HL Deb 14 December 1971 vol 326 cc1034-45

4.28 p.m.

Debate on Second Reading resumed.


My Lords, I should like now to continue the debate on the Sunday Theatre Bill. When I spoke on Lord Strabolgi's Sunday Cinema Bill last week I described the attitude of the Government as one of benevolent neutrality. The same remark applies to the Bill which the noble Baroness, Lady Lee, has commended to your Lordships to-day in such a remarkably persuasive speech. This means that the Government are sympathetic to the aims of the promoter and would not wish to do anything to impede the Bill's progress. If the Bill passes through your Lordships' House it will, however, need to make progress in another place on its merits, and I am afraid that owing to the very heavy programme of legislation I am not in a position to offer either Government time or drafting assistance. Nevertheless, I have had an opportunity to discuss the Bill with the noble Baroness and her advisers, and I am glad that my Department have been able to be of some assistance in the framing of the No. 2 Bill. I am advised that there are still one or two minor defects in the Bill, but these are fairly technical and can be straightened out in Committee. My noble friend the Paymaster General had hoped to speak for the Government in this debate, but unfortunately he has suffered from a bout of 'flu and has to have his energies for the further debates on museum charges later this afternoon. But he has asked me to say that from his standpoint as Minister with responsibility for the Arts he looks on the objects of this Bill favourably.

Since the war, much has been done to encourage the writing and production of plays. The reputation of the British theatre to-day stands very high. Visitors from overseas have paid many well-deserved compliments to the standard of acting, of writing and of production. We can take pride in the fact that artistically the theatre is flourishing to an extent that has not often been achieved in the past. But while the tourists and the visitors turn up at the box office in their thousands, we have not yet done enough to attract British audiences. Cinemas have been open on Sundays in most cities and towns for many years now; and a wide variety of television programmes are available on three channels. These newer media (partly perhaps because they are newer) are privileged in comparison with the theatre, and in a way that is contrary to the best interests of the Arts.

The live theatre must draw audiences —domestic audiences as well as visitors —and at times that are convenient for the widest possible theatre-going public. As the noble Baroness reminded us, not everyone has the time, even perhaps the energy, to get to the theatre after work in the evening. Things are more leisurely on Sunday, and there seems little doubt that if plays could be performed on Sundays they would attract a bigger audience than on Mondays, and perhaps than on some other days of the week, too. This can only be in the interests of a healthy theatre, in close contact with and appreciated by as many people as possible.

The noble Baroness referred to the fact that her Bill does not specifically lay down that no one employed in the theatre should work for more than six days out of every seven. Such an omission would not, I think, find favour with many of your Lordships if the promoters could not tell us that they have discussed this with the unions concerned, and that in their view satisfactory arrangements and safeguards can be made. The Government see no objection to a Bill of this kind without a clause on seven day work, because we believe that it is desirable, wherever possible, to regulate terms and conditions of employment by means of voluntary collective bargaining rather than by statutory provision. I understand that this will be the case here, and no doubt the noble Baroness, Lady Lee, will give us such information as she can on this matter as the Bill progresses through your Lordships' House.

But, my Lords, this Bill is not only about the theatre and those who work in it. It is also about Sunday, a day of worship for some and of rest for most. I doubt whether any of your Lordships would want Sunday to be the same as Saturday or as Monday. We may have a religious concern for keeping Sunday different; or our concern might spring from reasons of health, physical or mental, or just common sense. As the Crathorne Committee acknowledged. Sunday has a special character quite apart from its religious significance. So the arguments are very strong for keeping Sunday as a day of rest for the great majority. But inevitably some people have to work on Sundays to keep certain public services going. As an increasingly large proportion of the population have the opportunity to go out and enjoy themselves on Sunday, employment has to go on in all sorts of ways to provide for leisure activities—traffic control, garages, restaurants, pubs, park-keepers; all those whose work, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Olivier, which the noble Baroness quoted to us earlier, is "other people's play ".

My Lords, I do not believe that there is any chance that the Churches will be threatened by this Bill. if there was evidence to the contrary, the Government would want to think long and hard before declaring themselves to be even benevolently neutral. A man becomes, and remains, a Christian because he believes. If he does not believe, restrictions on the opening of theatres on Sunday seem hardly likely to encourage his conversion. In 1780, when the Sunday Observance Act was placed on the Statute Book, the relationship between the Churches and the people, between work and leisure, were very different from what they are to-day. Maybe an essentially modern obstacle to the propagation of the Christian faith can be found in the widespread ignorance that there is any reality that lies behind what we Perceive with our senses and apprehend with our reason. I hope it is not too high-flown to claim that the Arts can contribute to removing this ignorance. Good art has always taught men something true about the human condition.

