HL Deb 17 February 1949 vol 160 cc985-1005

5.17 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I rise to move the Second Reading of this Bill. I confess that the speech I have to make is more agreeable to me than the one which I had to make yesterday. Then we were treading on ground which was only a thin crust over burning fires of political controversy underneath. To-day I hope we shall not have to indulge in any controversial matter. As we always disclose interest, I ought perhaps to disclose that I am the President of the Travel Association. That is not a body which has any ulterior motive for making money, but it does try to attract foreign visitors to this country, and I think it is having a not inconsiderable measure of success. In my view, it is vitally important to push on with this all we can, and to achieve a still larger measure of success. I hope and believe that if and when this theatre is built it will be an added inducement to visitors to come to this country.

On the other hand, quite frankly, I do not support the Bill on any materialistic ground, I support it on other grounds, and for reasons which in due course I will expound. The genesis of this scheme undoubtedly is due to the work of the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre Committee. They worked for a long time on this project and by about the year 1930 they had amassed a sum of something like £150,000. I believe I am right in saying that the fact that they had succeeded to that extent was largely due to the tireless energy of Mr. Geoffrey Whitworth. By the year 1937 they had acquired a site in South Kensington, and thereafter a project arose for the exchange of that site with the London County Council for a site on the South Bank, in the area which is to be reconstructed. Mr. Oliver Lyttelton succeeded in amalgamating the National Theatre Committee with the Committee of the Old Vic. I think that was a very happy amalgamation, because the National Theatre Committee's function is to build a theatre and the Old Vic is concerned in the successful running of a theatre.

Ever since the days of Miss Lilian Baylis and before, the Old Vic have done excellent work in putting on good plays. The exchange has been effected and that exchange, as well as the dealings with the Government which followed, have been largely in the hands of the noble Viscount, Lord Esher. Apparently he knows how to handle the Chancellor of the Exchequer better than anybody else! To his efforts and to his enthusiasm a very great deal is due, and those of us interested in this project would like to pay our tribute to the work he has done.

It is at long last the intention of the London County Council to develop the South Bank—I think I may say, not a decade too soon. It is to be developed, I hope and believe, on a grand and imaginative scale. It has been described as a "future cultural centre." I agree with Mr. Lyttelton about that phrase. It is a phrase which fills me with gloom and despondency. It is Teutonic; it is dull, and it lacks the sparkle and gaiety which are of the essence of the whole idea. But somebody, no doubt, will invent a better and happier phrase. The centre is to have a concert hall, and those who have had to listen to music in the arid wastes of the Albert Hall will realise how much that is needed. It is to have two theatres, one with a seating capacity of about 1,200 and the other, a smaller and more intimate theatre—and that is very necessary—with seating for about 500. Here we have private enterprise, municipal enterprise and State enterprise all working together, each playing an appropriate part.

The Bill authorises the payment of £1,000,000 of taxpayers' money towards this project if and when the theatre is built. Some of your Lordships may ask yourselves: "Are we justified in expending State aid on this sort of project?" Unfortunately in the conditions of to-day, Mæcenas is dead, and I do not see any new Mæcenas arising, unless it is the people themselves. We have to try to interest the whole people in this sort of project so that they will encourage and support it. I believe that the theatre is by far the greatest means of encouragement that exists for the mass of men to widen their horizons. The theatre is a meeting place for all types and all classes. It is the popular market-place for the exchange of ideas and, together with the concert hall, the chief centre, outside sport, for collective enjoyment. Because of this, the power for education it possesses can be a natural and an unpedantic influence, an influence that I believe to be of first importance. After all, the stage provides a world in miniature, where every form of experience and emotion can be portrayed, history revealed, poetry and satire expressed, laughter enjoyed and the power of language be immediately felt. Our English drama holds first place in the literature of the world. It is unbelievably rich and exciting and varied. Yet we have never had a National Theatre; nor have we used our national heritage to the best advantage.

