HC Deb 07 November 1974 vol 880 cc1321-79

Order for Second Reading read.

7.17 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Hugh Jenkins)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am particularly glad to be able to move the Second Reading of this Bill. It is the last political necessity relating to the building of the National Theatre, and it so happens that when I was on the old London County Council—a dozen or more years ago—I moved the first motion which led eventually to the construction of the great building on the South Bank.

Incidentally, buildings take a little time to grow into the public heart. Even the one in which we stand has become truly revered only during my own lifetime. Victoriana was not quite so well looked at a score of years ago as it is today.

Throughout the years, there has been no public political division on the subject of the National Theatre, and I hope that there never will be—tonight or at any other time. There has been a great deal of argumentation and to-ing and fro-ing behind the scenes, but I should like to pay tribute both to the old London County Council and to the Greater London Council and to the leadership of both parties, particularly Sir Isaac Hayward, who was the leader of the LCC, and to Sir Reg Goodwin, the present leader of the Greater London Council. Without those two men, there would be no National Theatre.

The House will recall that there have already been three Acts of Parliament on the National Theatre—in 1949, 1968 and 1973. These raised the limit of the Government's financial contribution respectively from £1 million in 1949 to £3.75 million and then to £5.7 million in 1973. The GLC has likewise raised the original contribution by the LCC from £1.3 million to its present authorised level of £4.68 million. A smaller contribution from the Shakespeare Memorial Trust took the total resources available in 1973 to £10.55 million.

The task of bringing the project to completion has not been an easy one, either since the passing of the 1973 Act or before. Building work on the main structure and on the fitting out of the theatre has proceeded more slowly than had been hoped. In part this was due to delays arising from the three-day working week last winter. There has also been a shortage of some categories of workers and a shortage of some crucial materials.

In spite of these problems, the costs in excess of the limits set in 1973, indicated in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum to the Bill, are not out of line with the general rise in building costs for large projects since work on the National Theatre started in earnest in 1969. Over the whole of that period, the cost of the building—and there have been difficulties, problems and changes—has been rather less than the average cost attributable to similar buildings. In addition, the House will bear in mind the uniqueness of the project, which has meant that the board and the contractors do not have a series of comfortable precedents to guide them.

For all these reasons, it will not be possible for the theatre to open on 23rd April 1975, as originally hoped. It is now for the National Theatre Board to decide the new opening date.

It was clear earlier this year that the 1973 figure of £10.55 million would be overspent. The Government and the GLC, therefore, entered into urgent negotiations for a solution to these problems, with the result which I announced in a Written Answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Mitchell) on 31st October, from which I quote: The Government and the Greater London Council have, subject to seeking the necessary authority from Parliament and the council "— that is the GLC, of course— for their respective contributions, reached agreement to provide the necessary resources to complete the National Theatre notwithstanding the further substantial rises in costs which have been encountered."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 31st October 1974; Vol. 880, c. 6.] The Leader of the Council, in consultation with the leader of the minority party on the council, Mr. Horace Cutler—never at any time, so far as I am aware, has there been any party difference in the GLC on the matter—has agreed to recommend a contribution up to £1 million, or 50 per cent., whichever is the lesser amount, on the understanding that the balance of expenditure would be met by the Exchequer.

The Bill seeks authority to remove the present statutory restriction on the total Government contribution to enable the building to be completed. It is expected that the Exchequer contribution, due to the rising cost of building, will be in excess of £1 million. New arrangements have been made with the South Bank Theatre Board to control this expenditure. This arrangement is, of course, subject to endorsement by the Greater London Council and to the enactment of the Bill we are now discussing.

I turn now to the text of the Bill. The purpose of the Bill is to remove the statutory ceiling on the Government's contribution to the project, so that, in agreement with the GLC, the National Theatre building can now be completed as quickly as possible. This should not, however, be read as a resignation by the Government and the GLC from continued control over the costs of the project—far from it. I have always thought and have said in previous debates—and I believe the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) has said something similar—that it is a mistake to write into main legislation financial limits on expenditure.

For the National Theatre project a much more flexible but no less severe control is needed. This we and the GLC have set in hand. It will be noted from lines 11 and 12 of the Bill that no contribution by the Government can be made without the consent of the Treasury. We have specified that additional resources can be used only for completing already approved work. There can therefore be no question of new requirements being added to the various contracts simply because the statutory ceiling on expenditure is being removed.

Indeed, I venture to suggest that it is perhaps a pity that throughout the whole of the experience of the building of this theatre we did not have the methods of control that we are now commending to the House rather than the successive statutory limits, which as some of us pointed out in debates at the time would be bound to be eroded by the inevitable process of inflation.

I should like to comment on the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum, particularly the second sentence. Although it is not possible at this stage to make an accurate estimate of the final total of additional contributions required, it is expected that the excess costs will be not less than £2 million. The GLC is considering later this month a recommendation that it should contribute to this excess, as I have said, up to £1 million, or 50 per cent. of the costs, whichever is the less. This means that the Government contribution is expected to be not less than £1 million. Payments will be spread over 1975 and 1976 on the present timetable put forward by the board.

This great project will exemplify the curious and rewarding fact that our people and our language have made perhaps their most significant contribution to world culture through the medium of the drama. We are, in the National Theatre, declaring our pride in the power of our language to communicate and in the ability of our creative and interpretive artists to express themselves in terms which will move us and perhaps reveal humanity to men and women.

It is, of course, possible to argue that this can be done anywhere—in the street, if necessary—without all this capital expenditure. We can obviously have drama without theatres—

Mr. John Ellis (Brigg and Scunthorpe)

We have it here all the time.

Mr. Jenkins

As my hon. Friend says, we make our contribution occasionally to that end in the House. Theatres are increasingly expensive to build. But it is impossible to imagine that this country can continue to play the leading rôle it now performs in the theatrical life of the world if we accept the argument that the small, the cheap and the old are good enough for us. There is a place for the large and for the small. Are we to accept the argument—surely not?—that we must never make a gesture, that we must never stretch ourselves, that we must not take risks? The artist is in the business of taking risks. That is what art is about to a large extent. It is the job of those who support the artist to enable him to do so. The multiplication of State support for the arts in the last 10 years has taken place in parallel with the building of the National Theatre, and I think this to be no accident.

By putting more money in at the top, one gradually raises the proportion of State and municipal help at all levels. It has been a matter of some concern that privately-owned buildings can stand empty and yet appreciate in value. Centre Point is the great example of that. The Government have no intention of letting that happen to this imaginative publicly-owned building on the South Bank.

All those seeking public support for the arts should perhaps recognise more clearly than they do that they sink or swim together. It is not the case that if very small sums of money are spent in the capital the money which is not being spent in the capital will then be available to be passed out to the regions. These things go hand in hand, and, while the actual proportion—even with the National Theatre—of the Arts Council's resources which is being spent in the capital is a declining proportion of the total, simultaneously with the building of this great theatre we have been pushing more and more money out into the regions. That is a process which was carried out under the previous administration, I freely admit, and it is a process which we intend to maintain.

We cannot survive through arguments about the various shares of the cake even before it is decided how large it should be. For the New Statesman of all journals to reach the conclusion at this stage that the whole project is a mistake is enough to make Kingsley Martin turn in his grave.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South-West)

That paper is generally wrong.

Mr. Jenkins

I shall not extend into an argument with the hon. Gentleman on that matter, but on this occasion we are at least agreed that it was wrong on that point.

As I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, I moved a motion a dozen or more years ago, when I was on the old LCC, saying that we should build this theatre. It was carried unanimously. It is now my task to move the last legislative stage in its construction. I do so happily and with confidence and pride. I move the Second Reading of the Bill, and I ask the House to approve in the determination that the National Theatre will be not a millstone but a milestone, that it will not detract from its fellow theatres but will, under energetic direction, set new standards of achievement.

7.33 p.m.

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)

I am very pleased to give the Bill a warm welcome. The Opposition fully support it in principle. Bills with fixed sums upon their faces are always rigid instruments. That, I presume, is why the Treasury is so fond of them. But inflation has made this sort of fixed-sum Bill a quite impossible device.

The last National Theatre Bill was in fact—if I may include a modest passing reference to myself—introduced by me at the Dispatch Box five days after my appointment to ministerial office, which, appropriately, took place on 5th November 1972. It was 10th November that the second instalment of the National Theatre saga was received with a welcome by all parts of the House. It added £1.35 million to the Bill. I had hoped—indeed we had all hoped—that that would be enough, but it was proved not to be so.

On that occasion the speech from the Opposition Front Bench was made by the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds)—far from late, but very much lamented. We rose and fell together. He was dismissed by the Prime Minister and I was dismissed by the people—vox populi, vox dei, sed vox diaboli, vox Wilsoni. Fortunately both of us are still here and neither of us seems to have suffered from those adventures. Perhaps it is because we have followed the advice of Mr. Jimmy Durante who said, "Be nice to people on the way up, because you meet the same people when you are on the way down."

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Would the hon. Gentleman be good enough to give that advice to the Prime Minister?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The Prime Minister, I think, has always followed it, which explains why he has survived for so long.

That this Bill is now necessary is no one's fault. I do not blame it on the present Minister. It cannot be laid at the door of my noble Friend Lord Eccles. The hon. Gentleman is always so anxious to blame things on him. It is due to the demon of inflation, which is threatening the whole of our society, our institutions, and the future of the National Theatre.

The costs of this theatre, in themselves, are not astronomic. We are told that another £2 million will see the project through. Altogether, the theatre will cost about £12 million. If one compares it with a building such as the Sydney Opera House, which cost two or three times as much, allowing for inflation, it is not a very expensive project for a country which is still, despite our difficulties, as rich as our own.

This project is of immense importance for the future. Long after the dreary echoes of our economic debates have died away, long after today's economic theorists have been dismissed and no one takes an interest in their disputes, the effects of this theatre will be real and important, affecting the lives of millions of people—their outlook, their horizons, their whole vision of life. It is a much more important project than anything else that has been discussed today. I am sorry that there are not more hon. Members here. But, after all, as we know, quality is much more important than quantity. You know that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. After all, there is only one of you. How, indeed, could there be two?

It is curious that at this moment, which should be a moment of triumph, 70 years on from that great dream of Sir Israel Gollancz—which he had in the more spacious and stable year of 1904—when it is about to become a reality, the critics are at work. The gnats—I mean, the rats—the rats are gnawing—

Mr. Cormack

The gnats are gnawing, too.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

When I mentioned "gnats" I was thinking of the New Statesman, which is a sort of gnat —a gadfly. It is extraordinary that there should be this carping, although I am not surprised at the New Statesman. It is a paper that has always acted as a jackal, snapping at the heels of various causes, and it is now at the heels of artistic progress. I agreed with the Minister when he termed that leading article headed "The National Theatre Tragedy" a disgrace, because that is what it was. It was a disgrace that it was written, and it would be a calamity if anyone were taken in by it.

I suppose all great ideas, when they come to be achieved, suffer from a period of reaction. People who have campaigned for a long time for something tend to get exhausted. After all, it happened in Italy after the Risorgimenta. After the great efforts to unite Italy, it was Fascism which eventually supervened. Our own efforts to enter the European Community were crowned with success a short time ago after so many years, yet now we are in a period of disillusionment with the Community.

