HL Deb 21 November 1974 vol 354 cc1127-40

3.36 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill is a short one but nevertheless I think it will help the House if I describe briefly the purpose of each clause. Clause 1 removes the limit on the amount of the contributions that may be made by the Secretary of State under Section 1 of the National Theatre Act 1949, but requires future contributions to be made with the consent of the Treasury.

Your Lordships will no doubt recall that Section 1 of the National Theatre Act 1949 provided for the Treasury to make such contributions to the funds of the trustees of the Shakespeare Memorial Trust as they thought fit (not exceeding the sum of £1 million) in respect of the cost of erecting and equipping the National Theatre. The powers of the Treasury were transferred to the Secretary of State by the Transfer of Functions (Cultural Institutions) Order 1965. The limit of £1 million was raised first to £3,750,000 by the National Theatre Act 1949 and subsequently to £5,700,000 by the National Theatre and Museum of London Act 1973 (which, of course, repealed the 1969 Act). If I may, I shall return to the matter of costs in a minute.

Subsection (1) of Clause 2 provides for the citation of the Bill as the National Theatre Act 1974 and its collective citation with the National Theatre Act 1949 as the National Theatre Acts 1949 and 1974. I now return to costs. Besides the £5.7 million allowed under the 1973 Act as the Government's contribution, the original LCC contribution of £1.3 million has been raised by the GLC to its present authorised level of £4.68 million. A smaller contribution from the Shakespeare Memorial Trust took the total resources available in 1973 to £10,500,000.

It is well known to your Lordships that the task of bringing the project to completion has not been an easy one, and progress—for various reasons—has not been as fast as was hoped. I should, however, like to pay tribute here on behalf of the Government to some of those principally concerned with the project, to past Ministers for the Arts; to my noble friend Lady Lee of Asheridge and the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles—both of whom are to take part in this debate—the noble Lord, Lord Cottlesloe, as Chairman of the South Bank Theatre Board, who is also going to speak, Denys Lasdun as Architect, and to Sir Reginald Goodwin and Mr. Horace Cutler for the GLC. Without them, and their willingness to consider and overcome all the problems involved, the project would not have reached its present stage.

It became clear to both the Government and the GLC earlier this year that the figure of £10,500,000 which I have mentioned would be overspent. The Government and the GLC therefore discussed urgently a possible solution to these problems. The result was that the Government and the GLC together agreed, subject of course to approval by Parliament and the Council for their own contribution, to provide additional resources to complete the project. The GLC have agreed to recommend its Council to provide a contribution of up to £1 million or 50 per cent. of the additional expenditure, whichever is the lesser amount, on the understanding that the balance of expenditure would be met by the Government.

My Lords, I should like now to turn to the text of the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum to the Bill. This explains that it is not possible at this stage to make an accurate estimate of the additional contributions that will be required; but it is expected, as the Memorandum says, that additional payments by the Government of not less than £1 million will be made. Precision is not possible because the additional costs that will be incurred in completing the project comprise broadly speaking the extra expenditure needed to complete the various contracts over a longer period than was previously budgeted for, and an assessment by the South Bank Theatre Board of the contractors' claims that have been received or are likely to be received before all settlements have been agreed. Until all the claims have been settled it is simply not possible, I suggest, for the Board to give a more precise figure of the final cost of the project.

It would however be wrong if noble Lords inferred from what I have said that the Government and the Greater London Council together are now abdicating control over the remaining costs of the project. Far from it, my Lords. The Government have taken the view that a no less severe but more flexible method of control is needed. The Government are satisfied that the South Bank Board can exercise this control, and, as I have said, Treasury consent will be required. The Government are confident with the new arrangements that the Theatre can be completed at reasonable cost given the general rise in building costs over this whole period. For a comparison with other projects of equal artistic significance, I need only remind noble Lords of the cost of the Sydney Opera House which was over £50 million.

What facilities will this country be getting for the money it spends on the National Theatre? The National Theatre will have three auditoria providing between them seating for nearly 2,500 people. The largest, with seating capacity of over 1,000, is the Olivier, being in the form of an amphitheatre with an arena stage and having stalls and a circle each with separate foyer. The Lyttleton has seating capacity for about 900 and is a conventional threatre having a straight-edged proscenium arch stage facing a straight-edged stalls and circle. There are separate foyer for stalls and circle. The Cottesloe is a small experimental theatre seating 400 people and consisting simply of a rectangular empty space that can accommodate any kind of stage. This theatre will be of particular interest to the repertory companies in the regions, many of which are doing important experimental work. As Peter Hall has said, the National Theatre is meant to be national and to involve companies outside London to a greater extent than was possible before, and we look forward to much fruitful cross-fertilisation. The Theatre complex will also include 136 air-conditioned dressing-rooms—this is a modern departure, so that nobody will have to share—and two large and some small rehearsal rooms, which will serve all three auditoria. Last but not least there will be seven bars, two buffets and a restaurant while of course parking space will be provided. The country therefore, I suggest, is getting a most impressive and well-planned theatre complex which will be unique and second to none in the world.