I hope if will be possible to cheapen the price of seats so as to bring innumerably more people within its magic circle. Not only would the general public benefit but a new incitement to invent would be given to architects, authors, designers of scenery and properties, producers and actors, and work would be found for them. As I have said, I believe that visitors will be stimulated to visit London from all over the world. I confess that I am proud that it is under a Government of which I am a humble member that, for the first time in our history, such a plan is being realised. We have been criticised for our red tape, for our concentration on the material aspects of life, and no doubt it has done us good. But, of course, these things are the preliminary necessities, the means to an end; and that end, surely, should be the raising of the mental standards of our people. Men cannot live by bread alone, nor by comfort and health alone; nor, as the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has shown us recently, even by duty alone. Man at his best must be stimulated by his imagination. It is his great incitement to be and to do something beyond the commonplace. So we have endeavoured to improve education, and to encourage the appreciation of the arts through the Arts Council. I believe that one of the most hopeful features of our life to-day is the added interest which the people are taking in good music and in good works of art. More people than before the war are visiting our picture galleries, concert halls and museums. We now ask the authority of Parliament to allow us to finance this National Theatre, with its surrounding workshops, and to animate, by this means further artistic achievement.

I suppose it is a fact that under existing conditions it is impossible to put on first-rate shows with first-rate actors, except by charging high prices. In such circumstances, it is only by a subsidised theatre that the best can be made available for all. I believe that what turns men's minds away from war, and from exaggerated and extreme political movements, is the opportunity for personal creation; and there we have ever been in the forefront. Perhaps Britain can now show, with the coming-of-age of her working classes, that they can emulate, and must emulate, the standards and quality and example given them by their parents and guardians, her old aristocracy. By the building of a National Theatre on the Thames side we shall, I hope, make a real contribution towards the ideal of a people's civilisation.

Now, my Lords, I can avail myself of this opportunity—because no one can stop me—to add a few irregular observations, which will no doubt indicate my prejudices, and probably my ignorance. I devoutly hope that this theatre will have attached to it a really good restaurant. When I go to the theatre nowadays, not being a man who takes much exercise, I must say that my arms begin to ache with the constant passing and re-passing of cups of tea, which I think would be much better taken outside in a restaurant. Next, I would say that I sincerely hope that this theatre will be set in a district which has a life and vitality of its own. I do not want to see this National Theatre surrounded by all sorts of academic buildings and Government offices, from which everybody has gone before the theatre begins; or to drive to some place like the City, through all those ghostly habitations, as they are in the evening, peopled only by cats. If those are the surroundings in which this theatre has to work, I think it is rather a gloomy prospect for the theatre. I hope the area around it will be an area throbbing with interest and vitality.

What I have to say now is even more irregular than anything I have said so far. I hope that the area which can be devoted to this theatre will be as large as possible, if one is to have the added workshops, and so on, that are necessary. That I believe to be very important. A new National Theatre is now being built in Stockholm (of course, they have had one for a long time, because they are a highly civilised people) and I am told that they are devoting no less than two and a half acres to it. At Malmo in Sweden, which is a town only about the size of Exeter, where they are also building another National Theatre, they are devoting to it a space of two acres. I am well aware that land in London is a very different proposition from land in Malmo and I am not suggesting that we can possibly entertain a scheme on those lavish lines. But I do hope that, within the necessary limitations imposed upon us, we shall remember that it is important to get as much land as we can.

There my irregularities end, and I can only hope that no one will ever use them in evidence against me. So far as building at the present time is concerned, that, of course, is out of the question. We cannot contemplate it for some time. First of all, this site will be covered by the Exhibition, and the possibility of building will not arise until after that. Nevertheless we had to bring this forward at the present time, because if the London County Council are now making their ultimate plans they must know whether they have to provide for this National Theatre—in short, whether it is to be a reality. That depends upon whether we can provide the money to build it. And we have to answer that question to-day. Although we cannot build the theatre, we have to tell the London County Council that in their ultimate plans they should provide for it. This also must be said. When the times of depression come—and we shall be very foolish, my Lords, if we think they will never come again—we must have our plans ready (we have been discussing to-day an illustration of that) to put into force. This is one of the plans which I hope will be put into force. My Lords, I believe, on material grounds, that it is a wise thing to do; I believe, on wider grounds, that it is the right thing to do. I shall be very happy to have (as I believe I shall have) support from all quarters of the House for this project. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

5.35 p.m.