It is the same with the National Theatre. Once it is seen that a project can be achieved, the critics feel that they have a licence to raise their voices. Therefore, let us discount some of this criticism on that ground. Let us discount also the jealousy that there is, and what I may call—I hope without offence—the sheer theatrical bitchiness which exists and which is being directed against the National Theatre Board by some people in the theatre world.

There is another point that is much more important and much more real. There is a fear amongst those interested in the theatre that the theatre elsewhere in London and in the provinces will be starved of funds to finance the National Theatre. That is a genuine and not unworthy fear. I hope that it will not happen. Indeed it must not happen. A national theatre bought and built at the expense of the living theatre elsewhere in Britain would not be a national theatre at all. It would be better not to have it, if that were the price that had to be paid.

We must always consider the theatre in other parts of the country, and we must consider the interests of the commercial theatre as well. On this point, I hope that the Minister will finally bestir himself on behalf of the Criterion Theatre and press his colleague the Secretary of State for the Environment to hold an inquiry into the fate of that theatre to stop it from closing, because once a theatre is closed its future is radically and permanently affected.

Mr. Faulds

This is a slightly tendentious matter about the Criterion, but I should like it put on record that I raised this with the Secretary of State for the Environment. In a letter to him some weeks ago I suggested that an inquiry should be held, and I am still waiting for a reply. I do not know what the Under-Secretary is doing about this matter, but it is urgent.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

I am not sure how lax you will be in this debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but perhaps it might be worth while, since the matter has been raised on both sides of the House, to say that the Criterion matter is one in which both my right hon. Friend and I are closely involved. At the moment it stands between the Greater London Council and the Westminster City Council. I personally have no doubt at all that the Criterion will be preserved for its proper theatrical use.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

May I intervene in this dialogue? I am glad to hear the Minister's expression of faith, but I was not asking for faith; I was asking for works, which is another matter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warley, East on his zeal in this cause. I wish that the zeal on the back benches on the Government side was matched by an equal zeal on the Front Benches.

Mr. Faulds

Please do not praise me.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The hon. Gentleman must bear it as best he may.

The economic position which we face is grave, but if we look at the actual figures involved, we see the whole question of the National Theatre and its financing in proper proportion. The whole of the arts budget is £18.8 million, compared with a budget for education alone of nearly £4,000 million. The Arts Council is asking for an extra £6 million to save us from what would, indeed, he a major national disaster, the loss of one of our great cultural institutions, such as the English National Opera, Covent Garden or the Royal Shakespeare Company. From those calculations of need, the needs of the National Theatre are excluded.

How much will the National Theatre need? It is not only a question of erecting the building. Just as important, and more expensive in the long run, will be keeping the National Theatre going. The figures which I have show that occupancy and management will cost £1.15 million a year, that the Olivier Theatre will cost £1.95 million and that the Lyttelton Theatre will cost £2.5 million—a total of £5.6 million—and these figures refer to the subsidy that is required from the Government, leaving aside whatever revenue may be obtained from the box office, which, of course, is a variable figure.

That is a large sum in the context of the arts budget but it is not a large sum in the context of the Budget as a whole—a couple of bolts on Concorde, perhaps. But it is vital that that money should be provided and that it should be guaranteed by the Minister today.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

The hon. Gentleman has it wrong. The fact is that the subsidy for running the building, without anything else happening, is £1.15 million. The Olivier 'theatre only—the hon. Gentleman has misinterpreted the figures —will cost a subsidy of £1.95 million, and to operate the Olivier and the Lyttelton Theatres will require a subsidy of £2.5 million. That is a total. He is mistaken in adding these figures together. Also, the figures which the hon. Gentleman has are estimates for the needs of the theatre itself, and they will have to be subjected to the usual close scrutiny to which the Arts Council subjects all estimates brought to it.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am grateful for the Minister's explanation. He has resources to make use of which I do not have. But whether or not those figures should be treated as cumulative, the point is absolutely valid—that the subsidy revenue must be guaranteed by the Government, and we want a statement that that will be done. Will the Minister give that guarantee now?

Mr. Jenkins

I cannot give any guarantee other than that which I have given, that it is not the Government's intention that this building should become a sort of public Centre Point.

Mr. Cormack

Centre court.

Mr. Jenkins

A centre court perhaps—it may well do—but not a Centre Point. As to confirming specific figures, it is not possible now.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

That is a totally inadequate assurance, because the future of the theatre is already a matter of public debate. At this very moment articles are appearing in the Press. Discussion about the theatre's viability is widespread, and this would have been an ideal opportunity for the Minister to set these doubts and anxieties at rest.

The general theatre grant is £3.2 million. Those are the figures from the 1973–74 Estimates. I have not the figures for 1974–75. I hope that there will be no question of reducing that annual grant to theatres outside the National Theatre in an effort to pick up some money for the National Theatre.

Mr. Jenkins

indicated assent.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The hon. Gentleman is nodding. I take it that that is a guarantee of a kind. What can we do in this very grave situation for the National Theatre? One solution would be to finance it at the expense of others. Fortunately we all reject that. The Minister has rejected it this evening. The Opposition rejected it. Mr. Peter Hall, the director of the National Theatre, has rejected it. The whole vision of what the National Theatre could accomplish, being a centre both for regional visits from other companies and itself sending out companies to the regions, would vanish if this were so.

Second, one could be cheeseparing and start cutting down, as unfortunately the director of the National Theatre has already had to do. He has had to cut down on his future programme. Some of the auditoria might not be opened. A saving could be made on production by cutting down the expense, but I think that would be a disastrous recipe. The National Theatre is one of the finest buildings we have in Britain and the productions should be worthy of the building and worthy of the concept.

Yet another expedient which has been put forward is to save by merging the National Theatre Company with the Royal Shakespeare Company. One might save something in that way but it would be at a very heavy artistic cost. By a happy accident of history we have two national companies, one competing against the other. It is as though one of the fantasies of the Secretary of State for Industry had suddenly been realised in the artistic world, one national institution competing against another. We have that position by an accident of history. Let us not sacrifice it. Furthermore, it would be very bad for the theatrical profession. It would reduce the opportunities for employment in a profession which already suffers the burdens of unemployment to an extent unknown to any other profession in the country.

The Royal Shakespeare Company has its own character—predominantly, not totally, Shakespeare, predominantly a classical repertoire—although I think it is right to go for other activities, such as the contemporary dramatists or experiments such as the Space Theatre in Stratford.

I therefore reject that proposal and hope that the Minister rejects is at well.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

indicated assent.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Is that a nod?

Mr. Jenkins

indicated assent.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am delighted that that should be so and that we are of one mind on this most important question.

So we are left with only one alternative, which is to find the money that is necessary for this project. I do not believe that the arts need any other justification than themselves. I am a strong believer in arts for arts' sake, but for the purpose of an argument to appeal to the economist and the economically-minded one should say that the National Theatre will pay for itself in invisible earnings in a short space of time. People flock to Britain because of our theatrical tradition. They come here to go to the theatre. It is possible to get into the theatre in London before one's holiday is over, which is quite impossible in a city such as New York. Thus, far from being a white elephant, this is much more likely to prove a golden one, which will fully justify any capital investment that is made.

I believe it is necessary to set at rest the minds of others who are concerned with the theatre in Britain. I would therefore put this suggestion to the Minister: why not make the special grant for the big four—namely, Covent Garden, the National Opera, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the English National Theatre—a separate grant-in-aid, payable through the Arts Council, but as a separate accounting matter? In that way the Minister would effectively allay the fears of those who think that the Arts Council will pay for these big projects at their expense.

We put forward this suggestion in our policy document issued during the election by my former colleague, unfortunately no longer with us, the former Member for Ipswich, Mr. Ernie Money, to whom I should like to pay a tribute for his work for the arts. Following a telephone conversation this afternoon, I know that it is also favoured by the chairman of the Drama Panel of the Arts Council, Mr. Jack Lambert, the most distinguished literary editor of the Sunday Times. So I hope that serious consideration will be given to this point.

I have put a number of questions to the Minister. When he replies to the debate I hope that he will answer them, and that he will amplify the nods, which are welcome but which it is hardly possible to register in HANSARD.

Do the sums which are involved here cover all the equipment that the theatre will require? Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us what will happen to the Old Vic when it is vacated? This is most important. For that matter, what will happen to the Young Vic, which carries so many of the hopes of our theatrical future? Is it intended that all the three auditoria at the National Theatre should be opened and used from the beginning? What will happen to the Cottesloe auditorium? We have had the Minister's assurance against the merger with the RSC, but I should like him to comment on the suggestion I have made of a separate grant-in-aid to the Arts Council for the theatre and the opera.

I have one final point, which is perhaps the most important of all. We must consider the Bill in the context of grants for the arts as a whole. This is a real moment of truth for everyone in the House who is interested in the arts, because we must know where the Government stand on the financing of and aid for the arts. On Tuesday night we received a severe shock when we heard the Leader of the House say in English less than elegant—it is not the English we object to, but the sentiments enshrined in that execrable grammar—that the art galleries, the theatres and the ballet will have to tighten their belts.

What does that mean? We have a right to know. If actors are being asked to tighten their belts, let me tell the Minister of some figures given to me this afternoon by Equity. In the West End theatre it is only since January 1974 that the minimum weekly wage has been £33 and until recently commercial actors in the provinces received a wage of £18 a week, which has recently been raised to £30 a week. The most recent survey made by Equity estimates that the average annual median earnings of actors are £1,000 a year and of actresses just over £500; this is because the median number of weeks worked in a year for actors is 14.5 and for actresses 11.5. Equity estimates that between 50 per cent. and 75 per cent. of the profession are unemployed at any one time.

There is not much scope for the tightening of any belts there. Nor is there scope among the directors of art galleries who are struggling against the most appalling inflationary burdens to keep the doors of their galleries open and the ordinary services ticking over. I hope we shall have a clarification of the Government's position from the Minister this evening.

Does the Minister who represents the arts share those sentiments? If so, it is disgraceful. The rôle of the Minister for the arts—so well fulfilled by the Minister's great predecessor, Lady Lee—is to be the titular head and spokesman for the entire range of professions who are involved in the arts and all who work in the field of art.

We expect the Minister to be the champion of the arts in Britain. Other Ministers are allowed freedom of discourse about issues such as South Africa. Why should there not he freedom of speech about the arts? Why should not the Minister take advantage of the opportunities that his colleagues have and let his mind be known? If he does not, all confidence in him in the artistic world will simply evaporate.

I must tell the Minister, without being too censorious, that his record to date does not give us great hope or encouragement. Those gradiose projects which he outlined before coming to office have vanished without trace. We have not heard a word from him on the question of exempting the work of living artists from value added tax. At least during the election we pledged ourselves to support the project put forward by the European Commission for the abolition of VAT on all in the art world, and we said that we would implement it as soon as it became Community policy.

The Minister's record on the wealth tax is appalling. Instead of pressing the Chancellor for exemption for the great collections in our country houses, the great works of art which are so valuable to this country, he has lain supine—[Interruption.]—yes, supine—at the feet of the Chancellor and has done nothing to champion the cause of the arts. The hon. Gentleman has allowed the interests of finance and of one Department, the Treasury, to trample over the interests of the arts which he is meant to be protecting. Yet it is to protect the arts that he is on the Front Bench.