The Government want to see the theatre building brought to a successful conclusion. Its completion and operation is crucial to the maintenance of the theatre as such in this country as an important part of the Arts and one in which I think we particularly excel. The progress of work on the National Theatre project has proceeded parallel with an increasing proportion of the Arts Council's funds being allocated outside London, and this proportion is now about 65 per cent. of the total compared with about 46 per cent. 10 years ago: this, of course, spans the period when my noble friend Lady Lee of Asheridge and the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, were both Ministers. I think we all agree that this policy was the right one. How essential it is, therefore, that this current development and the interdependence of the London and regional theatre should continue!

Some fears have been expressed by some of those concerned with the management of other theatre companies subsidised by the public that available resources will to their detriment be directed to meet the future needs of the National Theatre. The Government understand these fears, and also the justification for ventilating them in good time to ensure that the case does not go by default. The Arts Council are of course responsible for the allocation of the resources that the Government make available to support the Arts. They have long been aware of the future needs of the National Theatre and are in regular consultation with them, and of course with all the other theatres concerned. The Government have confidence in the judgment of the Arts Council. They believe the Council will reach a sensible arrangement for the development of the Theatre in its new home on the South Bank, not far from the old Globe Theatre where our modern drama began. My Lords, I beg to move.

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

3.47 p.m.


My Lords, we welcome this Bill if only for the practical reason that it would be folly to leave uncompleted a building which is now so far advanced. But I must say it is a sad story. The estimates of cost and of the date of opening have proved wrong over and over again, and for this we cannot blame any external cause such as the price of oil. All these troubles were homemade, and I had something to do with them. I do not propose to go into them to-day, but I can say that we are grateful to hear from the noble Lord that a better system of control of the contract—Sir Max Rayne was most anxious to secure this control two years ago—is now at hand.

It is interesting to remember that when the first and second National Theatre Bills were introduced wages and prices seemed stable enough to write in maximum figures of expenditure. I am not sure that I remember anybody objecting. To-day, with hindsight, it is very easy to say that that was wrong and to forget that the original figures were part of a bargain with the London County Council, who provided the site and stipulated a fixed contribution towards the cost of building. The LCC co-operated with great generosity in those days and we should acknowledge this; to-day the Greater London Council are putting up an extra £1 million for a contract over which they have had no control, and we owe them thanks for that. On the other hand, the GLC, so far as my recollection goes (and if I am wrong the noble Baroness, Lady Lee of Asheridge, can correct me), never offered to contribute a penny towards the cost of running the Theatre. I shall have to return to this very heavy obligation in a moment, because it really would not be sense to pass this Bill unless we were confident that the money will be available to operate the Theatre to the full.

However, first of all, what should one think about the building as a building? I think that most of your Lordships will agree that the South Bank of the Thames—from County Hall up to and including the Hayward Gallery—does very little credit to London, but Mr. Lasdun's design for the National Theatre is in quite another class. Compare it with the Hayward Gallery. One is comparing a work of Art with those random castles which children build with their bricks. The National Theatre must put up with its neighbours. There they are. But providing that the skyline behind the theatre is not disfigured by tall structures, I am sure that Mr. Lasdun's building will give great satisfaction to succeeding generations.

My Lords, turning to the interior of the theatre, it was our view—and the Conservative Government provided money for this purpose—that we ought not to skimp either the finishes or the equipment. We reinstated certain items which had been removed from the schedule. May I have an assurance from the noble Lord that nothing has been dropped from the schedule as we left it; and if anything has been cut out, will he tell us exactly what it is? I ask this because national institutions should be built to a standard worthy of a great nation and not pared down in the interests of unlovely economy. Since the Bill before us states no maximum figure, the responsibility for providing enough money for good finishes and equipment rests squarely with the Government.

When the theatre is at last open, what about the annual subsidy which will be necessary to run three auditoria? This prospect, as the noble Lord has said, has quite naturally aroused the fears of other clients of the Arts Council that they will be squeezed in order to keep this new giant in business, and this afternoon we must try to allay those fears. I am not so much thinking of the commercial theatre, which is greatly advantaged by the attraction of all forms of subsidised Art to tourists who come to London. I do not think that they have much ground for complaint.

My Lords, I do not propose to repeat the entirely convincing argument for providing a proper house for our National Theatre. Drama is our country's greatest contribution to the Arts. We must live up to our inheritance and it cannot be done on the cheap. I, too, have confidence in Mr. Peter Hall, although I cannot resist telling your Lordships that when the question of who might succeed Lord Olivier was first broached I received a splendid letter from the late Lord Chandos, who did so much for the National Theatre, in which Lord Chandos described Mr. Hall as "a very talented, naughty and expensive boy". Talented, Mr. Hall certainly is. Naughty, he may be, like the rest of us. But expensive, my Lords, he must be. He cannot be otherwise, with three productions to be mounted at once.

When this Bill was being read a second time in another place the subsidy needed to run the National Theatre was linked by several speakers with the escalating cost of Covent Garden and of the other national companies. The figures are very daunting and compel us to look at the Arts budget as a whole but not, I think, to propose, as several honourable Members did in another place, to take the national companies out of the Arts Council's budget and finance them on a separate Vote. The hope behind this proposal is that if the "Nationals" were separately financed then the Arts Council's other clients—particularly those which are based in the provinces—would be less likely to resent the egregious amount given to the "Nationals".