My Lords, I have not troubled your Lordships with many observations during the past few years, because the position which I held made it a little difficult for me to engage in controversy. I confess that on more than one occasion I have suffered in silence, and refrained even from good words. My freedom is now restored, but I am certainly not going to use it now in a controversial speech. Indeed, I feel that it would satisfy my own conscience, and your Lordships, after hearing the admirable introduction of this Bill by the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack, if I confined myself to the one observation that I concur with what he has said and have nothing to add to it. But perhaps your Lordships will allow me to make a few remarks in support of what the noble and learned Viscount has said.

My only regret, which I am sure your Lordships share, is that a measure of this sort was not put on the Statute Book a long time ago. If it had been, we should now possess a National Theatre which would have been built at a very much lower cost than the estimated cost of the one that is now proposed; we should have learned and appreciated a great deal more of the works of Shakespeare and other dramatists, ancient and modern; we should have had a better-educated public and a higher standard of acting. I believe it is true to say that the plays of Shakespeare provide the best training there is for the young actor. According to such researches as I have made, only once in the past thirty-six years has a serious attempt been made (apart from to-day) to achieve a purpose of this kind. That was in another place in 1913, on a Private Member's Motion, which sought to establish a National Theatre, with trustees, and to secure support and assistance from the Government of that day.

The mover of that Motion was himself a member of the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre Committee. In those days, I believe, they had already secured about £100,000 of the £500,000 that it was estimated would be required. The object of the Motion was to persuade the Government to contribute a portion of the balance. The Government were not to be persuaded—and, surprisingly, it was a Liberal Government. But, as the old poet said: Even good Homer nods, and long toil is an excuse for slumber. Arguments used on that ocasion—I do not agree with them—may still have some relevance in the minds of some people. One was that it would be unwise for the Government to take on the responsibility for a theatre for the production of plays if private commercial enterprise had not thought it possible to produce a profit in that way. Another argument was that the public were not educated, and that the Government ought not to step in until they were satisfied that they had an enthusiastic, interested and educated public. It was also argued that it was not the Government's business to initiate a project of that kind, but to crown it. I am very glad that none of those arguments appeals to His Majesty's Government to-day. The only offer that was made at that time was a very tentative one, that the Government would consider the provision of a subsidy, of an indeterminate amount, when—and only when—the promoters acquired the site, built the theatre, equipped it and endowed it.


What is called the "end" money.


That was not a very expensive form of coronation for the Government to indulge in. Of course, one has to remember that in those days, with a Budget of £190,000,000, the provision of anything in the neighbourhood of £500,000 was considered formidable.

In fact, the Government in those days were restrained, curious as it may sound, by the fear of losing money. It may be said for His Majesty's Government to-day that they have demonstrated on more than one occasion that they are not in the least perturbed by any such fear. The National Theatre is not, I think, likely to be a paying proposition. In the course of the debate in another place, an expert admitted that something like 300,000 to 400,000 persons would have to see a play in order to ensure its success. That means a long run. I am hoping that the National Theatre will be more in the nature of a repertory theatre, and that we may be able to see in the course of three or four years all or most of the plays of Shakespeare. Then again, I understand the idea is that the seats should be cheap, and I sympathise with that view. The figure was put at prices varying from 6d. to 2s. 6d. The noble and learned Viscount has said there are to be two theatres, one to seat 1,200 and another to seat 500. At those prices the larger theatre cannot charge much less than the theatre seating 500.

Besides the £1,000,000 initial cost, there are the running costs to provide; and may I say that I hope they will not be placed on the rates? I was attracted by the suggestion of the Government spokesman in another place that the deficit, if deficit there is, should be met by the Arts Council. I think we must face it that the National Theatre may well not be self-supporting. Personally, that does not worry me much, because, as the noble and learned Viscount has indicated, I think we shall get repayment in many other ways. Your Lordships will recollect that Demosthenes once complained of the Athenians that they were prepared to spend much more money on dramatic festivals than they were on a naval expedition. Not many people now remember, or very much care, about Athenian naval expeditions, but their drama has lived for ever. I say this to reassure the stricter economist than myself that, although there may be losses, I think it will be a very long time indeed before the National Theatre can lose as much as we have already lost in one year on potatoes.

The noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack has informed us, quite rightly I am sure, that because of the Exhibition we shall not get this theatre before 1951. He said that it may be some years after that, and he also stated (although I do not entirely agree with him) that this delay would in some ways be excused—I will not say welcomed—because the project could be put in a pigeon-hole and brought out against a trade depression. I am not altogether enamoured of that proposal—and for this reason. I can foresee the time when, perhaps from one of these Benches, in reply to a request that the authorisation to commence this theatre be given, a noble Lord may rise and tearfully say that the is sorry he cannot authorise the commencement of the theatre because, to his lasting sorrow and deep regret, the slump has not yet arrived! May I ask whether, before this depression arrives, it would not be possible to give a somewhat lower priority to one or other of the Government offices in course of erection or contemplated?

I frankly admit that between the two wars the predecessors of this Government were considerably to blame in not initiating a project of this kind, and it would have been a useful step to combat the depression which was prevailing. Of course, in those days, State interference was by no means so fashionable as it has now become, and even to-day, it seems to me one has to watch anything like State control over art with a considerable amount of suspicion and care. Such a delicate, sensitive and indefinable thing as genius does not take kindly to bureaucracy; much less can it flourish within the prescribed limits of some ideology or political or economic faith. We have seen what happened to art among the Nazis, and I make the same prophecy with regard to Russia to-day, where I think it is highly imprudent, if not dangerous, for an artist to produce a play with a bourgeois or Western flavour, unpalatable to the authorities. It is a great pity that the rulers of Soviet Russia do not refer to the works of Aristophanes, because if they did they would read what he said about the head of the Athenian State in the Peloponnesian War and yet got away with it. Had he said the same things about our Prime Minister, I think he would have spent the rest of his time writing his plays in the Isle of Man! Yet the theatre of Athens was a public institution, and the State was entirely and completely responsible for Athenian drama.

In Clause 2 of the Bill, the Treasury are given a voice in the appointing of additional trustees for this theatre. That is inevitable. Public money is being spent, and the public must have a voice. To that extent we are admitting a Trojan Horse into the Borough of Lambeth; but I do not think we need fear the Treasury in this case, even when bringing gifts, subject to the most important proviso that the private management should consist of those who know something about managing theatres, and of the people of the theatrical profession, and not people selected from gifted amateurs or æsthetically-minded politicians. The Government's spokesman in another place said that it was too soon to consider the question of management, and I think he is probably right. But it is a vital point, and I for one would be happy if it were left in the hands of the Old Vic.

I noticed, also, that in the debate in another place, a suggestion was made that there should be a Minister of Fine Arts. I hope there is nothing of the sort. This gentleman, it was said, would stand apart from Party politics. A Minister, whatever Government appoint him, cannot usually stand apart from Party politics, and such a political hermaphrodite is unknown to our mythology.

There are few more points with which I want to trouble your Lordships. The noble and learned Viscount mentioned the site, and I think your Lordships agree that the new site is preferable, both from historic associations and, I think, from its proximity to the great centres of population. I share his views in regard to the term "cultural centre." To me it is too redolent of earnest-minded, professorial zealots and long-haired intelligentsia. Like all your Lordships, no doubt, I should welcome an invitation to dine at the National Theatre, and see a play; but if I were asked to attend the "Lambeth Cultural Centre" I should have a vision of nut cutlets and a lecture on eurythmics. I entirely agree with the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack with regard to the environment: I think it is most important that it should not be austere and highbrow. After all, as regards the drama, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square and Shafesbury Avenue at present form our cultural centre; and although it may not be possible or desirable to imitate all the intimacy and irregularity of that area, at any rate I hope that the new lay-out will try to develop something of the charm and, if you will, the romance which have endeared that part of the world to Londoners for generations.