The truth is that at a time of economic crisis, when it is going to be much more difficult to achieve our material goals, we should spend more, not less, on the arts. We may not be able to achieve material things, but at least we can achieve our spiritual and artistic objectives. The sums are absurdly small. Even in time of war, when we were facing our greatest peril, we followed a policy of spending more on the arts than had ever been spent before.

There is the further point that for a very small investment we get immense returns. The theatre above all has been one of our greatest achievements. Drama with poetry and the novel form a splendid trinity of achievement in English literature. That, after all, has been our lasting conquest. Long after the last rays of the sun have set over a vanished empire the conquest of the English language will remain. It is the tongue that is spoken throughout the world and that people want to hear worthily presented in the British theatre when they come here.

I realise that the powers of the Minister who has responsibility for the arts are limited. They are not great in terms of political power. Indeed, those who are obsessed with a false philosophy of glittering prizes would not envy the Minister. The position of Minister for the Arts is one not of great power but it is one of great influence. He has the power to set the tone of discussion in the artistic world and to champion the cause of the arts.

If the Minister fights the battle for artistic values, we shall support him. There is no desire on our part, nor on the Liberal benches, to make this a party political matter. However, if the Minister fails to stand up for the arts both inside and outside the Government, if he shows lack of courage or of persistence, then we shall not forgive him. We shall show him no quarter. The test of a Minister's worth is whether he can fight for the causes for which he has been given responsibility. The test in this case will be not only whether the Minister has the money for this building, which he has, but whether he will obtain generous Government financial support so that the National Theatre can be a worthy showpiece for works of the greatest literature ever created.

8.5 p.m.

Mr. G. R. Strauss (Vauxhall)

While the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) was speaking, I was hoping that I would be able at the end of his speech to say that I agreed with him in every respect. However, towards the end he turned to make a very unfair attack on my hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts, who fights as keenly for the arts as anyone possibly could, and I would obviously differ from the hon. Gentleman on that score.

On other matters, and on his general approach, I agree with him—with one exception. I doubt very much whether his idea of having a separate Arts Council grant for the four major recipients of Arts Council money is really a workable device and whether any Chancellor would agree to it. It would appear to be an obvious trick to make other recipients of Arts Council money believe that they are not in competition with the major recipients.

When the matter arose in the House many years ago, I was doubtful whether the amount of money then proposed for the building of the National Theatre was sufficient. My scepticism was born of experience. I questioned whether the £7½ million would be enough. I was assured by the Minister then responsible, now Baroness Lee, that this was so. I should like to quote the exchange that took place at Question Time on 21st March 1968. I asked my right hon. Friend: What will happen if, in view of rising costs for building the theatre, the final expenditure is more than is anticipated? Her reply was: I think that, with £72 million … if we cannot build a splendid theatre, we all ought to jump in the Thames."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st March 1968; Vol. 761, c. 566.] No one has done so. No one has given a lead. Obviously someone ought to do that, because long before the recent rapid inflation occurred, the original estimate was greatly exceeded.

We are all delighted to know that the National Theatre is nearing completion. After many long delays, which have been exceedingly inconvenient to the management of the National Theatre, to artists and to technicians, it is approaching completion. We hope that before long it will be in operation. All those who have had the privilege of seeing it must agree that it is, indeed, a magnificent building; that it is highly functional and not lavish; that the many stages are equipped with devices which will enable any producer to indulge to the full his imagination and to put on stage tricks and stunts, hitherto unheard of.

When it comes to subsidiary but very important matters such as back-stage accommodation and dressing rooms for the actors, the new National Theatre will, I believe, be better than any theatre in the world. I consider the architecture of the building magnificent, although inevitably it has been the subject of a good deal of criticism.

As the hon. Member for Chelmsford said, now that the building is completed and nearly ready for occupation, many distinguished people—I am not talking about the New Statesman—in the commercial theatre and subsidised theatre are getting worried about the money which the National Theatre will absorb. Their anxiety is understandable. I hope that it is not justified. Some of them have written a letter to The Times. It was signed by the leading members of subsidised theatres, not only in London but also in the regions. They said, in effect, "With all this money which the National Theatre will need if it is to survive, what is to happen to us? Shall we be restricted?" To that question there has to this day been no satisfactory reply.

These questions and criticisms would have been more appropriately raised by these people when the whole idea of a great National Theatre building was first put forward. It was clear then that such a theatre could not operate without substantial subsidies from the Arts Council. In those days, however, the people concerned were full of euphoria and excitement at having this great theatre in London. Now the great day is here they are getting worried about it.

It is said that confession is good for the soul, and I confess that when this building was contemplated I was, I believe, one of the few people deeply interested in the theatre who was doubtful whether it was necessary or desirable. I took the view that what was wanted was a magnificent national company which had plenty of money from the Arts Council, which could employ the finest actors, producers and technicians, and which was exceedingly well equipped. I argued that a special great building was unnecessary, that "the play was the thing" rather than a theatre building and that difficulties would arise—especially financial difficulties—if such vast sums of money were put into a new theatre building.

I had in mind then that at the Old Vic, where the National Theatre has operated for many years, many plays, ancient and modern, had been magnificently produced. They had been staged there to perfection. They could not have been produced more effectively in a new theatre, however magnificently it might be equipped.

However, it is no good looking back to the past. We now have this exceedingly fine building, and the problem is what will happen to its finances. Will it be enabled to operate as it should? The Bill provides the money for the building, and that is fine. But the real question is will it be able to operate as it should through adequate subsidies. We have been told that the running costs will be enormous.

All hon. Members who are interested in the arts and the theatre must ardently wish that the Government will make the money available. We are particularly worried, however, by what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said the other day about actors and others having to tighten their belts. What he said may mean nothing or it may mean something. Perhaps all he meant was to say in a general way that we must be economic in what we do. I am sure that he did not mean that there would be reductions in the salaries of actors and actresses. He must have meant that there must be some reduction in the activities of the subsidised theatre companies, that they would not be able to spend as much as they were already spending, that they would not be able to produce the same number of plays, and that their activities would have to be restricted.

If that is the Government's view about the theatre generally—and I assume that my right hon. Friend was referring only to theatres receiving a subsidy from the Arts Council—if all these theatre enterprises have to tighten their belts, what on earth will happen to the National Theatre? Until we have a clearer statement from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, I and many other hon. Members will be exceedingly worried. We want definite assurances.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

I think I can give my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) some assurance. I think that the views of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer are likely to be in accord with those my right hon. Friend has been expressing and with those I hold myself.

Mr. Strauss

I am glad to hear that. The idea of the National Theatre getting a substantial grant while money to other theatres is curtailed is abhorrent not only to us but to the director of the National Theatre. I quote in this connection a statement made recently by Mr. Peter Hall: If adequate funds for the health of the new National Theatre can only be provided by starving others, then that, to my mind, is a negation of what the National Theatre is about. It must be part of the theatre of the whole, contributing its facilities to everybody. Vice versa, the National Theatre has little meaning and little purpose if other theatres are weak. My hon. Friend is encouraging in what he has just said, but his words are in contrast to what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said the other day. I hope that my hon. Friend's statement was made on the basis of a definite promise from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Theatrical, ballet and operatic enterprises which receive Government grants are now planning how to curtail their activities in order to save money. They feel sure that the Arts Council will want them to economise, or that the Arts Council will not in future provide them with the money that is necessary to maintain their existing activities, in view of world inflation.

I turn now to another matter which, though small, is causing considerable anxiety. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to bear this point in mind. I do not ask him for an answer to it at the moment. People in other subsidised theatres are noticing that the National Theatre will not only absorb large sums of money, but will also make great demands upon human resources in the theatre, more especially, the higher technicians and administrative staff who run theatres. The demand of the National Theatre is such, and the salaries it is offering are so much greater than in other theatres, that there is fear of a considerable new financial burden being placed upon them.

I would not have taken much notice of this point had I not seen a letter signed by many theatre directors. I checked the truth of what they said. The National Theatre has been advertising for higher technicians, catering managers, box office managers and other staff and has been offering salaries immensely higher than in other theatres. This is causing disturbance—

Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely)

I wish to elucidate upon this point. At the Old Vic at present the average salary is made up of 25 per cent, basic pay and 75 per cent. overtime. The fact that the National Theatre advertises for staff at rates substantially in excess of the basic pay of, for instance, other theatre technicians in no way means that people will be paid more money in full.

Mr. Strauss

I hope that that is so, but my information is different. I have found, for instance, that people in managerial and higher technical jobs have been astounded by the salary being offered by the National Theatre compared with what they are now getting. I do not want to argue this across the Floor of the House, but I could give details of a number of cases.

We have now got a fine National Theatre, and we have everything to make it a success. We have actors and actresses as fine as those anywhere else in the world, and we have great playwrights. We have the finest stage equipment and we are fortunate to have a director of outstanding ability, whose experience and achievements in all avenues of theatrical life have earned deep respect throughout the theatrical world. All the ingredients are there to make the National Theatre a success. It is up to us to see that the money will be available to ensure that facilities exist to enable them to function successfully. We can do this only by constant pressure on the Government.

Britain's economic standing and world influence has been waning in recent years, but our cultural reputation stands as high as ever, particularly our reputation in drama. That reputation we have enjoyed for centuries—even in the 16th century when a version of Shakespeare's plays was being produced on the continent.

In these days whenever I go to the theatre—whenever the Whips allow me to go—I find our theatres, particularly the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare and the Royal Court full of foreign visitors. Indeed it is often difficult to find a native there. It is a grand thing that people come from abroad to visit England and make a visit to one of our theatres a high priority. We must maintain that reputation. It is an activity in which England can still glory without shame.

We must see to it that whatever economies may be necessary, none should be imposed by the Treasury on the Arts Council. We in this country even now spend on the arts far less than many continental countries. The theatre, the opera, the ballet are great national assets. We must preserve them at all costs and not allow the Treasury, however desirous it may be to counter inflationary pressures, to impede the great national cultural achievements which we have so laboriously and successfully built up over the years. They must be allowed to continue and flourish.

8.28 p.m.

Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely)

When I left home this afternoon to come to the House, my 12-year old daughter asked what I was going to do. I said, "It is the National Theatre Bill". She said, "Will you have to pay?" I very much hope so because the National Theatre needs money badly.

We have heard a lot about the history of the National Theatre. The subject was first mentioned in Parliament—and I am afraid that not even the Father of the House will remember this—on 16th June 1848. There was a petition for a national theatre because the two theatres that the Italians and French had in London at the time were considered to be immoral. The petition was brought by a Mr. Webster and presented by the Earl of Fitzhardinge. The petition said: That the circumstances of Drury-lane and Covent-Garden Theatres being open for foreign, and not English performance, tended to pervert and vitiate the taste of the public, and to distract them from the love and patronage of the English drama. That Her Majesty's Italian Theatre in the Haymarket, and the French Theatre in St. James's, were known to be more than adequate…"— in other words, for those with foreign tastes. Lord Brougham asked: Would it be any benefit to English workmen to have the theatre shut up? The report continues: He must take that opportunity of expressing the disgust with which he had read accounts of scenes which did such discredit to good sense.… It is strange that now, 125 years later, we should be perverting the nationals of France and Italy with our obscene theatre. But things move slowly. I do not want to make political capital out of this subject, although it was rather well done by the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas).

