position a building of a national character? We can spend the money for Shell offices there, but apparently not for a national theatre.

Mr. Lloyd

There is a limited amount of public money available, and I have to consider the best way to deploy it. I am in agreement with the hon. Lady about the importance of keeping the site on the South Bank for what I think are called cultural purposes.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. The House will appreciate that we really cannot debate this now.