When the new scheme is complete, I think its benefits will immensely outweigh its cost or any possible losses that may accrue. After all, it will do a great deal to preserve the English language—and that is certainly in need of preserving. It will improve the spoken word; we shall be able to hear English pronounced as it ought to be pronounced by people who have studied the subject. It will set a standard, much as the Comédie Française has set a standard in France. It will provide further inspiration for our great creative dramatic genius. It is of much more value to hear poetry spoken—and particularly dramatic poetry—than it is to read it. There were few books in ancient Greece, and few people read or could read Homer; but thousands upon thousands heard him recite his poetry and knew his lines by heart. No one can estimate the colossal contribution that those lines made to the poetic and dramatic genius of the Greeks. With ourselves, the Bible has played a similar part—I wish I could say it still played that part. In past times, I imagine, the majority of the population regularly heard passages from the Bible; and there again, nobody can estimate the contribution that the Bible and its translators have made to our literature. The plays of Shakespeare himself were written not to be read but to be heard and seen; and hearing and seeing them will, I am certain, prove one of the greatest inspirations to thought and literature in the world.

The National Theatre should provide a very valuable stimulus to the dramatic profession. Dramatic actors and actresses in the provinces may graduate to the National Theatre, and the competition which would result would do much to ensure a high standard. I believe that is the practice in Sweden to-day. Then there is the question of employment; it should be possible to subsidise the theatre to provide employment. There are at present many actors and actresses, especially younger ones, who are constantly in and out of employment.

Finally, the National Theatre must not be regarded as being for Londoners only—nor indeed for the United Kingdom only. It is in London because London will be a centre for the whole of the Commonwealth. Nor must the theatre itself be solely a memorial to Shakespeare. There is no other land in the world so rich as ours in either the quantity or the quality of its dramatic art; and we can now look forward to the time—and I hope it will not be far ahead—when the National Theatre will be presenting to visitors from all over the world examples of our dramatic art from the sixteenth century to the present day and onwards.

5.55 p.m.


My Lords, I have been connected with this project for longer than I care to remember, and it gives me the greatest pleasure to know that this measure is at last going to reach the Statute Book. For many years I have belonged to a small band of enthusiastic people working in that obscurity which is always the lot of people who are active in an unpopular cause. But we were united in a conviction that it is a disgrace to this country, which has the greatest dramatic literature in the world, that we should be the only civilised country in Europe without a National Theatre. Nevertheless it seemed an impossible thing to achieve, and for a very long time we made no headway at all. I sometimes think there are certain tides in politics, so that you can succeed at one moment and fail at another. No one can account for those tides. For instance, your Lordships will remember the case of slum areas in our urban towns. For about a hundred years people lamented the existence of those slums, and all through our richest hour they said it was impossible to do away with them. Now they cannot leave them standing for another minute—when we are poorer than we have ever been before. It is curious how at one moment no one will listen to what one has to say, and the next minute it becomes quite easy to carry a thing through both Houses of Parliament without any opposition at all.

This, of course, is a great day for all of us who have struggled to see the accomplishment of a National Theatre in England. We are also very gratified that a pleasant link with the London County Council has been forged and that we are to be part of their noble plan for reconditioning the South Bank of the Thames. Once again we find the same situation. All my life I have heard people lament that the South Bank of the Thames was a disgrace to an imperial city such as London. People used to come back from Paris saying how beautiful and wonderful was the lay-out of the Seine and how marvellously it has been incorporated into the city. So far as London was concerned, nothing was done in the time of its greatest wealth; it is only now that we are determined to sweep away the ugly slums on the South Bank and create a noble lay-out there. The London County Council have been very friendly to our idea from the start and the exchanges that we have made with them really mean that the London County Council has provided £185,000 as a contribution to the cost of the National Theatre.

The noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack has referred to the approaches which I have made to the Government. My colleagues were not hopeful of those approaches—not as hopeful as I was myself. But I was surprised at the warm welcome I received from Mr. Dalton when I saw him about this measure. Then, almost immediately, Mr. Dalton fell into misfortune and I had to begin again with a new Chancellor of the Exchequer whose formidable austerity had been rubbed into me by every newspaper during the last five years. I imagined that he was going to be rather like that puritanical Roundhead, Prynne, who during the Commonwealth wrote a pamphlet and succeeded in getting the theatres closed during the whole of the period of Cromwell's reign. I did not find Sir Stafford Cripps in the least like that. On the contrary, I found he was just as cordial about the idea as Mr. Dalton had been. I think your Lordships will agree that it is not the sort of thing that one would have expected to have appealed to this Government.