In 1905 there was another reference to a national theatre. Mr. W. F. D. Smith (Strand, Westminster): To ask Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer whether he has been requested to grant an annual subsidy towards the permanent establishment of a National Repertory Theatre. Mr. Austen Chamberlain replied: Yes, Sir, I have been requested to lay before His Majesty's Government a proposal to grant an annual subsidy of £10,000. … I have replied that I am unable to recommend such a grant from public funds. So at the beginning of this century £10,000 was too much.

On 21st January 1949 the Treasury announced: … it is estimated that it will cost about £1 million to build a memorial theatre … worthy of the name of Shakespeare and worthy of this country."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st January 1949; Vol. 460, c. 440.] There was much jocular conjecture in that debate about the political interference in a national theatre. It was thought that it might lead to the giving of plum parts to members of the Government or perhaps to their protegés. Looking round this Chamber, one hesi- tates to cast people directly, but perhaps the line of Lady Macbeth, Infirm of purpose, give me the daggers", would be becoming to the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) in the present situation—

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Or the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Short).

Mr. Freud

I leave the actual casting to hon. Members who may be fortunate enough, Mr. Speaker, to catch your eye later in the debate.

Mr. George Bernard Shaw advises about the House of Commons, Do not waste too much time in the gabble shop. Looking round this Chamber, I see that that advice has been taken by about 621 right hon. and hon. Members.

I come now to the National Theatre on the South Bank. The situation is very simple. Here we have a theatre which has in one building three theatres, plus balconies, terraces and catering facilities. I suppose that I must profess an interest in that I am a member of one of the subcommittees.

Admittedly the project needs a lot of money, and, like all hon. Members, I am keen that this money should be given. However, what frightens me, in addition to the fear of the hon. Member for Chelmsford that if this money goes to the National Theatre it may be that other branches of the industry will suffer, is that having seen this theatre set-up there should be any reduction in the total plan.

There is the Olivier Theatre, which seats 1,100. There is the Lyttelton Theatre, which seats 900. Then there is the smaller Cottesloe Theatre. The figures that we have here, by and large, are the right ones. But, although at the moment the subsidy for every £1 earned at the box office would be £1.2 if the whole National Theatre enterprise ran as it should, if it were decided through lack of funds to have open only the Olivier Theatre the subsidy would rise to £1.8 for every £1 received at the box office. I submit that this is an appalling waste of money. The National Theatre, as a concept, is a great one, but to cut it now, to use it piecemeal and to lose the actors and the production facilities would be invidious.

I listened to the Father of the House eulogising about the Old Vic, and I have fond, loving memories of it. But there is so much which cannot be done at the Old Vic, and there is so much expense involved in doing what can be done. I intervened in the speech of the Father of the House in order to explain about the high wages. That is one of the factors killing the Old Vic theatre. The creation of a repertory theatre which can go across the country as a touring theatre is so expensive that it is almost inconceivable. The ideal of having a different play on every couple of days, of having plays in repertory, is so expensive that much of the grant the Government give to the Old Vic is taken up in merely trying to keep more than one play for a long season, because that is the only way it can make money.

Mr. Strauss

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the National Theatre, when in its new building, will not play in repertory the same as at the Old Vic? Surely it will.

Mr. Freud

That is exactly what it will do. It will be set up to play repertory. It has enough sophisticated equipment within itself as it is projected now. It can do repertory without causing people to work 75 per cent. of their time at overtime rates. That is why the National Theatre is needed so badly.

Interference in the National Theatre scheme has been frightening. The job of Mr. Peter Hall and his men and women is not easy. In September 1969 the South Bank Theatre Board agreed to award the building contract to McAlpine's. It agreed to do this because McAlpine's said that three and a half years was the time it would take, and it was the best offer.

By February 1973 the completion of the new building had been retarded by 13 months. In March 1973 the current estimate went up another month. At the board's meeting in June of that year Sir Max Rayne reported the National Theatre Board's anxiety and he advised the board that February 1975 was the proposed date.

I ask the House to remember that all this time staff were being engaged or partly engaged, and put back, and that was no easy matter.

In July 1973 the National Theatre Board was told that June 1974 completion was the latest, after which a February 1975 opening could be achieved. In September of that year it was again put back.

The October meeting of the building sub-committee heard a report from Mr. Softly—a very good name, I submit—that there had been no improvement and work would have to be accelerated if the June 1974 target date were to be met. McAlpine's blamed lack of information. The December building sub-committee considered industrial disputes and forecast a completion six months later. In March it was again put forward.

So it has gone on. I will not bore the House with this, because it is very boring, but I will say that the National Theatre as we now have it is the best theatre we have ever had in this country. When it is completed it may well stand us in at £13 million, but if that building were erected today, at today's prices, it would be worth £35 million and would be a great snip at that price.

It is only our basic, national defeatist attitude, our strange reluctance to blow our own trumpet, that stopped us from proclaiming this and making more people realise what a fine building we have. I would be unhappy if the Minister did not get from the Treasury enough money not only for this imaginative project, but to ward off the fears of the hon. Member for Chelmsford. It is essential that we have not only a National Theatre that would be a showpiece, but a National Theatre as it was conceived. We do not want one as it might be when the Treasury has had its say, and closed down this and halved that, and stopped it from being carpeted or curtained or from having the right catering facilities, and so on.

The aim of the theatre is absolutely clear. It should go on the way in which it was thought out and conceived. It should not be seduced by the almost successful three-day week of the Tory Party. Unlike the results of the three-day industrial working week, I warn the Minister, audiences, if they came only once every other day, would spend no more money and would not listen any more attentively. They would receive nothing more.

Let us make it clear that delays mean money. I see that the Minister is speaking earnestly to his financial advisers even now, and I am grateful. But the longer the delays, the more money the project will cost. The suggestion of the hon. Member for Chelmsford that there should be a separate grant is excellent. That is the only way in which we may be assured that the National Theatre will get the money it needs and will not get it at the cost of other theatres.

"National" is a word dear to the Government, certainly the declensions thereof. I have opposed the word and my party has opposed it in its verbal form. I support it in its adjectival form. especially as a prefix to the word "theatre". We should like to see a National Theatre. We should like to see it stand on its own and not at the expense of any other theatrical venture. We do not want to see it at the expense of taking jobs from other actors.

Enough has been said about the parlous state of my trade union, Equity. A National Theatre would cost money; but so would the abolition of hare coursing and the many other measures, mostly destructive, which the Government have outlined in the Gracious Speech. I think we have enough destructive legislation. I should like to give my party's support to the Bill, the rejection of which would not only dissipate 120 years of forward thought but would cost hundreds of jobs and ambitions which are tied up with the project of a National Theatre.

8.36 p.m.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe)

I have been very interested in the debate because it seems to me that, so far, it has been exceedingly civilised and has covered a great deal of ground. There seems a great element of agreement between the various parties on the things they do not want to see happen to the National Theatre. But I have been a little thrown by the rather happy assumption that the Bill will solve all the difficulties in actually creating the National Theatre. I remind the House that the building is not completed. We have heard from the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) some of the difficulties that have been encountered up to this point in the production of the building.

When we talk about finance, we have not yet taken on board the simple fact that if one throws out a timetable for a major company such as this, one damages its economies in a fundamental way. If one has planned to have a company of over 120 and engaged a number of actors—if they are very good, they will be held to contracts for a considerable time ahead—one has definite financial commitments.

The situation is that, because the National Theatre is still not ready and does not have an official completion date, far from building up the administrative staff, the stage hands and the acting company, the National Theatre is now cutting back on the number of people employed.

Why is this theatre so late? There are always a number of reasons to be taken into account, but I was appalled to hear my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State say that it is for the National Theatre Board to say when it is to open. It is easy to be wise after the event and say that the actual building of the theatre should have been left to the people who would run it, but it seems extraordinarily odd that we have this division of responsibility so that one board is responsible for the building and another board will be required to run the theatre. This has caused considerable difficulty. The Father of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss), mentioned the problems that will be encountered by other theatres simply in the practical realm of stagehands and members of NATKE who work for the National Theatre.

Those of us who work in any branch of entertainment know only too well that NATKE is one of the unions which in the past two years has been faced with appalling redundancies. It has a number of members covering all the categories my right hon. Friend mentioned who are desperately in need of employment. If there is an easy method of attracting them to a new theatre, one suspects that this is not unconnected with the wage levels that are paid elsewhere in the country. I hope, therefore, that he will not be too misled by the propaganda being used when many of us feel that there are quite enough technicians available who would welcome employment and who are facing considerable difficulties outside.

The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) made an unprovoked and unwarranted attack upon my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. If there is one Member of this House who does not need to be reminded of the problems of Equity it is my hon. Friend. He has spent a great deal of his working life not only actively promoting the interests of actors but in doing everything possible to create better conditions for the live theatre and in helping the theatre as a whole to expand.

To threaten my hon. Friend that, unless the Government come up with all the amounts of money that we have been talking about tonight, we shall know that he has failed is quite unwarranted. I have known him for a long time and always found him a kind, good, honest man. Perhaps one should say that in Whitehall, in any Government, any Minister of the Arts should not be a good, honest, kind and reliable man. That is one of the difficulties that we have had to face. I would say to the hon. Member for Chelmsford that we hope to have his active support in asking for the kind of money that we need for the Arts Council grant when it comes up for examination by the House.

I confess I have a slight reservation. Any hon. Gentleman who seeks to speak for the arts who appears in an imperial purple shirt and a burgundy tie at the same time seems to be not necessarily the sort that one can automatically appoint.

Mr. Freud

Will the hon. Lady suggest what a spokesman for the arts should wear?

Mrs. Dunwoody

At the moment it would seem to be a fig-leaf, but, given the figures of some of my fellow politicians, I hope I shall not be thought to be making a political attack if I say I prefer to see them in the shapeless suits they normally affect.

Someone has to ask some hard questions. Why is the National Theatre so late? When will it be completed? Will it be even later? Her Majesty the Queen had graciously consented to open the theatre next spring, yet the theatre company now appears to have no idea when it will go into operation. It has budgeted on the assumption that there would be 2,800 seats, and we should remember that the Old Vic has only 750 seats. If the forward projection had been done on the basis of getting money from 2,500 seats, there would be considerable difficulty in having to stay with a theatre capable of seating a much smaller number.

Where will the provision for the administration come from? My hon. Friend will have to take that on board, much as I deplore the bitchiness of some members of the profession elsewhere in suggesting that the National Theatre could be funded only by taking money from other theatres. Merely to stand empty these three theatres will require more than £1 million in administration costs. So far as one can see, no provision has been made either in the Arts Council budget or anywhere else for that money to be found. It is hopeless to expect a theatre to be able to carry on unless those figures are substantiated by a considerable grant.

