HC Deb 14 May 1981 vol 4 cc999-1004

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

12.5 am

Mr. John Ryman (Blyth)

I want to raise the subject of the threatened closure of the Old Vic. At this late hour the Adjournment provides the first opportunity that has occurred under the rules of procedure for me to raise this important subject. As the House will have learnt with regret, this distinguished company is due to perform its last production at the end of this week. I know that all hon. Members will deeply regret that this company, which embodies the grandeur of classical Shakespearean drama, and has been the Mecca of the most distinguished Shakespearean actors in this country, is due to close so shortly.

I shall not go into the facts of the case in great detail because they have been written about at considerable length in newspapers and in correspondence in The Times between the chairman of the Arts Council and Mr. West, of the Old Vic company. However, the Government have a responsibility in this matter. Even at this late stage, I ask the Government to intervene.

The constitutional position is that the Minister for the Arts has no direct responsibility for the day-to-day decisions of the Arts Council, just as the Secretary of State for Energy has no direct responsibility for the day-to-day management decisions of the National Coal Board or the Secretary of State for Industry for the decisions of the British Steel Corporation. But as the Minister for the Arts he represents the public interest. If he is satisfied, as I apprehend he is, that the closure of this distinguished company is a great tragedy, and it requires only the sum of £400,000 to keep going, in the public interest it is his duty to intervene, even at this late stage.

I shall not go into the merits of the reasons for its closure. Suffice it to say that the company has turned a substantial loss into a modest trading profit in the past financial year. The company maintains that the reason for its enforced liquidation is that the Arts Council has let it down badly, with inadequate notice in the payment of a grant of £300,000 in the latter half of last year.

That is disputed by the Arts Council. No doubt there are arguments on each side. I am concerned not with those arguments but with the problem that has arisen as a result of the company's threatened closure. This distinguished theatre—which symbolises the grandeur of Shakespearean tradition in this country—will close because someone cannot produce the sum of £300,000. Because of that lack many distinguished actors will be out of work, the theatre will close, and the theatrical tradition and the British theatre public will suffer the loss of its most distinguished amenity, not only in London—as that sum was earmarked for touring purposes—but in the regions.

It is scandalous that for the sum of £300,000—there has been no suggestion that the Government will intervene—this magnificent theatre is to close. The Government have so far shown not the slightest interest in saving the theatre, although there has been voluminous correspondence in The Times and voluminous publicity of the liquidation proceedings and the meetings of its creditors.

I am indebted to the Minister for being present to reply to the debate. I want to give him the opportunity of replying at length so that he can tell the House whether the Government recognise the crisis in the theatre and whether they are willing to intervene. So far, in the two years that they have been in office the Government have shown scant regard for the arts.

I have never heard the Prime Minister, who speaks frequently on a vast variety of subjects, make a speech on theatre, music, paintings, old houses, furniture, books, or anything of that nature. I have never heard the right hon. Lady or any other Minister take an active interest in Shakespearean drama, classical music, or the like. The only Cabinet Minister with the slightest interest in culture—the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas)—was dismissed from the Government in the reshuffle earlier this year.

The Government have been repeatedly asked to take steps to mitigate the harsher effects of VAT on theatre tickets. The Chancellor has received many representations on this issue in the last two years, which he knows is driving the live theatre into bankruptcy, yet the Government have not lifted a finger to help the theatre in any way whatever.

I suspect that the truth—although the Government will not say so frankly and publicly—is that they are not very interested in the arts and are not prepared to exercise their patronage in the way that it should be exercised. I snail be interested to hear the Minister's comments on whether the Government will intervene in respect of the Old Vic company.

I have received many letters from people who have visited the Old Vic for years, and many actors who have played there—most distinguished people—to the effect that the loss of this company and theatre is a national tragedy. The argument that there are other Shakespearean companies, that the National Theatre exists, and that the small profit does not justify the sums being put into the company by the Arts Council, is neither here nor there. The point is that the Minister can exercise enormous pressure on the council, not by telling it, day-to-day, what to do, but by influencing its funding, appointments, and the artistic standards that it should maintain.

I suggest that the Arts Council wastes millions of pounds throughout the country year in, year out, on footling projects, yet in December 1980 it was unwilling to give the premier Shakespearean company in the world £300,000, which would save the company and the theatre.

I want to give the Minister ample opportunity to reply to my points, because this is the first occasion on which this matter has been raised. I should like to ask him a number of direct questions.

First, are the Government concerned about art at all? Are they prepared to intervene in the public interest—which means the interest of the theatre-going public—on behalf of the Old Vic theatre? Are they concerned about maintaining the tradition of classical Shakespearean drama in Britain? Are they interested in intervening, for the measly sum of £300,000, to save this theatre? That is the immediate question. The broader question is whether the Government, in the long term, are prepared to encourage the theatre and the arts by mitigating some of the harsh financial measures that have been introduced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in successive Budgets.

The Minister knows full well that the 15 per cent. VAT on theatre tickets is ruining the live theatre. He knows perfectly well that the theatre simply cannot survive if that level of taxation is maintained. He knows perfectly well—at least, I hope that he does—that theatres cannot raise their commercial prices for tickets without killing the desire for them. Are the Government prepared to do something about the 15 per cent. VAT on tickets? They have had representations after representations from all the parties concerned—both management and players—in the live theatre.

Is the Minister prepared to act urgently? Has he read the letter in The Times recently from Mr. Timothy West, the artistic director of the Old Vic company, giving the company's version of the events that lead to the threatened closure? Has he also read the letter from Mr. Kenneth Robinson, the chairman of the Arts Council? No doubt he has read the leaders in The Times, the Financial Times and The Daily Telegraph about the universal condemnation of the closure of the theatre and the disbandment of the company.

The finest Shakesperean actors in Britain have played in that theatre. The finest Shakesperean acting company is about to be dispersed, unless the Government say that they are prepared to intervene. My plea to the Minister, at this late hour, in the middle of the night, when most people appear to have gone home, is to ask the Government to act. Otherwise, the suspicion may well arise that the Government do not care. For the reasons that I have already outlined I strongly suspect that the Government are not interested in promoting art in Britain, and are not interested in helping the live theatre. I hope that I am wrong. The only way in which the Minister can prove that I am wrong is to say that the Government will intervene and save that fine theatre and that excellent company.

12.17 pm
The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Paul Channon)

I shall deal in a moment with the points raised by the hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Ryman), especially those relating to the closure of the Old Vic, which everyone regrets. I deeply resent his remarks about the Government's so-called lack of interest in the arts. To hear him speak one would not have thought that there has been the most generous Arts Council grant ever this year—an increase from £70 million to £80 million. One would not have thought that VAT on theatre tickets existed under the Labour Government. I have never heard such arrant nonsense as when the hon. Member said that not a single member of the Government was interested in classical music or Shakesperean drama. He ruins and overstates his case by such ludicrous exaggeration, which I for one deeply resent, I suspect that others will also. I have not heard such utter rubbish in the House for a long time. It rather spoilt what I believe to be a serious issue, namely, the future of the Old Vic.

Everyone, both inside and outside the House, is sad at the news of the closure of the Old Vic at the end of this week. I have spent many happy evenings there and I know full well the deep feeling that exists about its closure. I must make a distinction between the disbandment of the company and the closure of the theatre. The hon. Gentleman did not make that distinction. The two issues are linked, but they are not the same. I must make it absolutely clear that whatever the rights or wrongs of the position, whoever might be responsible for it, and whether or not it was avoidable, the loss of such a major arts enterprise is bound to sadden any Minister for the Arts.

The possible loss of one holding such a special place in the hearts of the British public as the Old Vic saddens me very much. It is also bound to lead me to reflect most seriously on what might be done to save it. I am sure that this is what hon. Members expect.

I agree with the hon. Member. A great deal of most commendable work has been done by the Prospect Company over the years since it was formed in 1961, especially by Toby Robertson, who directed its fortunes for so long, and by Timothy West, who succeeded him. To its chairman, David Russell, and to the new administrative director, Mr. Andrew Leigh, must go credit—although many others are also involved—for the quite remarkable success of their subscription—selling scheme over the past two years, which, whatever happens, will be an example and a model from which many others will derive benefit and confidence. Equally impressive has been the sponsorship and fund-raising work of the Old Vic trust's appeal committee, under the chairmanship of my noble Friend Lord Jellicoe. The experience and record of all these will not be lost to us and to the British theatre, and I happily acknowledge our debt to them.

But if the Prospect Company is to close, I hope, as do many others, that the Old Vic theatre, on which so much sentiment has centred in the past week or so, will not close for long. The Temperance Coffee Hall of Emma Cons and Lilian Baylis, the cradle of such great actors as Gielgud, Olivier, Richardson and Ashcroft, under the directorship of Tyrone Guthrie, and the birthplace of the National Theatre has a place in the history of the British theatre.

The facts about this sad situation, in varying degrees of accuracy, have been recounted many times in the past few days. As the hon. Member has asked me I must say that, of course, I have read the letters to which he referred. In brief, the salient points are that the Prospect Theatre Company, trading under the name of the Old Vic Theatre Company, now has accumulated debts of nearly £400,000 and has no cash assets to pay its creditors, among them public utilities, a considerable number of small traders and the Inland Revenue. These debts had accumulated in the past three years, since the company had been working from its London base at the Old Vic theatre. Last year this accelerating trend was reversed and the company made a small profit, which enabled it to reduce the debt by £20,000.

From the figures that I have seen, produced for Prospect's governing board, there can be little doubt that the deficit dates from the quite dramatic escalation of costs in 1977–78, the beginning of the London operation, quadrupling those of the previous year. Of course audiences also increased considerably but income did not. The reason for the financial reversal last year, bringing the account into balance, is attributable largely to the enormous success of the subscription ticket-selling scheme and of the sponsorship and fund-raising. But to have made any significant reduction in the debt would of course have required a much-multiplied yield from these schemes in future years and a continuation of the quite exceptional box-office appeal of presentations such as "Macbeth". I draw no conclusions, but the House will have to consider that.

The London presentations were not—I emphasise "not", directly, at least—subsidised by the Arts Council. That was not made clear by the hon. Member. The Arts Council, from the outset, not suddenly, made it abundantly clear that it could not support a third national company presenting classical drama in London. This was a question not just of the financial viability of such a venture but of the council's obligation and declared policy of increasing support for the arts outside London. I think that it is generally agreed in all quarters of the House that the trend for greater support outside London is welcomed. I am pressed on this by hon. Members in all quarters of the House all the time. I would have thought that the hon. Member, coming from the North-East, would understand that argument.

Mr. Ryman

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Channon

I cannot give way. I have only a few minutes.

Prospect understood and accepted this and persuaded the Arts Council that the company should be given the chance to show that it could make its London presentations pay without public subsidy.

The Arts Council's relations with Prospect continued solely in respect of the touring activities, and these were funded generously by comparison with other touring companies. The proportion allowed to Prospect was larger than that of any other touring company.

In so far as the same plays were often also in the London repertoire at Waterloo Road, the touring grant was, in practice, defraying some of the London costs. This is no doubt why the withdrawal of the touring grant has been quoted as responsible for the disbanding of the acting company and closure of the theatre. This, of course, is a decision for the Arts Council and not for me. I do not take decisions for it, nor have my predecessors attempted to do so. Recent events have shown how wise it is, when there is political involvement in the arts, to have a body such as the Arts Council to take decisions.

I am full of admiration for the theatre's record, as I have already said, but the two operations are in this case quite separate. The touring grant purchased a particular product—classical plays in regional theatres. That was what the Arts Council was funding.

I read in the press and have been told that there is a conflict between the company's claim that the Arts Council assured it in early December that it could expect at least £300,000 for touring in 1981–82, and the Arts Council's version that it told the company that £300,000 was the most that it could expect. I clearly cannot resolve this, but there is little doubt that the letter sent by the council in October warned the company not to bank on any grant at all until the Government's grant to the council had been announced. Furthermore, informal discussions had referred to the spiralling touring costs, and the 1979–80 touring programme grant was cut from £400,000 to £320,000 and from 16 weeks to 12 because the council was not satisfied with the artistic quality and the venues. In all fairness, the company would not claim that it had no inkling of Arts Council doubts about standards and value.

This spring, the most that the company realistically expected—and this is in writing between it and the council—was to be enabled to pay off the more pressing of its creditors and wind itself up, so that the theatre would be left in good order for a successor company or companies to use. Otherwise a liquidator could have distrained on the movables and equipment in the theatre and stripped it to satisfy creditors. But this would have required something approaching £200,000 in immediate cash and, indeed, the company asked the council to make a special grant for the purpose of paying these immediate debts. Let me stress that the money would not have avoided the company ceasing to trade—that was a certainty—and it would have left the larger loans outstanding. These would have taken many more years to write off.

In the event, the council decided that it had no mandate to enter into a new contractual relationship with a defunct company for the sole purpose of discharging its debts. This would have been an improper use of the public funds that this House votes to the council. This is the reason—the true reason—why the company had to call in the liquidator. I want hon. Members to be quite clear about this. The Arts Council could not save the company, either with a touring grant or with a special debt-clearing grant. It is not the Arts Council's job to provide public money to save something that it has never supported in the first place. That surely must be common sense.

Whether it was right or wrong in deciding not to support Prospect in London, it never supported it and always argued against it. It cannot be consistent with the Arts Council's charter to provide public money for something that it never supported. Such action cannot be the promotion of the arts as required by the Arts Council charter.

What we must try to save is the theatre—the real Old Vic. It is early days to see quite clearly what the future holds, but the Arts Council is prepared to consider a grant from its housing the arts fund to preserve the fabric, to secure the building and its equipment. The situation will revert to that of 1976 when the National Theatre had moved out and before Prospect moved in. Then a new start can be made.

North of the river, Lilian Baylis's other theatre, Sadler's Wells, operates as a management without a resident company. Perhaps in that way also lies the future of the Old Vic. We must put recriminations behind us and find a new solution. I find that people outside the House who are interested in the theatre, who are in the theatre or who are interested in Shakespearean drama or theatre history are interested in doing so. The recriminations have to be put behind us and the rights and wrongs of this decision. We must find a new solution. If the amount of public and private dedication and effort and experience that have been devoted to this much-loved theatre in the past few years can continue for the next few, I believe that the past glories can return. I fear that in the present situation there is little or nothing that can be done about that.

I share with the hon. Gentleman the hope and belief that the Old Vic theatre must be saved. I shall willingly do what I can towards that cause. In spite of any harsh words that the hon. Gentleman and I may have exchanged this evening on other topics, we are at least united in that cause. If he can play his part towards that, he will have done the theatre a good service.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to One o' clock.