Let us not, therefore, as we consider this Bill, make the mistake of setting up considerations of religious observance, on the one hand, and of leisure activities, on the other, as being in conflict with one another. They are not in conflict. They are part of the same continuous spectrum, the whole of which is illuminated—or is capable of being illuminated—by art. Of course, not all theatrical performances on a Sunday, any more than on any other day of the week, will measure up to these aspirations. But some will—make no mistake about that—as they do now, not only in the West End, but in other parts of the country as well. Others may do little more than make live performances available to people who at the moment can see drama only though the filter of the cinema screen or the television set. If we have faith in the theatre and its potential, as we should; if we take pride in its achievements, as we can, then it is difficult to see why the two-centuries-old restrictions on Sunday opening of theatres should survive for much longer.

It is for reasons of that sort, as well as those which I mentioned earlier, that I can congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lee, on her initiative in bringing forward this Bill, and assure her of the good will of those who sit on this Front Bench.

4.38 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to give my support to this Bill, which I think is a major step forward. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Olivier, is not here this afternoon: he might find that A Long Day's Journey into Night is going on here too; but I will do my best not to add to that. As noble Lords have previously said, finding and planning the means of recreation for the country is going to be a growing problem. This is so regardless of the days we are talking about. If there is going to be growing technological unemployment, as many of us fear, the whole idea of recreation and its provision will require a great deal more thought than it has had in the past; and I think it is unrealistic to put up too many artificial barriers in the way of particular dates, times or places.

The theological problem is not, I think, a difficult one. In speaking of this, I was going to apologise for possibly pre-empting the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol. But as we have both already been pre-empted by what seemed to me to be a very good theologi cal exposition by the noble Lord on the Government Front Bench, there is no need for me to follow him except to say that, as Christians, we have a duty to decide whether a measure put forward, as seen by us as Christians, is for the good of society; and if we do so judge that it is good for society, then it is no part of the Christian duty in any way to object to that merely because it might be inconvenient for Christians, as such. Christians are here to be at the service of the world for what is generally good, rather than to put barriers in the way from a selfish point of view.

I have one reservation, and one extra point of condemnation, on this Bill. The reservation is about not writing a six-day week into the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Lee, assured us about the amount of agreement that will go forward between Equity and the technical unions, on the one side, and the theatre managements, on the other. But she will not be unaware that the Government's Industrial Relations Bill has grievously weakened the position of Equity with regard to the employers. Many of her colleagues and many people on these Benches, and some people from the Conservative Benches, voiced fears during the passing of the Industrial Relations Act that it opened the way to fly-by-night managements who cannot have agreements forced on them by Equity. Nothing has happened since then to calm those fears. I know that it is likely to concern a minority of cases, but I believe that this is a point that we might well consider at a later stage of the Bill.

The extra thing which I believe to be in the Bill's favour is that it will allow increasing opportunities for the young in an already overcrowded profession, in that the spare day--Monday or whichever day it is—can well be given over to performances by members of Equity producing one-night stands without charging, as is sometimes done, or club performances on Sundays. This will be a very good vehicle for young people to gain experience and for the trying out of productions of one kind or another. I see this as a very valuable by-product of the Bill as it is drafted.

Lastly, I would say that, if I did have any doubts about this Bill, it seems to me that in judging the measures before us in a free society the burden of proof should be on those who wish to restrict freedom, and the assumption should always be in favour of freedom. I do not see that any burden of proof has been undertaken by anybody as to why these restrictions should have been made or, since they have been made, why they should be continued. I think it will be a very good thing indeed when they are taken off, and I hope that the Government will be able to sec their way to give this Bill a bit of a fair wind later.

4.43 p.m.


