HL Deb 28 October 1952 vol 178 cc1045-53

3.25 p.m.

LORD CALVERLEY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether it is expedient to spend such a big proportion of the taxpayers' money on entertainments and exhibitions in London; whether Her Majesty's Government will appoint an appropriate committee to examine the policy of the Arts Council; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I wish to assure your Lordships that I move this Motion in no hostile way, so far as the broad policy of the Arts Council is concerned. I wish also to acknowledge the fact that, under the rules of this House, it is possible for persons in my position who may be interested in what appears to be not a vital matter to ask the indulgence of the House whilst they endeavour to put some point which they think is of interest. At the end of July I put down a Question which was replied to by the noble Viscount the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, asking how much money had been allocated to the Royal Covent Garden Opera Company in the present financial year. In his reply the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, said that £240,000 had been allocated from the Arts Council for the current year. He also went on to explain, with regard to another company which has been in operation in the provinces for seventy-odd years, that a matter of a few thousands had been granted, which on later inquiry I realised was justified, owing to the inaction of this company, which I believe is called Grand Opera Productions, Limited.

I come back to-day not in order to attack but to ask for an explanation from my noble friend (if he will allow me so to call him) Lord Onslow, who will be representing the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and to ask if he will agree to some sort of committee of inquiry being set up to go into the matter of the administration of the Covent Garden Opera Company. I do so because there has been a rising tide of criticism—I put it no higher than that—of the Arts Council of Great Britain (I want to emphasise the words "of Great Britain") in the way that it has allocated some of the £500,000 which it received from the public purse.


Will my noble friend forgive me for interrupting him?— I only wish to help him. His Motion suggests the appointment of a committee to inquire into the policy of the Arts Council, and that is a suggestion with which many noble Lords would no doubt agree. But he has just spoken of a committee to inquire into the activities of the Covent Garden Opera Company. Surely he must mean the Arts Council?


I am trying to split up my speech into two parts. One part will relate to the Covent Garden Opera Company, and the second will deal with the Arts Council of Great Britain—not the Arts Council of the West End of London. That is what I want a committee to inquire into, if I can get the Government to agree. There has been criticism in papers of repute of the Covent Garden Opera administration, and it was for that reason that I put down my Question which was answered in July. The noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, has been kind enough to tell us that the people who paid for admission to performances by the Covent Garden Opera Company did not pay entertainment tax; therefore this additional income should, and did, go into the coffers of the Covent Garden Opera Company. I have now been informed, through the courtesy of the chairman of the Opera Company, my noble friend. Lord Waverley (I did not know until recently that he was the chairman) that in 1951 and 1952 the Covent Garden Opera Company visited five provincial centres. I was shown the relevant records, and I counted up the number of weeks the company was on tour up to the end of October of the present year. I found that out of some ninety-odd weeks of activity it spent about twelve weeks in the provinces. I was delighted to learn that when it visited Liverpool the company's most successful venture was the revival of the opera The Bohemian Girl. Out of a total of sixteen performances which the company gave, The Bohemian Girl was produced on eight occasions. And I believe that Sir Thomas Beecham was kind enough to act as conductor.

I do not, and I am not going to, condemn the Covent Garden Opera Company for accepting any moneys or largesse which comes to it from the Arts Council: I suppose that I should be tempted to do the same. But whilst the Arts Council acts as a fairy godmother to the Covent Garden Opera Company, it is a sort of step-father so far as the rest of the country—England. Scotland and Wales—is concerned. I suggest to your Lordships that when the Royal Charter was granted about ten years ago, it was not intended to provide crutches for an invalid but rather to furnish a handrail to help the Covent Garden Opera Company in its venture, in the hope that it would become a truly national concern, so that the rest of Great Britain could join with the West End of London in enjoying grand opera. We have suffered a deprivation of opportunities for such enjoyment owing to the fact that the Carl Rosa Company has been reduced to a state in which, if it has not actually put up the shutters, it is no longer producing opera and giving performances in the country.

May I digress here to ask the noble Marquess, the Leader of the House, whether he would like me to sit down at this point in order that he may make a statement?


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for that offer, but I think it would be better that he should finish his speech, and hen, if may I may. I will intervene.


My Lords, I shall be another ten or twelve minutes. I made that suggestion for the convenience of the House, but in view of what the noble Marquess has just said I will get on with my speech and try to finish it expeditiously. I just make the point that the object of the Charter was to keep the patient healthy, even to bring a state of rehabilitation to such a body as the Covent Garden Opera Company and to revitalise it.

The Sadler's Wells Ballet Company is looked upon as a national concern in much the same way, and at the present time it is giving a season in Leeds. It has a smaller orchestra, and, therefore, the performances are not quite so costly. Nevertheless, there was, I note, a balanced orchestra of 32 performers. The company's efforts were described by the Yorkshire Press as: An inspired performance by that great institution The Sadler's Wells Ballet Company. In the set-up of the Arts Council of Great Britain, according to the statement made by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in this House, it has a committee of fifteen and also a secretary-general. a deputy secretary, an assistant secretary, an art director, a music director, a drama director and a financial officer. Then there are also in London other officers to help those gentlemen whom I have mentioned in their work. A sum of £64,133 is paid in salaries. This includes some payments to subordinates. But the directorate and the executive can draw travelling and subsistence allowances when on official business. No one in his senses would dispute that the secretary-general and the secretary assistants are entitled to legitimate expenses, but I should like to have details of the amounts that they have been receiving as expenses.

We were also told, in the reply to a Non-oral Question on July 31, that there are twelve regions. I naturally concluded that my own county was one of the regions. It was a bit of conceit on my part to think that Yorkshire could be one of the regions; but, hopefully, I went to the telephone book to see if it contained the name of the Arts Council of Great Britain. In bold black letters there it was in the directory. I rang up, but the telephone authorities informed me that the Arts Council had put up the shutters and were no longer in existence in Yorkshire. I then inquired of the manager of one of Yorkshire's biggest theatres, which is showing the Sadler's Wells Ballet this week and, in the near future, the International Ballet, which, by the way, has no subsidy. He told me that on these occasions, all too few, entertainment tax was not paid to the Inland Revenue but was collected by the management and handed over to the parent body producing the ballet. I suggest to the noble Earl who is to reply that this remittance of entertainment tax, which exists on a wholesale scale, needs looking into or abolishing, altogether, so that it is no longer a grievance to bodies less powerful than the Royal Covent Garden Opera Company and the Sadler's Wells Company. Up to a few years ago, we had in the provinces the National Opera Company, under the leadership of Sir Thomas Beecham. For some time the company was a great success, but as it had neither any subsidy nor any help, other than that given by the local authorities, it came to an untimely end. I am glad to see that amateur opera companies continue to produce such operas as those of Gilbert and Sullivan, and I see that only this week in a little town like Howden an amateur company are to immortalise your Lordships' House by playing Iolanthe.

I also want to point out to your Lordships—and I am hurrying on as quickly as possible—that while the Arts Council of Great Britain (again I want to emphasise "Great Britain") can give exemptions from entertainment duty, a body such as one with which I was personally connected, producing Gilbert and Sullivan and other light operas, had to pay to the Excise authorities the sum of £50 entertainment tax. I took this up with the Treasury and I am glad to say that they said they would give exemption. As a result, that £50 was made into a £100 and given to some very deserving charities for children. A great weekly illustrated paper, famous for its society gossip and for its musical and dramatic criticism, has mentioned that the general manager of nine theatres in London has found in the Articles of Association a way for the Arts Council to give him exemption from entertainment tax, whatever the nature of the play he is putting on. I do not think he is working in any altruistic vein when a skilful barrister has been able to show how a coach and four can be driven through yet another Act of Parliament. So I would ask Her Majesty's Government either to abolish entertainment lax for the companies I have mentioned or give exemption to everyone.

I could mention other instances which were sent to me some time ago, when I drew your Lordships' attention to another phase of the work of the Arts Council I suggest that the Treasury have been deprived (I will use no harsher term) of considerable income from entertainment tax, and they ought to decide to let everybody share in the benefit. The odd part of it is that the customer does not share in it when he puts his money down at the box office; it goes into the coffers of the company. I hope that does not apply to the Covent Garden Opera Company—I see the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, here.