No one this evening has mentioned a fact about the National Theatre which is tremendously important to me. I am exceedingly lucky in my constituency. We have a live theatre which is loosely referred to as a "Victorian gem", which means that it needs a considerable amount of money for renovation, but it is a very nice theatre and it has a young and lively company. The director of the National Theatre has made it plain that one of the things he most hopes to do is to instigate a system whereby provincial companies can come to one or other of the London theatres and put on productions which they find successful in their own areas.

I should like to cite the original play that was done on the closing of the Shelton works. It was very popular at Stoke and was strongly supported by the people in the area. It was the best kind of live theatre because it arose from something that was important to the people. It was put into the most marvellously artistic terms and has been a very great success. I should have liked to see that put on the stage in London. [Interruption.] I hope that if the hon. Member for Isle of Ely is going to barrack me, he will do it so that I can hear him. It would help.

When my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State replies, even if he can not assure us that the money is already earmarked for the new theatre and for its administration, I hope he will not listen to the suggestion that one can hive off one or two prestige-type projects and put them into a special category. I disagree very firmly with that and I would strongly resist any attempt to put such a measure through the House. The theatre in this country must belong to everyone. It should not be a middle-class prerogative. It ceased to have its real impact when it became very much the province of those who could afford to come to London and pay for very expensive seats. We want to go back to the time when it was of general interest to everyone, not to go on to the time when it has become an esoteric interest for a very small section of the population.

I hope that the National Theatre will be in operation as soon as possible. I hope that the extraordinary limbo in which the company now finds itself will be dealt with as soon as possible. Is the company to be built up? If actors and actresses of the calibre of Peggy Ashcroft and Ralph Richardson are having to say reluctantly that, although they have agreed to come to the National, they have other contractual obligations which they must fulfil and they are now not sure whether they will be able to play on the dates that were originally mooted, the theatre will start at a considerable disadvantage.

The gestation period for elephants is said to be two years. The gestation period of this theatre has been a great deal longer than that. We must take exceeding care that the propaganda currently being put out suggesting that even before it opens its doors the National Theatre has become a white elephant is refuted in every way that we can refute it in this House. It will be a centre of live theatre. It will be an exciting project. It will provide a great many jobs and a great many opportunities for people in the industry who at the moment are sadly lacking in this kind of chance. But it will do that only if we are realistic. If we in the House accept that money has to be found for this kind of project, it should be given all the support that we can possibly give it now.

If we simply provide yet more money but put no pressure on the builders to get the building finished, occupied and working, we shall fail in our job. If when it is working we do not make provision for its real costs, we shall fail in our job. I do not believe that it is my hon. Friend's intention ever to let that happen. He does not need to worry about the delicate dances of the hon. Member for Chelmsford, but he ought to be concerned about some of us who will be breathing rather loudly down his neck.

8.48 p.m.

Sir Anthony Meyer (Flint, West)

I fully share and sympathise with the impatience—indeed, the exasperation—of the hon. Lady the Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) over the delays in bringing this project to final fruition.

I have in a very humble way for the whole of my adult life been associated with this project. It was my grandfather who provided the sum of money necessary to keep alive in practical terms the ideas of men such as Sir Israel Gollancz, Bernard Shaw, Harley Granville Barker and others when they put forward the idea of a National Theatre. During the decades of official and public indifference which followed, it was only because of the help which my grandfather gave, and the persistent vision of a small handful of people, that the project remained alive.

At that stage there was a great deal of controversy whether a building was necessary to the project at all. I am convinced that without a building a National Theatre is a project which will be allowed simply to die in periods of great financial stringency, and even if only as a concrete symbol I am convinced that a building is necessary. I am sure that we are fortunate to have such a magnificent building as the one which is now, at any rate outwardly, approaching completion on the South Bank. I confess to having only a qualified enthusiasm for the texture of what one might call the pre-stained concrete in which it is built. But from the point of view of the outline, design and interior, it seems absolutely magnificent.

Those who were lucky enough to be present at that very exciting, and also very windy, topping-out ceremony may recall that, despite a very eloquent speech by Lord Olivier, the undoubted star of the occasion was the operator of the mobile crane, who had to lower a bucket of wet concrete in a very high wind on to a roof which was packed like a sardine tin and in which there was a space of about 18in square left vacant in the middle to receive the concrete bucket. He lowered it absolutely precisely, without a moment's hesitation, to one of the loudest theatrical ovations that I have ever listened to.

The project nearly faltered and died in the 1920s and 1930s. I must pay tribute to the post-war Labour Government, which was the first Government to give concrete help in financial terms to the project. I want to pay tribute—which I was not able to do when the Bill was last discussed because I had 'flu at the time—to one man who, perhaps more than any other, carried the burden of the day in the difficult years, particularly during and after the last war, and that is the late Oliver Lyttelton, later Lord Chandos, once the hon. Member for Aldershot. He used his very great talents, both as an administrator, politician and man of the arts, to negotiate and wheedle and bully in order to get the project adopted. It was he who talked the post-war Labour Government into producing what was then a very large sum of money, and who then negotiated with the LCC, and later with the GLC, the provision of that admirable site on the South Bank.

It turned out to be the wrong site. Some may recall that the foundation stone was laid—I am not quite sure where it now is—in the wrong place. When the Queen Mother—the Queen at the time—was informed that it had been laid in the wrong place and that it would be necessary to move it and asked whether she minded, her reply was that she did not mind a bit, and she could always come along in one of her crinoline dresses to conceal the operation of moving it to where the proper site would now be. Now the site has been chosen, and a very good site it is, too. The building is an essential part of the whole project.

Going back to Lord Chandos and to a point that has been raised about the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, not only did he talk the Government and London County Council into supporting it but he also undertook the very difficult task of trying to persuade both the Old Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Company into becoming part of the project. He suc- ceeded with the Old Vic, not without difficulties. One of the most formidable difficulties was the lady who was then the patron saint of the Liberal Party, Lady Violet Bonham-Carter, who held very strongly to the view that the Old Vic ought to maintain its independence.

Mr. Freud

Would the hon. Gentleman like to say that again?

Sir A. Meyer

I was referring to the erstwhile saint of the Liberal Party, Lady Violet Bonham-Carter, who held the very strong view that the Old Vic should maintain its independence inviolate. At one committee meeting after another she stuck very firmly to this point of view. Eventually Lord Chandos decided that he would take a leaf out of the book of certain elements in the Labour Party, and this normally most ruthless and efficient of chairmen used to conduct our proceedings with such intolerable dilatoriness, inefficiency and irrelevance, that ultimately Lady Violet was driven to total fury, got up, said, "I cannot waste my time here any longer" and flung out of the room, whereupon Lord Chandos concluded the rest of the business very briskly in the remaining five minutes.

In this way the union with the Old Vic was satisfactorily brought about. Unfortunately, what could not be brought about was the union with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I still think it was a great pity that this was not achieved, and I believe that one day it may be possible. It may one day be necessary to try to bring this about.

If financial stringency is such that it becomes necessary to cut down on running costs, I have a nasty sort of feeling that this will be the kind of solution that will be forced upon us. If so, it does not necessarily mean that there will be redundancies either among actors or stage hands. After all, the National Theatre Company needs to be a very large company, and by merging the National Theatre Company and the Royal Shakespeare Company the eventual result might well be something stronger.

All I want to do this evening is to congratulate the Minister. Despite the rather reserved reception given to his proposals by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas), I think that he has done well, in the difficult financial circumstances in which we find ourselves today, to maintain the project alive. He has a fierce battle ahead to keep it alive, and I can assure him of the support of all of us on this side of the House who value, as he does—as we all must—the priceless heritage of the drama. There is not all that much in this country today that is going as well as we should like, but undoubtedly we still maintain our absolute primacy in the dramatic arts, and we must make sure that we continue to do so.

8.57 p.m.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

The strange thing about this debate is that no one so far has raised a voice against the National Theatre. I certainly do not seek to do so, but it is nevertheless strange in a debate that only one opinion has been expressed in the Chamber, and that in favour of the Bill. It is right that it should be, but the National Theatre, situated in London, is not the only part of the theatre and its life in Britain today.

The National Theatre, situated in the capital, is important for the very reason that the theatre is prospering in the regions and in the provinces as it is. Only last night, speaking to a very distinguished architect, I asked him what he had built lately, and he said, "I am working on a theatre in Warwick for the university." When I asked, "With about 450 seats?", he said, "No. It is much bigger. It is nearer 600." He told me that during the last four or five years he had built a theatre in Sheffield and one in Nottingham. In Canterbury, the smallest city in England, we have long had the Marlowe Theatre, so appropriately named, but in the last five years we have built a second theatre, the Gulbenkian, in the university.

That is the story of the progress of the theatre in our country. It is not happening only in London—it is happening all over the country, in the regions. It is a very important point to put in the scales as we talk so strongly today about the need for the National Theatre in the national centre of the theatre and drama—in the capital, in London.

What is worrying all of us tonight is that next Tuesday the Chancellor is coming to the House to present his Budget, the way having been prepared for him by the Leader of the House the other day in his closing speech in the debate on the Address—the way having been prepared possibly for the Chancellor to wield an axe over some of these things that we feel we can no longer afford.

The Leader of the House went so far as to mention the arts. While we have the assurance from the Minister tonight that the National Theatre is to proceed, I am very worried lest in the aftermath of the realisation of what the forthcoming Budget means, the Government may have to turn their big guns on the Minister and say that the axe is to be held over the National Theatre, and perhaps the National Theatre will have to be put into mothballs.

As the hon. Lady the Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) said, one of the dangerous aspects of the National Theatre at present is that it is not finished. It would be so much better if it were finished at this time before we have to consider cuts.

It has also been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) and many others that it is not only the capital cost which we are now having to concede and recommend should be increased but the need to ensure that there is sufficient money to enable the theatre to continue.

I know that many arguments will be raised, not only in the House, as to the need for the National Theatre to continue. We are all aficionados of the theatre here tonight, but there will be others in the House who will not feel so enthusiastic for this artistic project. There will be many people in the country who will place their priorities on things other than the arts after next Tuesday.

I therefore make a strong plea that in this debate it is not just an occasion for each of us to agree with the other, but an occasion for us to use this moment to say why we believe that the National Theatre should proceed and why, after it has been built and opened, it should proceed successfully and be sufficiently well supported.

I will not go further into the figures which have already been bandied about tonight about the minute amount of money we spend in this country on the arts and the theatre. One of my vivid memories is of what the Austrians did after the war. In Vienna they established as a first priority the building of the State Opera House. No one can say that their priorities were wrong, because Vienna is still one of the great centres of opera in the world, not only of singers and conductors but of people who are interested in opera and are drawn to that city to see a great new opera house for the support of the love of opera.

I hope that there is no question of anyone saying that one of our greatest heritages, the theatre, should be put into mothballs and allowed to fend for itself. I believe most fervently that that National Theatre must go ahead.

I was interested to hear the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) and my hon. Friend the Member for Flint. West (Sir A. Meyer) speak about how long this project has been before us. It is something which I have lived with since I was a boy keenly interested in the stage. The idea of not having a national theatre was anathema to me when I was at school. It seems extraordinary that this country, the home of Shakespeare, the home of Kean and of so many great men of the theatre, drama and language should not have a national theatre; that we had to make do with the best that we could get. Admittedly, some of the theatres in London were great, because of the people and the actors and the plays performed there, and because of the atmosphere which the London theatres created.

The hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds), who I understand is not speaking tonight, could speak with more feeling than anyone about the atmosphere which the stage and theatre in London and the whole of the country are able to create. He has done much to help create it.

The National Theatre is a wonderful concept. It is the result of inspiration, not only from Lord Chandos, to whom I grudge no shred of praise, but also from within the theatre, led by Lord Olivier. I remember hearing him speak in a Committee room about the concept. What encouraged me was that this was not just the architect at work, or the engineers, or the GLC or the Government; the theatre was making its contribution to the very structure that it wanted to take part in creating.

The theatre and Lord Olivier have been fortunate, in having as the architect Denys Lasdun who, in my opinion, is not only one of the greatest architects in Britain but certainly one of the leading architects in the world. I do not dislike the use of concrete. We have seen his work in the University of East Anglia and in the Royal College of Physicians on the outskirts of Regents Park. We are fortunate in having such a design.

At last, over 100 years since the idea was first mooted, we are to have a building worthy of one of our greatest arts, one of our greatest contributions to the heritage of western man—drama and the theatre. It is a great concept. It is based on the essential need in the live theatre for contact between the actor and the audience.

No one in the three theatres in the National Theatre will be more than 65 ft. from the stage. No one will be so far away from the stage that he will not be able to study the actor's face. Those were the words used by Lord Olivier when he spoke at the meeting to which I referred. The essence of the live theatre is that the audience should play a part in the production of the atmosphere created from the stage. The reality of the live stage is the contest between the performer and the audience. That is the union that must be developed if the acting is to come alive.

I maintain that it is only in such circumstances that the great moments of the theatre can be created. After all, the theatre is the birthplace of acting, from which have grown the cinema and the television play. We have all seen great films and television performances, but the memories that we most treasure, that grow rather than fade, are from our experience in the theatre when we have actually seen the play performed, felt the actor's power and heard the effect of his voice with our magnificent language. Such occasions can come only from the intimacy of the live theatre. That intimacy has been retained in the design of the National Theatre. That is why it is a big step forward and why I am desperately anxious that we should not let the axe fall on such an enormously important project.

I can remember so much from the days before the war when, as a schoolboy and a young man, I used to queue for the gallery. In old terms the price of a gallery ticket in those days was 1s. 6d., but what a feast one got for it. One could hear and see Shakespeare and experience the beauty and drama of a theatrical production.

Britain is the centre of the art of acting and London is the centre of our theatrical life. We must provide a modern base in London to serve not just London and its tourists, though that is important, but the whole country. The National Theatre must fan out from its base and serve the regions, but it must also provide a home in London, the centre of our great artistic achievement, for those in the regions to visit and show their art. I believe that we need a revival in the arts.

I have heard much said in criticism of the New Statesman. In the latest edition of the New Statesman, however, there is a most interesting article by the director of the National Theatre, Peter Hall.

Mr. Cormack

He is for it.

Mr. Crouch

Naturally, but at least the editor allowed him to publish his article. Mr. Peter Hall believes also in reviving the arts. I shall close with this quotation, because it is most appropriate: The beginning of the new National Theatre comes at a time when we are low in spirits. We need a reviving symbol. And the theatre is very alive and very necessary in times of crisis. I do not think that I could use words any more effective than those.

9.12 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South-West)

I shall not detain the House for long. This has been a very interesting debate. It is very refreshing when the House can unite on a particular issue. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) referred with some criticism to the sartorial elegance of my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas). But I am glad that her hon. Friend on the Government Front Bench has his battledress on and is ready to go into action against the Gradgrinds of the Treasury.

Perhaps it is particularly appropriate that the Paymaster-General has entered the Chamber during the last few minutes. Cultured and civilised as he is, I am sure he will do all that he can to march shoulder to shoulder with the Minister responsible for the arts to make sure that this project and many others are not only sustained but that the Government devote increasing attention to them.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford, I am sorry that the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) will not be speaking in the debate tonight.

Mr. Faulds

The hon. Gentleman will tempt me to it.

Mr. Cormack

That is the object of my saying this. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is saving his skill to deliver the prologue when the National Theatre is finally opened. No one could do it with greater panache or a greater sense of the rhythm of the English language than he.

The words with which my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) ended his speech were extremely pertinent. In this House we frequently and quite glibly debate the expenditure of enormous sums of money. I believe that on Monday we shall be debating again the Channel Tunnel—the most expensive hole in history. No doubt before very much longer we shall be debating the new parliamentary building again. The House gave approval, less than a year ago, to the expenditure of £30 million to create a comfortable environment for ourselves.

We talk as though the money spent on the National Theatre is a vast sum. How perverted have our priorities become, how distorted our sense of values, when we can, with a nod and a wave, cheerfully bid farewell to countless millions of pounds of the nation's resources and yet, when it comes to the arts, which sustain and uplift the spirit of man, we think that we are being generous with a million pounds for historic buildings and a few million pounds for the theatre? Then we even pause and consider. I hope that the present Government will reconsider destroying at a stroke some of the priceless artistic heritage of this country with the threat of the wealth tax and all that that implies. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, quite rightly, would rule me out of order if I elaborated on that point, but my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford on the Opposition Front Bench referred to it and it bears repetition.

It seems to be commonly agreed that we are in a state of national crisis. At such a time we need more than ever to be uplifted and inspired. We in this place have singularly failed to inspire people over the last few years. It is from the arts that many people get their solace and contentment, if they are able to get it anywhere. When the country faces some of its darkest days perhaps for decades, we ought to be determined to spend even more, relatively speaking, on the arts. I say "more, relatively speaking" because with £50 million one can do a vast amount when it comes to the arts. It is a small sum in the budget of the country but it is an enormous one in terms of the nation's heritage and culture.

There is a commercial side to this matter. It has been touched on by several of my hon. Friends—I say "honourable friends" advisedly—on both sides of the Chamber. Millions of tourists come to this country and they come more than ever for what Britain offers in the way of tradition, spectacle, heritage and history. One of the things that they are determined to do when they come to our capital city is to go to the theatre. The money that is attracted by the presence of a living theatre, something that is developing and enhancing our traditions, is enormous. We should never think that we are being munificent and subsidising something from which the country will get no return. The country will get an enormous return from a successful National Theatre, a return out of all proportion to the money we are talking about this evening.

There is one thing which I am just as concerned about as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) and the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud). It would be wrong in extolling the virtues of this project for us to forget the theatre in the provinces. I am particularly glad that the Lyttelton Theatre, part of this exciting project, will stage productions from Britain's regional theatres. There will be a degree of cross-fertilisation which can only benefit drama as a whole and our national artistic heritage.

Therefore, as we come, I hope, towards the close of the final chapter in the preliminary story of the National Theatre, I hope we shall be determined to make sure that it inherits one motto from a particular commercial theatre. When it is opened let it carry, at least in our hearts and intentions, the motto "We never close", and let it always be there as a hallmark of Britain's artistic greatness and excellence.

I welcome the Bill and I hope that the Government will ensure that what we are doing tonight will be followed up in the future by every sum that is necessary to sustain this exciting and invigorating new project.

9.18 p.m.

Mrs. Renée Short (Wolverhampton, North-East)

It is not often that the House has an opportunity to discuss the theatre and support for the arts, and I welcome the unity that the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) has referred to in the House on this issue. I apologise that I was delayed outside the House and so did not hear the opening speech of my hon. Friend the Minister. I would certainly support, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) in what she said about him, and all of us know he has worked extremely hard to get more support, financially and otherwise, for the arts. The whole House will support him in that.

The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) referred rightly to the support given by some other European Governments to opera, ballet and the theatre in their countries. It is true that every country in East and West Europe does a great deal more to support the arts than we do. We certainly get our theatre, opera and ballet for chicken feed. The support we give to the arts is a measly £17½ million or £18 million a year now. The figure has grown quite a lot since the noble Baroness Lee was the first Minister responsible for the arts some years ago. But it is a small amount for us to spend.

Of course, the small companies are concerned that the large companies and the Royal Shakespeare Company seem to get the lion's share of that money. I do not share the optimism of the hon. Member for Canterbury about the theatre in the provinces. I am most concerned that in many parts of the country theatres are in the doldrums. Theatres in the West End are closed because the money cannot be found by the commercial theatre to put plays on.

In many parts of the provinces theatres are playing to small audiences. Our job, on both sides of the House, is to do our utmost to try to stimulate interest and enthusiasm in the arts and the theatre among all sections of the community. Industry has a part to play here. It could, for instance, support theatres in the towns where it is situated by various methods, such as by taking block bookings which would be made available to employees. I believe that industry could help the theatre without the task becoming onerous.

We also have a great responsibility to stimulate interest in the theatre among young people. The teaching profession has a responsibility here, too. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would agree that there is a considerable task in this regard.

We ought to be able to persuade or cajole television companies to help. These companies cream off much of the talent that has been trained in our drama schools, which are among the best in the world. I support all that has been said by those hon. Members who have paid tribute to the standard of theatrical attainment in this country. We have the best actors and actresses in the world bar none, and we also have the best drama training.

It is a lamentable state of affairs that actors and actresses, after gaining eminence in the theatre, are creamed off by television companies and are seen, mostly, only on the small screen, earning a great deal more than they would in the theatre. Television ought to be persuaded—if it can be persuaded—to put something back by way of supporting the living theatre from which it gains so much. I am concerned about the state of the theatre in the provinces.

I support the director of the National Theatre in what he hopes to do when the theatre is completed. But I utter a word of warning. The idea that there must be cross-pollination in the theatre is both necessary and desirable. In this way good theatre in the regions, if supported by grants from the Arts Council, can be seen in London, but this will be an expensive exercise. Companies will need money if they are to come to London from the provinces. Accommodation will have to be found for actors, who will also need to have extra subsistence allowances for living in London, and there will be other costs.

We all need to put as much pressure as we can on, I suppose, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that money is channelled through the Arts Council to support the best of our theatre, ballet and opera in the provinces as well as in London.

The delay in the completion of the new National Theatre is of great concern. So is the escalation of costs, which are now more or less double what they were at the start of the project. I understand that sub-contractors are holding up the completion of the theatre. This is happening notably on the electrical side of the job. Much of the equipment is of a new type that has not been installed in any other theatre. This type of installation is expensive. Some of the work has been sub-contracted to small firms, and has proved to be more complicated technologically than the firms had expected. Some of these firms have had difficulty in coping with the work. Some do not have the resources to do what is required.

We want to hear from my hon. Friend the Minister about the completion date for the new National Theatre. The opening of the theatre has been postponed on a number of occasions, and the date of January 1975 has now been abandoned. If Her Majesty is to open the theatre, considerable advance notice will be required.

The longer that completion of the project is delayed the more expensive it will become. As delay continues, there are rising costs of all kinds.

It is in a way a rather depressing time to talk about the completion of the National Theatre, when all theatres in the country—both commercial and subsidised—are facing grossly inflated costs. Theatres are facing, I am thankful to say, the better salaries negotiated by Equity both for rehearsal and playing time, and productions costs have risen by around 40 per cent. in the last four months. The whole trend is towards increasing costs all the time.

Theatres are compensating in a way which is liable to reduce standards. They are concentrating on single-set plays because the alternative is expensive, and on plays with three or four characters, which is depressing and restricting. It means that large plays, with 45 in the company, cannot be contemplated by the commercial theatre or the subsidised theatre. The production of Shakespeare is becoming prohibitive for all but the Royal Shakespeare Company. I agree with the hon. Member for Canterbury that it is a scandal that in this country, above all others, we have no permanent theatre in London playing Shakespeare. This is urgently needed. This is a difficult time and a difficult background, but I hope that our aspirations to see the National Theatre completed at the earliest possible moment will be carried out.

I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us about the completion date, and that we shall all be able to continue to press for more resources to be made available to support the arts.


Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)

I am encouraged by the wide measure of agreement in the debate, and I hope that reports of this debate will serve as an encouragement to theatre throughout the country and to all those engaged in the National Theatre project. I also hope that it will help to lay the dust of the criticisms recently levelled against the National Theatre. There are a great number of people who are weary of the criticisms that arise whenever a national project reaches fruition. It is extraordinary that so many of our great projects end up with rival factions of people who try to do them down whenever they get the opportunity to do so.

Some people argue over the theatre's design. Surely it is too late to argue on that. Personally I think that the theatre displays a great strength and character, and the interior has a dramatic influence which is right and necessary for such a project. The design makes use of the magnificent position of the theatre and brings a new element of life to a hitherto dreary area of the Thames Embankment. My personal view is somewhat mixed as to the architectural merits of the building from the outside. We must accept that people have different views, but we must also accept that, once the building is a reality, criticism will do nothing but destroy.

It is argued that there are three theatres involved in the scheme which will command the attendance of too great a number of people to make the theatres viable. I do not share that view. It is a ridiculous assumption that in the great City of London there are not sufficient people who will be bothered to go to the quality of theatre we shall wish to see when these three theatres are operating.

The Olivier Theatre is to my mind a very fine theatre. I believe that there we have the potential of the greatest theatre in the world. It is full of innovation and has a stage technique which is unrivalled. The smaller Lyttelton Theatre is interesting because it will provide the London stage with repertory productions. Repertory deserves all the support it can get from London, and it will benefit by coming to London and by being acclaimed for its performances. At the same time we shall see touring companies from the National Theatre going out to all parts of the country to put on productions in our provincial theatres.

I want to make a plea to the Minister to give careful attention to capital projects which provincial theatres may wish to put in hand in the form of restaurants, coffee bars and so on in order to make their theatres more viable. Many are the complaints that people going to the theatre in the country cannot have a meal or partake of any refreshment apart from that offered in a crush bar. The economics of this show that, if it is possible to get in more people spending money and having meals in theatres, the result is not only a benefit to the theatre financially but greatly improved attendances.

Returning to the National Theatre, we hear the argument from many sections that it will involve about 100 people coming from the theatre in the form of technicians and so on working behind the scenes. We are talking about a relatively small number. But why is that a criticism when we are providing job opportunities, and remarkably good ones into the bargain? If the wages offered are higher than those agreed by other theatres—we have heard the controversy about that tonight—it is a matter for the theatres to agree between them.

The building is not yet completed, and delay in a national project of this scale is harmful not only to the building industry, which is responsible for erecting the building, but starts the building off on the wrong foot. I hope that every conceivable effort will now be made to get the theatre complex completed in the soonest possible time. We know the problems of the building industry, the unemployment in it and the number of craftsmen available. If it is necessary to bring in additional staff to get the building completed as soon as possible, I hope that it will be done.

The financial side is crucially important. The Minister has given an undertaking, for which I am grateful, and we look forward to seeing the hard cash terms when they are announced.

I agree heartily with my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) that the National Theatre, the Royal Opera House, the English National Opera and the Royal Shakespeare Company should be lumped together but accounted separately. These are great national projects. I believe that there would be considerable merit in doing this because it would take away the aura of suspicion that provincial theatre has that too much money will be channelled not only into the National Theatre but into the Royal Opera House and the Royal Shakespeare Company as well. This is a genuine anxiety which needs rectifying.

In these times of dire inflation anxiety goes right across the board, not only in the theatre but in every section of the community. The taxpayers, rightly, will want to see value for their money when the sums are announced. But let us look on the positive side to what we are achieving with the National Theatre. I am happy to endorse what has been said already—that we shall have an internationally famous theatre complex which will put London substantially at the head of the league of theatrical centres. We should be rightly proud of having a building which offers that, in addition to the high regard that we all—especially tourists—have today for the theatre in London. We shall be fixing London with an asset which will direct this focus of attention on London as the centre of theatre and the arts.

I am always surprised how every tourist one meets invariably comes round to looking forward to going to the theatre in London. When the National Theatre is open and under way, I hope that our publicity abroad will draw tourists from all parts of the world to come and see it for themselves. It is essentially important that we create the right aura and technique for the theatre in making it attractive for people to see. In an inflation crisis we must not lose sight of our pursuit of art and excellence and in so doing bring our civilisation closer to the truth that art reveals.

9.36 p.m.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

To the regret of the House, I must admit that I am a creature easily tempted. As the only representative present of what I believe is often thought of as the second oldest profession in the world, may I briefly make one or two comments, as hon. Members clearly feel that I should be taking part in the debate.

I had not intended to speak, for two reasons. The first is simply that there is an excellent dinner awaiting me in exquisite company and the longer we sit here the more quickly it goes to ruin. The second reason is that I normally prefer to speak only in my party's praises and I must admit to a certain lack of happiness in these times of financial stringency about the apparent prospects of the arts under the present Labour Government's attitude towards them.

I share the general feeling abroad in the House tonight that there are grave dangers, not only for this specific project, such as certain curtailments, perhaps, in the National Theatre project, but for the general funding of the arts in the country today. We fund them so miserably as it is that any diminution of that funding, any dampening down, would be desperately depressing.

I urge my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to consider the possibility of raising money for the arts—the idea has been raised before and I am a strong supporter of it—in these times of national stringency, by requiring local authorities to impose a mandatory rate for art support purposes. If my memory serves me aright, I think that a 2p rate throughout the country would realise an amount in the neighbourhood of £50 million. That would lead roughly to an immediate doubling of the funding available for art purposes throughout the country.

I seriously urge my hon. Friend to consider the suggestion. I do not see any other way of getting arts activities of all sorts working, not only in the Metropolis, where it is easier because there is a larger audience demanding them, but in all the regions. Had the dice fallen another way and had the job been mine, I should have been eager to examine and, I hope, to carry into practice the requirement for a mandatory funding of the arts by a local authority rate. I am profoundly worried—as I think the rest of the House is—by the comments of the Lord President the other night. I did not hear the speech—

Mr. Cormack

The hon. Member was lucky.

Mr. Faulds

—because the Lord President is not an orator to whose effusions I rush to listen. But I read the speech and if what HANSARD reported is true—I have no reason to doubt that it is—I think my hon. Friend on the Front Bench will have to flex considerably more political muscle than he has done so far in matters of funding the arts. I wish him well if he is to manage to indulge in this exercise because, as other hon. Members have said tonight, in the period we shall have to go through in the next few years—I do not think we shall get out of this economic crisis quite as easily and as quickly as some of us hope—we shall experience some dismal dark passages. We need the sustenance of the arts and a much more general spread of that sustenance throughout the country.

The provision of arts factilities, the enjoyment of the arts, the enormous enrichment and enhancement they bring to life—the tragedy is that far too many of our people have never sniffed these wonders. They have never sensed the riches available. To do that job properly we have to consider not diminishing or keeping static the amounts of money available to the arts but enormously increasing them. I hope that my hon. Friend flexes that political muscle and achieves this exercise, because the folk of the country badly need it.

9.42 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

With the permission of the House, I shall speak again in reply to what has been a useful, most informative and good humoured debate. That latter characteristic is what saved the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas). He is a little sharp occasionally but is saved by his capacity also to make jokes, so that we accept his sharper points since he usually puts the House into a good humour. I know that he has never been able to forget that he spent a few short weeks as Minister responsible for the arts which, I think, sharpens the barb of his asperity. It was only a few short weeks, and the love which he expressed for the position was possibly a little unrequited, which makes it more difficult for him to recognise that we are now on different sides of the House.

The hon. Gentleman made one or two specific points with which I shall endeavour to deal. First, I am particularly fortunate as Minister responsible for the arts to have civilised Treasury colleagues. I recall seeing the Paymaster-General more than once in a theatre, and once in an opera house. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury, the Chief Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are all men who from time to time enjoy the arts and go to the theatre. Therefore, I am fortunate because I know that when I talk to them about my problems they will do their best to assist me to get over those difficulties.

I must be careful how I speak. I am just this side of a Budget and the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be talking to us before long. As he has been nudged one way already it would ill become me to nudge him the other way tonight, but I have confidence that the interest and concern for the arts in general and for the National Theatre in particular which has been expressed on both sides of the House is felt very strongly throughout the Government, particularly in some quarters where it counts.

I am not by any means pessimistic, but it would be wrong for me to suggest to the House that there is any possibility of lifting the arts out of the general economy of the country and saying "They are special, they do not count. The arts are different and can be regarded in a different form from anything else". The impracticability of that view can be demonstrated. The arts spread over; sport is adjacent. Where do the arts finish and the crafts start?

It is very difficult to pick any particular recipient of State support and say that it is to be excluded from the general restrictions. Under the impetus of a Labour Government, in 10 years the support for the arts went up from a miserable £2 million, as it was under the Conservative Government in 1963, to a figure now approaching £20 million.

Mr. Cormack

Chicken feed.

Mr. Jenkins

Chicken feed certainly, but 10 times the sort of chicken feed it was 10 years ago when the hon. Gentleman's party was in power.

The record of Labour Governments is, therefore, not only the appointment of a Minister responsible for the arts who has the job of fighting for the arts within the Government. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. When the hon. Member for Chelmsford, who speaks for the Opposition Front Bench, succeeded to the position of Minister for the arts, the 10 per cent. increase which had been made over several years was cut to 3 per cent. He did nothing whatever about that cut. He tolerated the consequences of the policies of his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the demon Barber as he was called in those days. He did nothing whatever about it. The hon. Gentleman was a total loss in the 10 weeks he spent as Minister for the arts.

Mr. Cormack

I do not think that competition in parsimony will get us anywhere. If the hon. Gentleman can suggest that £20 million is a sum to be proud of when we have just spent almost half the cost of the National Theatre on our car park, he ought to think again.

Mr. Jenkins

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the fact that we are not spending enough on the arts. I am not suggesting for one moment that we shall not spend a great deal more. I am saying that our achievement during the last 10 years has been considerable. The whole of the money is not contained in the amount of money which the Government fund to the Arts Council. Expenditure on the arts in my Department, for example, amounts to £50 million. Local authorities spend at least the same spread over the country. So the idea that we are an extremely backward coun- try in support for the arts is true, but not by any means as true as it was.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am drawn to my feet by the partial account which the hon. Gentleman has given of the financing of the arts. The facts are that under the last Conservative Government, until the emergency measures of last November, there was an increase in the arts budget of 10 per cent. in real terms per year. It was the highest sustained increase in the history of the Department. Even when the emergency measures were entered into, there was no absolute cut in the arts budget. What there was was a cut in the rate of increase. It still went up by 3 per cent. We are asking the hon. Gentleman to do the same or better, and if he can do that we shall be the first to congratulate him. But his job is to get that increase and not put the Treasury argument by saying that if we get this for the arts, people will ask it for sports and so on. That is an argument for the Treasury, not an argument for the hon. Gentleman. Let him speak up for the arts.