My Lords, I must confess to a somewhat more tempered enthusiasm for the Bill than was exhibited by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, whichever of his collars he is wearing, because I do first of all speak positively, wishing to make my own the sentiments voiced by the most reverend Primate, the Archbishop of York, from these Benches in 1965 when the Crathorne Committee Report was under consideration. If I may briefly quote him, he said: I welcome the case for the whole man which has obviously motivated the drawing up of this Report, and I welcome, as indeed the vast majority of Churchmen would. the desire to eliminate from the Statute Book anomalies and anachronisms in legislation which only bring the matter of Sunday Observance into ridicule. It is clear to my mind that those who served on this Departmental Committee had in mind that we must work for such conditions as will allow men and women to have, not a Sunday which is drab and boring, but one which provides for re-creation … of body, mind and spirit, for refreshment and renewal of the whole person. Such a day once a week is a very important factor— would say a vital factor—in the growth of men and women. With those positive sentiments transferred from the Crathorne Committee to this Bill I would fully identify myself. I have nevertheless three reservations, which arc themselves based not on religious grounds but precisely on the ground which the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, referred to, on the restriction of liberty. The first is my doubt as to whether there is in fact sufficient safeguard for those who do not wish to be compelled to work a seven-day week. When I say "compelled" I do not mean legally compelled, but compelled by those sorts of pressure which in a crowded profession exercise a very considerable pressure: the fear of losing work and pay through not competing with one's neighbours when everybody else is doing it, and often thereby having to accept roles which are uncongenial and undesired simply because the pressure of circumstances released by such a Bill would make it very difficult to resist.

My second scruple, when I read the Bill in its second form as compared with the first, was whether the local option was sufficiently retained. I find it hard to see where this is provided for in the No. 2 Bill. There was, for example, an expression of opinion on behalf of the Welsh Churches, that while agreeing in principle they would wish to see freedom for local opting out if relaxation took place, so that areas in Wales could be given local options. It would seem, my Lords, a very important part of all cultural legislation that we should recognise that the United Kingdom is a community of very varying cultural climate. One of our important considerations in such a representative House as this is to remember continually that London is not England and although the Bill does not extend to Scotland or Northern Ireland I still believe that there are many parts of the United Kingdom in England and Wales where the climate of sentiment would not so readily wish to avail itself. I want to be reassured that this draft of the Bill makes provision for local opting out in the way that I understood the first draft of the Bill to do.

Thirdly, I have scruples about the hour of 1 p.m. It seems to me too early. not because church services are affected—that position clearly is safeguarded so far as morning worship is concerned, and in any case that was not an aspect of the matter on which I should wish to dwell—but because of an entirely different matter, that of Sunday dinner. I believe that in many parts of this country the Sunday midday meal is one of the really few family occasions that remain, and this is vastly important at a time when more and more housewives arc themselves employed. I would regard it as a very sad restriction of the fullness of family life if, by encouraging a curtailment of that all-too-rare occasion when the family gathers as a family, we were to encourage that almost sacramental moment to be abandoned.

I listened most carefully to the very persuasive advocacy of this Bill by the noble Baroness, Lady Lee of Asheridge, and almost all my first scruple was removed. I recognise the force of what was said in the letter quoted from Mr. Emile Littler on behalf of the Theatres National Committee, of which she sent me a copy. I still think that there are real dangers in the kind of economic pressures in the overcrowded state of the theatrical profession which would make it very difficult for some people to resist having to take jobs in Sunday entertainment which on all other grounds they would wish they did not have to take. Clearly in a plural society such as ours the right of those who wish to worship is fully safeguarded in this provision which is made, but I should still like to ask the noble Baroness, when she replies, to give us some further assurance about local freedom to opt out in those areas of the country where the benefits of the Bill will not be so self-evident as they seem to be in other quarters. I should also like to know whether the early hour of 1 p.m. is necessarily the best, and whether all the positive advantages which this Bill envisages could not be met by a somewhat later hour of opening, allowing, as I suppose one must, for the large number of people who would have to be employed considerably before the formal hour of the beginning of the performance. That is the reason why my enthusiasm is somewhat tempered, though I should like nothing better than to find by the time the Bill has passed through all its stages that all my scruples have been satisfied.

4.51 p.m.


My Lords, I should like briefly to support the Second Reading of this Bill. I was always a supporter of the Crathorne Committee's Report which I thought was very moderate, very balanced and very sensible. Your Lordships will remember the debate that we had on the Bill introduced by my noble friend, Lord Willis. I did not take any part in it, but I heard it all from the Woolsack. We had a number of Amendments moved at the Committee stage, and some on the Report stage. None of them succeeded on a completely free vote they were all defeated on their merits. I thought at the time that it was remarkable that this quite substantial Private Member's Bill should leave this House exactly as it arrived.

Tonight we are dealing only with a small part, the theatre. This has always in the past suffered under a disadvantage. The Crathorne Committee said, in paragraph 84 of their Report: In principle, we could find no justification for treating theatres and variety entertainment differently from cinemas and music and the figures we quoted in paragraph 50 show that, even if all the theatres opened on Sunday, the increase in Sunday employment would be only a small fraction of 0.6 per cent. of all employed persons. After dealing with possible objections the Committee came to the conclusion that this was a course which ought to be taken. It is now a long time since the cinemas, or most cinemas, opened on Sundays. The theatre has always been under this very unfair handicap. Of course, you could have 40, 000 people at Brand's Hatch, or watching "Sunday night at the London Palladium "which was about the most popular feature of the week on television. It really was absurd that you could not see the show being performed at the Palladium, if it was at the Palladium, or in the studio, if it was in a studio.