I should like now to read a statement of policy made by the secretary-general of the Arts Council of Great Britain. Of course he mentions the great population of London, and he goes on to say: The Arts Council is welt aware of the troubles afflicting the repertory companies.… But since the passing of the 1948 Act, which allowed municipal authorities to levy a 6d. rate, he suggests that instead of the patronage of the Arts Council, they should simply be left "to municipal patronage." The secretary-general goes on to say that this will give greater interest in the provinces because a community with a stake in its own orchestra or theatre"— that is a 6d. rate— is all the more likely to recognise its moral responsibility to the diffusion of the arts. The patronage of the town hall is far better than the patronage of Whitehall. Evidently the secretary-general regards himself as Whitehall or as representing the spirit of Whitehall. That is a "new one on me." We have in the provinces the greatest orchestra in this country, one which was founded by the textile industries in Yorkshire and Lancashire. It still carries on, and does not receive a penny piece of subsidy from the Arts Council.

Moreover, at least nine royal societies of arts, societies of the highest order and possessing charters of their own, have criticised the way in which the Arts Council gives particular attention to one class of art in the creation of what are called "one-man shows." I believe that the Arts Council received about £300,000 for the Festival of Britain. Most of that was spent at Battersea. They were, in fact, able to afford to have two expert lecturers there in order to explain to the visitors twice a day what these "sermons in stone" meant, because, for the life of them, only a small percentage could understand their message. That not only is my own considered opinion but is the opinion of nine learned societies—ten, if I include the Royal Academy—which went to the Treasury in February of this year to try and see that the visual arts of painting and sculpture were patronised by the Arts Council of Great Britain. I do not know whether anything will be done, but these learned societies, with their hundreds upon hundreds of students—painters and sculptors—must be grounded in the tradition of English, Scottish and Welsh art before they carry into their work what the Arts Council call "experimental art." Let these young people get to know something of the tradition of our painters and sculptors of the past—we have no need to apologise for them—instead of being led astray into trying to understand the jig-saw puzzle of what is called contemporary art.

This is my suggestion. The House of Commons votes the money. Therefore, the House of Commons ought to examine the financial affairs of the Arts Council of Great Britain and of the Covent Garden Opera Company, to see how the money goes in overheads; and a report should be made of their findings. If that is impossible, then I suggest to the Government that a departmental committee of five should be set up. I am ready to nominate the Chairman, who should be the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley (he winces at the suggestion, and quite properly); and I have other names at the back of my mind which I am ready to bring forward, including my own, of people to look into the policy of the Arts Council which, as the secretary-general himself wrote in black and white, is now centred in Whitehall. They try to frighten me, but I do not know what being frightened means, because I have never been afraid of Whitehall. I did not know that the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, was Chairman of the Covent Garden Opera Company until he told me, I think it was last week, and there is nothing personal or vindictive in what I say. I am a great believer in tradition in drama, in opera and in the visual arts. We are grateful for what the late Lilian Bayliss did, and for what Miss Horniman has done and there are others. The British Arts Council wanted to supervise the Sadler's Wells Opera Company, because they thought that when that company went to New York they would be unable to get anybody to go and see them. But instead they brought back a lot of dollars, and wherever they went they played to crowded houses—and I am proud of them.

Next year there will be the Coronation—a matter which has not escaped your Lordships' notice. I hope the Covent Garden people will give the public who attend their performances cheap seats in the gallery. That is what makes or mars you. That is why politicians talk to the gallery that is where you get your enthusiasm from. It does not come from the foyer of the Covent Garden Theatre, which was severely criticised in the Sunday Observer only a few weeks ago. I am going to be a Philistine. I wish they would put on Edward German's opera Merrie England, if only to allow people to see portrayed in song and verse the name of the man who helped to make Elizabeth I great, the progenitor of the noble Marquess who leads this House. We do not want any of your doleful murders, "frozen mitts," tiny hands, and so forth. We want the Mastersingers to cheer us up a bit. I could mention others to whom we have had the privilege of listening in the past, with no thanks whatever to the Covent Garden Opera Company—Sir Thomas Beecham, the Carl Rosa Opera Company, and similar bodies.

There is going to be money galore (if I can use that expression) in the West End of London next year. Money will be spent in tens of thousands on beautifully gowned women, as it should be. They will be coming along in their thousands to Covent Garden. I suggest that there ought to be a levy on the shopkeepers in the West End, instead of our making the taxpayer pay for the opera. I hope that the Chairman of the Opera Company will not be led astray by putting on some melancholy business which will make us feel even more depressed than we are at present. I have put this case as well as I possibly could. I trust your Lordships will feel that I have tried to be fairly dispassionate, and, at any rate, I have not brought any venom into what I have said. I beg to move for Papers.