Mr. Jenkins

It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to go on like that, but when he inherited—the 10 per cent. per annum rate of increase had been going on for many years—a cut in the rate of growth from 10 per cent. to 3 per cent. he did nothing whatever about it.

As the hon. Gentleman seems to imagine that I am always opposing his noble Friend Lord Eccles, I should like to pay a tribute to Lord Eccles. Although I had criticism of Lord Eccles—as did many of us—about some of his actions as Minister responsible for the arts, notably the museum charges, it is true that for many years the Conservative Party maintained the 10 per cent. real increase instituted under the Labour Government of 1964–70 until the hon. Gentleman appeared on the scene.

Let me say to my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) that I shall certainly do my best, but whether I am capable of deploying the amount of political muscle that he might deploy remains to be seen. I myself feel that these things are probably best dealt with by discussion with one's colleagues in the Government, and I think we shall suceed in putting the case of the arts firmly, clearly and, I trust, successfully.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Short), who came to see me just now to say that she had to go, had a considerable point—which other Members have mentioned—about the problem of the theatre in the regions. She asked whether there would be some interchange between the National Theatre and theatres outside London. I think that that will be the case and that the Cottesloe Theatre will be used in some degree for this purpose.

While I am on this subject, I want to emphasise that there is no intention to put the theatre into mothballs. It is the full intention of the Government—I am satisfied that the same goes for the Arts Council and the theatre authorities themselves—that the theatres shall be put into full use and maintained in full use.

The hon. Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks) made a good point when he suggested that regional theatres sometimes lacked proper facilities which people now expect. People have the idea that it ought now to be possible to get a meal and have a drink in comfort, and this is not always the case in regional theatres. The fact that we are concentrating tonight upon the National Theatre does not mean that it will be funded at the expense of the regional theatre.

I have been to the Marlowe Theatre more than once. It does not have every conceivable facility which one might wish for, but nevertheless some very good work is done there. This illustrates the point I made earlier that, while all of us want to see these superb facilities which the National Theatre is going to bring to us, it is still possible to work elsewhere with less than those facilities.

Sir A. Meyer

While the hon. Gentleman is on that point, I should like to ask him a related question, which will also be of interest to the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud). Can he give some assurance that, so far as lies in his power, the firm which is responsible for the catering at the Royal Festival Hall will not be allowed anywhere near the National Theatre?

Mr. Jenkins

There is perhaps some misunderstanding about the functions of the Department responsible for the arts. It is not its job to look after who does the catering. Indeed, if intervention to such a degree were to take place it would, quite properly, be resented, just as it would be resented if anyone tried to suggest what production should take place in any particular theatre.

Several hon. Members have asked why it is not possible for the Government to quote now the final cost of the project in an exact form. The reason is that the additional cost will be incurred in completing the project over the next 18 months or so. Therefore, one cannot forecast exactly what will happen.

I can, however, say something that I hope will be of some comfort to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody), for whose contribution I was most grateful. It is hoped that the main contractors will be out of the building in the early part of the New Year. It is, therefore, my personal expectation—I make clear that it is my personal expectation—that the theatre will become available for use in a different way from what was envisaged.

Hon. Members will recall that the proposal was that Her Majesty the Queen should open the building and that, since everything would not be ready, there would be a sort of interregnum after which productions would take place. I understand that the opposite is now proposed. The idea is that the theatre shall come into use and that the official opening shall indeed follow a period in which the theatre has been brought into use. This is not unusual.

Mrs. Dunwoody

The question is not simply when the official opening will be held. If the company has been built up with a specific timetable, and if the whole of its forward planning has been based on a particular opening date, either from the point of view of contracts or from that of people physically employed in the theatre, my hon. Friend will understand that it is tremendously important that there should be a definite date. It does not matter if that date is two years ahead, though God forfend that it should be so, but it must be a definite date.

Mr. Jenkins

I take the point. I think that the director of the theatre is fully informed of the facts and recognises the need for a definite date. But it is possible to recruit a company over a period. The company will begin to be recruited over a period of time and I think we shall have a situation which is not what we would have desired. We wanted the theatre opened in April, but I think the theatre will become available in the very near future. I am sorry that it is not possible for me to give a firm date now.

Mr. Freud

Will the Minister bear in mind that the National Theatre has already had six definite dates? I should have thought that the important thing was to go ahead without a definite date.

Mr. Jenkins

This is what I am suggesting will happen.

The hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) raised the question of comparative costs. The cost of the Sydney Opera House was £57 million, a substantially greater cost than the one we are contemplating. The cost of a 400,000 ton oil tanker is £33 million, the cost of a single Boeing aircraft is almost the same as the cost of the National Theatre—between £11 million and £13 million.

The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) is right to say that we are making a tremendous fuss about what is relatively not such a huge amount, with a special Act of Parliament and so on. All the apparatus with which we surround the expenditure of this relatively small sum make it seem substantially more than it is.

The hon. Member for Canterbury also touched on the question of the support for the arts in other countries. He is quite right in saying that the state of opera in Vienna is of great significance and great excellence. But Vienna is not entirely without problems. Visits have been made to our office in London by officials from Vienna with complaints at their having to support national collections as great as, or greater than, those in London on an annual budget of £2 million, compared with the £10 million which we devote to that purpose, and with a central office staff of three people. They came to visit us to obtain advice on how they might tackle their problems.

I think, therefore, that we are now beginning to realise the importance of the arts and of getting to a position in which we can perhaps teach others some things about them from time to time.

Mr. Crouch

The point that I was making was not so much the maintenance of opera in Vienna—

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Ordered, That the National Theatre Bill may be proceeded with at this day's Sitting, though opposed, until any hour—[Mr. Dormand]

Question again proposed,That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Mr. Crouch

The point that I was making was not so much the maintenance of opera in Vienna as the fact that the Austrians initiated a programme to rebuild the great opera house in Vienna at a time when their country had been devastated by war and yet they gave it top priority.

Mr. Jenkins

I took the point, but it gave me the opportunity of getting in the point that I wanted to make.

I am grateful for what was said by the hon. Member for Flint, West (Sir A. Meyer). I should like to reciprocate by agreeing about the great importance of the contribution by Oliver Lyttelton to the National Theatre project which is recognised by naming one of the auditoria after him. I agree with the hon. Gentleman regarding the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. There is no intention of bringing about a merger between the two. I would be wholly opposed to any such proposal. I am unable to agree with the hon. Member who suggested that.

My right hon. Friend the Members for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) made a number of points with which I am in considerable agreement. After spending a lifetime squeezing wages out of reluctant employers on behalf of actors, I think that I shall find my Treasury colleagues a relative pushover. I hope that we shall have no difficulty in getting sufficient money to enable us to proceed with matters within the context of the general economic situation from which none of us can escape.

The hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) is a little confused about the functions of the Minister responsible for the arts. I think that he was trying to take me into a more detailed area of opinion than it would be proper for me to go. I cannot and should not seek to usurp the functions of the Arts Council, still less those of the National Theatre Board. I take note of what the hon. Gentleman said. However, I hope that he will forgive me if I refrain from entering into any detailed opinion on the points that he made. They will be recorded in HANSARD and no doubt note will be taken of them by the people who are directly concerned.

I was particularly interested to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe refer to the remarkable work done by the Victoria Theatre in Stoke. It is a good example of what can be done on a fairly small budget outside London. It is fair to point out that the seat price in Stoke receives from the Arts Council about the same support per box office pound, though on a smaller level, as the National Theatre.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Will my hon. Friend also pay tribute to the theatre in Crewe, not just in Stoke?

Mr. Jenkins

Indeed. "Shelton" was produced originally in Stoke and then in Crewe. That is why I mentioned Stoke first. I agree that Crewe is no less important than Stoke. From my hon. Friend's point of view it is no doubt more important.

The suggestion that the National Theatre will drain other theatres of their manpower has been somewhat exaggerated. I do not think we need bother too much about that. There is a problem in that at present there is a particular shortage of stage technicians. The National Theatre is coming to fruition when there are certain difficulties in this area. Peter Hall has replied in some detail to this criticism, and it is somewhat exaggerated.

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. The Arts Council is the body which will determine this matter. Personally I am not much taken with the idea of a separate Vote for the large companies. A separation which might be looked at again is the separation between capital expenditure, on the one hand, and production expenditure on the other. That might be a very fruitful examination. It is particularly noteworthy in the National Theatre that much of the expenditure is continuing expenditure consequent on the building, quite separate from the question of expenditure relating to the production. Therefore, that sort of separation would be a more fruitful area for examination and consideration than would be an attempt to set up a separate group, although that in itself I would not exclude from examination.

A number of other points were made but some of them were not particularly relevant to the National Theatre. I think that at this time of night the House would thank me if I drew my speech to a close.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Two very important questions have not been answered. One was about the future of the Old Vic, which is intimately connected with the National Theatre. The other was about the future of the Young Vic. We should all be grateful if the Minister gave us briefly his views on these two vitally important questions.

Mr. Jenkins

It was my intention to do so. I was about to conclude by referring to those two points and a third point that was raised about the equipment of the National Theatre.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

We should be grateful for that information too.

Mr. Jenkins

The question of the equipment is unlikely to arise in the figures given. The total figures include the equipment. The figures placed before the House are total, complete and full. Therefore, it is unlikely that we shall have to go beyond that level at all.

There has been no decision about the Old Vic. The Young Vic might possibly use it, but nothing has been finally settled and this matter is still under consideration. Therefore, this means in turn that the Young Vic too is unsettled. If the Young Vic went into the Old Vic, that would solve two problems. There is some question that this may be the case, but it has not been decided upon. It is still under active discussion.

Mr. Strauss

May I ask a question before the decision is made? Once a decision is made it is no good trying to bring persuasion to bear. There have been arguments about the Old Vic. I am particularly interested in it. It is in my constituency and I never miss some performance there. I am anxious that my hon. Friend the Minister should keep an open mind in the controversy about whether the Old Vic should continue as a theatre, with its old traditions, or be turned into an opera house or a ballet house, with a huge portion taken out of the stalls, which would be deplorable. There is a very strong case for maintaining the Old Vic as a theatre, as it has been for a long time, and possibly making it is a Shakspere theatre, as has been suggested.

Mr. Jenkins

I shall certainly bear in mind those points. I go rather further than that and say that I shall specifically make it my business to look into the matter that my right hon. Friend has suggested to ascertain the position.

The debate has illustrated that there is a very profound interest in the House about the future of the National Theatre. It is quite right that the debate has rather gone beyond consideration of the National Theatre itself. It is possible that this National Theatre may yet prove to be the crown in the British artistic renaissance which it has been suggested may be coming about and that we may be living in our time at the height of it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Dormand.]

Committee tomorrow.