I do not want to take up any time about this. I agree that we must at a later stage consider the position of Equity. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, that the Industrial Relations Act has weakened the position of actors and actresses in relation to theatrical managers. However, we shall be able to satisfy ourselves that we can meet that position. The House may remember that in Appendix D of the Crathorne Committee's Report it was shown that when the then 11,000 members of Equity were asked. "Are you opposed to the Sunday opening of theatres under any conditions? ", only 401 members replied, "Yes ". With those few words I commend the Second Reading of the Bill to the House, and hope that, under the guidance of my noble friend Lady Lee, it may do well both in this House and in the other place.

4.54 p.m.


My Lords, I am very glad from these Benches to support the noble Baroness, Lady Lee of Asheridge, and indeed the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, in bringing forward this Bill; and I congratulate the noble Baroness in the way that she did it. Although what I have to say represents purely personal views, I must declare an interest inasmuch as I have always been interested in the theatre. I helped to found the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, and I am now President of the British Drama League, and also of the Chichester Festival Theatre, of which the noble Lord, Lord Olivier, was the first Director. Although on this occasion I am not speaking on their behalf, I have none the less a strong impression that the Bill receives the support of the great majority of the 4, 000 members of the British Drama League. Some of these members represent societies and drama organisations which make a total of probably around 20, 000 people.

Most of the Drama League week-end courses and summer centres already take place on Sundays. In many cases Sunday is the only day of the week in which people are able to involve themselves in such activities. I also have the impression, both from the correspondence I have received and from what I have heard from noble Lords this afternoon, that this Bill has the support of a majority of the British theatrical profession as a whole. In regard to Chichester, if I may speak about what I know, we have regular Sunday night celebrity concerts which are allowed to include such highly theatrical events as Emlyn Williams as Dickens, or Micheal Mac Liammoir as Oscar Wilde, both productions in costume. Sometimes there are even "pop" musical events on these Sunday nights.

It seems to me quite nonsensical, even ludicrous, that people may do almost everything else on a Sunday—look at the television, go to the movies, listen to concerts or readings—yet are not able to visit the living theatre. I am not committing the Chichester Board in any way by speaking this afternoon. They will decide on their merits whether they should close on Sunday or on Monday. They should have freedom of choice, and, I should like to say to the right reverend Prelate, freedom to opt out if they wish to do so.

Like the noble Baroness, and others who have spoken, I am of the firm opinion that since cinemas have the right to open seven days a week, the theatre should be allowed to do so too, or at least should have the right to choose which days it opens. It may be that many theatres would like to close on Mondays as on the Continent. No-one is suggesting that artistes should be expected to perform seven days without a day off. A free day is essential, and on this I agree with the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Olivier. Having spent over five years of my working life in Paris—and it was a very hard-working period—I know that the one evening a week when my wife and I felt free to go to the theatre was on a Sunday. I know, too, that in this country overseas visitors would welcome this facility.

The theatre is the servant of the people. If the public want to be entertained at the weekend—as they certainly do on the Continent and in all the countries within the European Community which we are shortly to join—and as from television viewing figures, even in this country, it would seem that they also wish to be entertained on Sundays, I feel that the theatre should be able to accommodate them. With great respect to the Lord's Day Observance Society, there are many worse things that people might be doing on Sunday evenings than going out to the theatre. Chichester is a well known cathedral city. Our own right reverend Prelate is on the council of our theatre trust. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester has not, to my knowledge, objected to any of the activities that I have already mentioned as taking place on Sunday evenings—indeed, I know that he welcomes many of them. And, pace what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol has said, I cannot believe that our own Bishop would object. Nor do I think that his predecessor, the right reverend Dr. George Bell, who was greatly interested in the theatre, would have objected; and I knew him very well indeed. Most of us understand the point about restricting the activities of commercialised sport, but it does not apply to activities that do not interfere with others. My Lords, I gladly support the noble Baroness in introducing this Bill.

5.0 p.m.


My Lords, I must oppose this Bill, and that for the reason that I believe that Sunday is a God-given day for worship and recreation, and it is needed by members of the acting profession more than any of us. In this connection, I should like to quote from a petition signed by 48 actors and actresses in 1953. This is what they said: