HL Deb 28 October 1952 vol 178 cc1055-62

4.7 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, in continuing the debate initiated by my noble friend behind me, my remarks will not be lengthy, but there are certain matters which have been raised by my noble friend which require further examination. The grievance which he appears to be voicing is that too much money is spent in subsidising art in the metropolis and not enough in the provinces. I am sure that is the main grievance. Against that, there are certain arguments which I will put as briefly as I can. I think I shall carry most of your Lordships with me, and I hope I shall have the support of the noble Earl who is to reply. First of all, grand opera and, to a certain extent, ballet on the grand scale, must have a centre of tradition and training, and that is always in the capital of a country. All the great Continental countries subsidised grand opera many years before we did, and it was always in the metropolis that the main performances took place. At the same time, I am sure we all sympathise with those people who cannot always get to London and who want to see some of this high art in their own localities. There is one other argument, and that is that the British Museum provides a parallel instance. The British Museum contains much material for scholars, but it must be in some central place, and obviously that place must be London. I think the analogy there is not very wide of the mark.

Now what are the actual facts? I am informed—and I was at pains to get the latest information this morning—that every year eight or nine weeks is utilised for purposes of grand opera by the Covent Garden Opera Company in various cities outside London, and in a year between seventy-two and eighty-one performances are given. With regard to ballet, the Sadler's Wells Ballet Company (who have been under attack by my noble friend) go abroad a good deal, to the great advantage of this country. Our prestige has undoubtedly been enhanced by the visits abroad of the Sadler's Wells Ballet Company. particularly to the United States. If they go for six months to the United States, as they did recently, they cannot spend so much time in the provinces. But when they do not go abroad in any one year for any length of time, then, I understand, about the same proportion of time is given to performances in the provinces by the Sadler's Wells Ballet. Altogether, therefore, a good deal of this money—which is not a very great sum: it is the smallest subsidy paid by any of the leading nations—is spent in the provinces. I do not know whether Bradford has had its share, but Leeds has; and possibly Manchester, Liverpool, and other great cities.


And quite right, too.


In any event, there is a very healthy artistic life in the provinces. My wife has a house in Essex. We are not very far from a well-known watering place called Southend. I do not know whether the noble Lord knows it, but Southend is largely the resort of that most remarkable race of people, the London Cockneys. They are as individualistic as the people of Yorkshire. In recent years we have had a week of ballet—not the Sadler's Wells ballet but the ballet of Anton Dolin, and Mona Inglesby's company. They are not, perhaps, so famous as the Sadler's Wells opera or ballet but they are excellent. They perform at the largest cinema in Southend; and they do it all without any subsidy or help. It is impossible to get a seat there unless one books for weeks beforehand. I have been to these performances and, looking round the audiences, I should say that nine cut of ten are members of what we call the working class. They are very good audiences and they obviously enjoy and appreciate the beautiful performances of present-day ballet. That, as I say, is being done without any subsidy at all. If there is all this artistic starvation in Yorkshire to which the noble Lord referred, I think the Yorkshire people might go ahead and settle for a period of these ballet performances.

My noble friend wants an inquiry into the administration of the Covent Garden Opera Company, which I understand is not profit-making. I do not know what: the noble Lord's complaint is. I know that it is sometimes said nowadays that. Covent Garden opera is the resort of the very wealthy and fashionable, and that the dress circle is all a-glitter with diamonds and that kind of thing. That, of course, is utter nonsense. It might have been the case when my noble friend was younger and probably went. If he has not been these, he might have gone to the ballet or the opera in the season before lie made this criticism in your Lordships' House. The people do not change into evening dress. I think that that is a pity, but, after all, we have to move with the times. All the seats are always taken, and the audiences con- sist mostly of young people who are very well-behaved and obviously most appreciative of the magnificent art. The attraction of Covent Garden to opera lovers and ballet lovers from abroad is very great indeed. It is a great national asset; and I believe that the modest sum of money spent by the Treasury in assisting it is among the best-spent money in this country. It yields a great return in education and culture, and I am sorry my noble friend has seen fit to attack it.

4.15 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure we are all grateful to the noble Lord for having raised this topic this afternoon. I think noble Lords will agree that by raising this topic this afternoon he has probably helped to lessen the sense of being a "rubber stamp" which two noble Lords have expressed in the last forty-eight hours. I intend, in my answer to the noble Lord's Motion, as far as I can to stick to the words of the Motion; I think that in his very interesting speech he ranged rather wider than those terms. As we all know, the Arts Council have a very limited sum of money to dispense to the various bodies concerned. The actual figures last year were some £800,000-odd, of which a portion was a non-recurring amount for the Festival of Britain. hey had a very difficult situation to face; and in my opinion—and I think it is the opinion of my colleagues in the Government and of most noble Lords in this House—they are following the right policy in that they are concentrating their resources on the main centres of art in this country as the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, said, instead of scattering those limited resources thinly all over the country and possibly getting very poor, if any, results.

If your Lordships look at the accounts of the Arts Council for the year 1951–52, you will see that approximately 54 per cent. of their income (which is practically all grant-in-aid from the Treasury) was spent on London and the other 46 per cent, on the provinces. These accounts, of course, are quite properly presented, but I find that this very large proportion of the money charged to the London account is for work done by experts who did a lot of that work in lice provinces. It also covers the Sadler's Wells and Covent Garden opera companies and opera and ballet on tour in the provinces. Your Lordships will therefore agree that we could appropriate a little of that expenditure from the London account to the provincial account and say that London was receiving a good deal less from this limited grant, as compared with the provinces.

Of the total expenditure of the Arts Council's money, the largest item is the £150,000 grant to Covent Garden. As the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, said—and here, I think, although the noble Lord and I do not always agree, we are completely at one—in such a matter as this we must have a focal point. Covent Garden, there is no doubt, is such a focal point. It is a national and, I might almost say, an international centre of our opera and ballet. In comparison with the expenditure by other countries on their national opera houses, our expenditure is very favourable—in fact, we spend a great deal less than many other countries. It may be of interest to your Lordships to know that one of the reasons why Covent Garden needs much of this financial assistance is that what was their original storage and rehearsal space has been condemned by the London County Council from the fire-risk point of view. They are spending money in the region of £50,000 in order to find storage and rehearsal space elsewhere. This, of course, is a very heavy load on their working capital.

The noble Lord, Lord Calverley, raised the question of tax relief. That, of course, has nothing to do with the Arts Council; it is a matter for the Customs and Excise. The only job of the Arts Council, so far as these bodies are concerned, is, after very careful consideration, to allocate out of their funds what they think is correct. My own view is that most of us who have studied this question consider that the Arts Council have done, and are still trying to do, an extraordinarily good job under difficult conditions with very limited sums. Of course, the more money in one form or another that comes into their hands, the more grist it will be to the mill that they are trying to grind.

The noble Lord mentioned the Carl Rosa Opera Company. I think it is the situation there that is largely at the back of his mind, not only in this Motion but in previous Questions. The Arts Council are in tremendous sympathy with the Carl Rosa Opera Company and realise the great work it has done. But there are certain difficulties. It is a company, and certain negotiations are in progress. I think it would be premature and improper if I were to mention in detail what is going on, because it might prejudice any arrangements that are made. But I can say, quite categorically, that the Arts Council and Her Majesty's Government are in the greatest sympathy with them and want to keep the name of the Carl Rosa Opera Company in the opera houses and theatres of this country. Everything that can humanly be done so that this should happen will be done. I hope that I may be able to make a statement on that matter in the not too distant future, and that your Lordships will not press me on that now, because I feel that it is better to leave these negotiations to go on. Those who know anything about this subject realise how difficult and delicate the situation is, and it should be left until the two bodies have been able to deal with it. The Government feel the greatest sympathy for that company, and anything that can be done will be done. I hope that I have answered the noble Lord sufficiently.

4.23 p.m.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl for what he has said. I wish to emphasise my point. I agree that, owing to the very size of the set-up of the Covent Garden Opera Company, there are only about six places that it can visit. As I said in my previous speech, it spent only twelve weeks in the provinces out of about ninety weeks. Simply because at a place that even the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, has heard of—and that is Kingston-upon-Hull—there is not a hall big enough to house the whole of the company, we have to be content that they go to the larger places. I am not bringing up any new matter. I am emphasising the old matter, that we want a touring company, not of such great proportions but able to go to the more important municipal centres and "do their stuff" there.

I also made it plain that the tax remission was possible owing to the way the Articles of Association were drawn up. I did not wish to suggest there is anything discreditable in the opera company accepting what other people accept, with far less justification. With regard to Sadler's Wells, I think the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, was somewhat unfair to me, because I mentioned that we have Sadler's Wells in Yorkshire at this very minute. We have another two or three travelling companies; we have ballet classes and ballets in production, even in my own village of Calverley, in Yorkshire. The Sadler's Wells Ballet Company are doing a great job of work. I said that before and I want to emphasise it. I am grateful to the House for listen- ing to me so patiently. I think, from what the noble Earl has said, that something will be done. But the fact remains that, with the exception of six centres in the United Kingdom, the country is starved of grand opera at the present time. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at twenty-six minutes past Four o'clock.