The theatre is essentially an individualistic profession. There are good parts and high salaries for some people, and bad parts and small salaries for others. Your Lordships will have observed the grossly unfair advantage that pretty women have over plain ones in the theatrical profession. Nevertheless, in spite of all that, this idea has received cordial and enthusiastic response from the Government, untainted by a theoretical equalitarianism. It only shows that the Government are in much closer touch with public opinion than many people think. That is proved by the unusual debate which took place in another place, where there was a discussion of several hours and there was no opposition to this measure at all—which I have been told is an almost unprecedented event in that place.

I share the optimistic view which the Government have of the future. This country has had a great loss of military power and of wealth. These things have passed to those two remote monsters who live to the East and West of Europe. Their way of life, though very different one from the other, has no real appeal to us. But I am convinced that Shakespeare's countrymen are about to enjoy an Athenian summer of great interest and charm. The Arts Council and the B.B.C. have created and found vast new audiences who are keen and vitally interested in all these artistic questions. It is true that they are not yet educated. I have the greatest admiration for Mr. Oliver Lyttelton, who has given long service and loyalty to this clause. He is terribly afraid of this expression "cultural centre," a fear which apparently is shared not only by the Lord Chancellor but also by the noble Lord, Lord Soulbury; but no one ever produces another phrase for it. The other day I was talking to a woman who lives in Battersea, where they have just made a cultural centre. She was extremely proud of the fact that her community had a cultural centre. She said, in fact, that it was going to be opened shortly by Edgar Wallace! I was not priggish enough to insinuate to her that he was not the sort of man I should have selected to open a cultural centre. I only pointed out to her that he had been dead for many years, and it was really extremely unlikely that he would be opening the centre. She said: "Oh, then, it must be Shakespeare who is coming!"

This seems to me to show that cultural centres are necessary in some districts of England. Mr. Oliver Lyttelton and the Lord Chancellor do not reach for their revolvers when they hear such words; they reach for their satirical witticism, which is a much more dangerous weapon in this country than Goering's revolver. It is all very well for them to do that, but I do not think they realise what an important work these centres accomplish in districts where there is enthusiasm but not sufficient education. I myself have found a universal appreciation of this movement. Those who are in contact with the new democracy know that it is alive with genius. I have perfect confidence that it is going to produce a civilised life equal both to the aristocratic life enjoyed in the eighteenth century by the great families, and to the middle-class civilised life which prevailed in the nineteenth century.

I have no anticipation that I shall myself live to see the National Theatre built, still less to see the chain of civic theatres which will bring the drama to the starved provincial towns. But I should like to congratulate the Government upon their courage and imagination in bringing in this measure. Nearly everything that Governments do is inevitably, perhaps mercifully, forgotten. The political and economic issues about which we fight get out of date, lose their virulence and become unimportant. But what we are building to-day will stand for ever as a lasting monument to this Administration.

6.7 p.m.


My Lords, I should be sorry to strike any discordant note in the spirit of harmony which prevails at this moment, particularly as all my life I have been a great lover of the theatre. Probably I have seen as many plays and films as any member of your Lordships' House. When Mr. Oliver Lyttelton said, as he did in the debate in another place, that the object of the National Theatre was to set the highest standard for the drama, those words expressed my sentiments entirely. But this is a Bill which involves extra expenditure. It seems only fair to remind ourselves that all the bankers have recently issued their annual pronouncements. They are unanimous on one point—namely, the overwhelming necessity to ease the burden of taxation. The only way of easing the burden of taxation is to reduce expenditure. Therefore, any Bill which seeks to increase expenditure, however small it may be in comparison with the gigantic expenditures which are made in other directions, must surely receive a careful scrutiny. We should assure ourselves that the two theatres which are envisaged in this Bill are necessary.

The first thing we must remember is that the expenditure on this project will by no means be confined to the £1,000,000 envisaged in this Bill. The noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor made that clear in his speech, when he spoke of wishing to add a restaurant and to build the theatre with workshops in an area of some two and a half acres, and when he expressed the hope that prices of between 6d. and 2s. 6d. would be the highest prices paid by the spectators. Obviously, any such project would entail a heavy annual subsidy, and we must be prepared to face that. Then, in regard to this theatre, would it, in fact, be a National Theatre? That certainly was not the unanimous opinion of speakers in another place. One of the Members from the North of England said that up in Manchester they were tired of paying taxes, or their share of taxes, for projects from which only Londoners reaped the benefit. Another, from Wales, said that his idea was to have a National Theatre in Wales, and if this Bill passes he would approach the Treasury for a grant in order that his country should have its own National Theatre. A third Member, from Scotland, said exactly the same in respect of his country, and Mr. Oliver Lyttleton in his closing speech in that debate offered his services to back him up in obtaining a grant for Scotland to have its own National Theatre. Let us therefore not be under any delusion that the amount of finance involved is confined only to the not considerable sum which is asked for in this Bill.

I wonder whether we are right in thinking that the South Bank of the Thames is an ideal place to construct this National Theatre, if indeed it is decided to construct it. If that is so, how is it that every other theatre is on the North Bank? How is it that no theatre, except Miss Baylis's effort, has ever flourished on the South Bank of the Thames? I venture to think that Miss Baylis's effort should not be taken as a precedent. She was a lady of great ability and personality, who created a vogue and who carried on her theatre—although not everybody will admit it—on the lines of presenting the drama in its highest standards. She did wonderful work, but she did not do such work as would be required of a National Theatre. I am very doubtful, therefore, in spite of the eloquent testimony of Lord Esher and the Lord Chancellor, whether in fact, from the long-term point of view, a site on the South Bank of the Thames will be successful.

Am I not right in thinking that Lord Esher is also a sponsor for the creation of a highly important music centre in the area of Portman Place, which would surely be a strong competitor with a similar cultural centre on the South Bank?


There is no proposal whatever to build a theatre in the Regent's Park area; that is merely in connection with music.


But a concert hall is to be built there, I think, and at Portland Place there will be the counter-attraction to that which it is now sought to have on the South Bank.

Lastly, in that connection, are there not enough theatres already for the presentation of drama? In these hard times, before we commit ourselves to the construction of two new theatres, would it not be wise to make quite certain that there is a demand for a permanent National Theatre company in London? Surely it would be possible, if such a plan were considered desirable, to start with it straight away? What is the matter with the Gaiety Theatre? It has been empty for some years. It is true, that the lease on the theatre has recently been taken up by Mr. Lupino Lane, but I have no doubt that as he is not at present able to obtain a licence to repair it he would be willing to lease it for such purposes as this. It would appear to me that the Gaiety Theatre offers many advantages. It is in a good traffic centre; it is in the middle of theatreland; the road amenities round it are good, and it was run very successfully for about twenty years. If a small theatre is desired quite close why not lease the little Kingsway Theatre? I have been to many good shows at the Kingsway Theatre in my time, and I do not know why it has been neglected in the last few years. There seems to me no reason why a short lease should not be taken of that theatre in order to try out this proceeding without committing the country to a heavy capital expenditure.

My Lords, this Bill deals only with the actual building, and I submit that the construction of a building is not at present advisable, for the reasons I have stated. But, surely, the more important things about a National Theatre are the play and the players. Buildings are no good without the men and women who write the plays, and those who produce and act in them. Surely, we are already doing a great deal to propagate the drama in that respect. We are, to the best of our ability, taking the drama to the people. I have no doubt that many of your Lordships have read the last annual report of the Arts Council. It seems to me that the Arts Council are doing a fine job at very little expense. Their chief work in London is to subsidise the Old Vic Company. What is the Old Vic Company if it is not a National Theatre Company? For the last four years it has been producing repertory at the New Theatre, with the best actors and actresses, and with the best producers. Yet according to Mr. Benn Levy, speaking in another place—and he ought to know all about it—in only one year out of the four during which the Old Vic Company has been performing at the New Theatre has it broken even; in all the other three years it has required a subsidy from the Arts Council. Whenever I have been to the New Theatre it has always been full to capacity. If that is the position, it only shows what a grave loss would be suffered if an attempt were made to produce national drama at prices from 6d. to 2s. 6d.

But in addition to the Old Vic Company in London, there is a small theatre called the London Mask Theatre, also subsidised by the Arts Council and carried on in the nature of a repertory theatre. It has produced one highly successful play called The Linden Tree, and two or three others of a cultural value without the same box office appeal. In addition to that, the Arts Council entirely run three repertory companies in the country, at Bristol, Coventry, and Salisbury; and they are interested in, and help the finances of, no fewer than thirty-one companies all over the country, including Scotland and Wales. I have not worked out the number of plays which were put on by those thirty-one companies during the year 1947–48 which is the year with which the report deals, but it is well over 150. All this has been achieved at a cost of £63,000—£56,000 being for England and £7,000 for Scotland. I see that the Lord Chancellor is shaking his head. It is true to say that the total grant to the Arts Council was £428,000, but much the greater part of that was spent on art exhibition, music, ballet and so forth. The actual expenditure on the drama was only £63,000 for this last year, and I maintain that a great achievement has been accomplished by the Arts Council at that very small expenditure.

I am in favour of increasing those efforts because I believe that that is doing a great deal more good than would be done by erecting a building in London. Quite apart from that, however, it seems to me inconsistent that we Conservatives, who are always blaming the Government for their excessive expenditure, who are at this very moment moving in another place a vote of censure on the Government for the gigantic miscalculations of such gargantuan wasters as the Ministers of Health and Food, should in this small matter be persuaded by the eloquence of the Lord Chancellor and the attraction of the project to depart from our consistent principle—namely, that only reduction of taxation, among many other things, can save this country from the economic blizzard which will one day come upon it.

6.20 p.m.


My Lords, I have little to add to what I have previously said. I was sorry to note that the noble Lord, Lord Soulbury, did not much like my remarks about trade depression. I rather agree. I did not much like them myself, but I put them in to try to get over the sort of difficulties which we have just heard enunciated. However, as they obviously have not got over those difficulties, I withdraw them. Of course, I entirely agree with what the noble Lord said about management. It is obvious that it is necessary that the management should be in the hands of someone who is an expert and skilled manager. I hope to goodness that no Government, whatever their complexion, will be foolish enough to think that they should concern themselves with managing a theatre.

The noble Viscount, Lord Esher, expressed surprise that this Government should entertain such a project. After all—and I do not want to strike a controversial note—this Government have a very good record in these matters. There has never been a Government before which contributed something of the order of between £400,000 and £500,000 a year to the Arts Council. We believe that in these directions we are spending the taxpayers' money in a very useful way. I am afraid that I should never convince the noble Lord, Lord Blackford, but he has had his say and "got it off his chest," so to speak; and I hope that, having done that, he will be good about it in the future—indeed, I think that he will. He says that we really cannot afford this expenditure. I cannot help feeling that it was just that sort of attitude—if I may use Lord Esher's illustration—which kept those slums with us for so many years. If we had only made up our minds that we would afford it, and we had afforded it, we could have got rid of those slums years ago at about one-tenth of what it would cost now. We should have eliminated a vast amount of human misery and human suffering if we had made up our minds that we were going to afford it, and had afforded it. We should, moreover, have had a National Theatre at somewhere about the same time that Louis XIV gave France a National Theatre. It was always the "cannot afford it" attitude that stood in the way.

I am not saying that the situation to-day is one in which we can be permitted to indulge in any wild extravagance. But I do not believe this is wild extravagance. I believe that anything which is going to contribute to the moral, spiritual and mental welfare of the people is very wise expenditure—expenditure which we not only can but ought to afford. Therefore, I disagree with the noble Lord with regard to his other suggestion. Particular theatres were mentioned. The noble Lord will realise that some of those theatres would be quite inappropriate to the project we have in mind. To play repertory in some of the theatres would, of course, be foolish. I am grateful for the reception which this Bill has received. Though I have not quite succeeded in convincing Lord Blackford, yet I think he realises there is something to be said for the project which I have brought before your Lordships.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.