During the debate in another place Mr. George Strauss, who has great experience in the Arts, gave the right answer when he said that the device of separate financing would soon be seen through as a trick to avoid politically awkward comparisons. I agree with Mr. Strauss, and I believe that Mr. Hugh Jenkins does also; and I suggest a further reason why the Arts Council should continue to support both the "Nationals" and all the others. Your Lordships know that the 18 national museums are financed as a separate group direct from Central Government funds. What has been the result? There has been almost complete neglect by Government after Government of the other 800 museums and galleries which do not qualify for national status. Despite the striking evidence produced in the Wright Report, quite recently the Treasury refused to establish even a modest Housing the Museums Fund which would have helped the provinces.

We do not want to see the same thing happen with the Arts. I am convinced it would happen if they were divided into two classes, one national and the other provincial or non-national. The provinces would then receive the dirty end of the stick, as they have done all along in the museum world. We must not allow one kind of Art to be sacrificed to another. We must face the cost of adequate finance for both the "Nationals" and the rest of the Arts Council's clients and we must do this within a single budget, since that is the easiest way in which the public can satisfy themselves that the total grant from central funds is being fairly allocated.

Therefore I believe that this Bill ought not to be passed unless we are willing to provide the money not only to complete but to run the National Theatre. This in turn implies that the other "Nationals" and non-national clients of the Arts Council should receive a fair share of an expanding cake. The inescapable fact is that the national companies alone to-day will have to be given an extra two or three, or even more, million pounds a year to sustain their present rhythm and standards.

For example, if your Lordships will look at Covent Garden, they are faced with enormous rises in the cost of all the services which they must have; they require at least another £1 million a year, or, failing a miraculous series of private benefactors (and we ought to thank the noble Lord, Lord Kissin, because he is trying to secure these benefactors) the standards and the number of performances at the Garden will take a nosedive from which it will require many years to recover. That is why the National Theatre's operating subsidy, which is put at £2½ million a year for full working—coming on top of what the other "Nationals" need so badly—causes great alarm among the smaller companies, many of whom are financially embarrassed. As a matter of fact, all the companies are in trouble because the Arts is a labour-intensive industry. If one reduces the number of actors, singers, dancers and musicians beyond a certain point, one cannot produce grand opera, or full-scale ballet, or Shakespeare's plays, or symphonies and choral works. Furthermore, until very recently the artists concerned were badly paid, partly because the supply has always exceeded the demand and partly because they were assumed to be so dedicated to their work that low pay did not put them off.

It was only a very short time ago that the position was significantly improved. The result is that now, with the sharp rise in minimum pay, which was long overdue, plus the general effects of inflation, theatre costs have risen in this calendar year by more than 40 per cent. and are still rising. No wonder that the chairman of the Arts Council says that he needs £6 million more than the present £19 million on his budget in the year 1975–76. Personally, I do not know how the Arts Council can get through the rest of this financial year without a large supplementary estimate—I should say not less than £2 million. And then, next year, in that £6 million nothing like £2½ million is reckoned for the National" Theatre. What should one say about the £2½ million which the National Theatre estimates it will require?

I hope that every noble Lord in the House sincerely wishes the subsidy to be adequate to make full use of the building, but would it be fair to give all this to the National Theatre if the other "Nationals" were left where they are—that is to say, if they are not financed on the basis of to-day's costs as the National Theatre will have to be financed when it opens its doors? Equally pertinent, would it be fair if the Regional Arts Associations and all the other companies on the books of the Arts Council did not have their grants increased on the same scale? I want to ask whether the Government accept that they must provide on this scale for all of them. This is what Mr. Hugh Jenkins implied. Speaking in another place on November 7, he said: All those seeking public support for the arts should perhaps recognise more clearly than they do that they sink or swim together."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, 7/11/74, col. 1326.] This is absolutely true of the "Nationals" and the non-nationals, if I may use that term. I would ask the noble Lord opposite whether, when he comes to wind up, he can give a more definite assurance on this vital point.

I know that the Government must be thinking of the reactions in other fields to providing the Arts with so large an increase at this time. Many other claimants for money, especially in the Social Services, will speak up and ask for the same treatment. Not everybody thinks the Arts are in a class by themselves. It is sometimes rather difficult to persuade those who care most for the Arts that this is a fact of life. In particular, it is going to be more difficult than ever to justify larger and larger expenditure on performances in Central London which can be seen by comparatively few people. Of course there is the prestige argument. Our national reputation as a leader in the Arts is something that is very well worth preserving, but this argument needs to be fortified by others as the total of the subsidies increases so fast. It did not matter very much when the subsidies were quite low.

How do we put the subsidies for the national companies, in particular this great new theatre, on to a broader basis? Is it possible that their productions could reach much larger audiences at home? My Lords, I think there ought to be a special inquiry into this matter. We have never looked at it as carefully as we should. In particular, we ought to inquire into the possibilities of televising much more than at present productions by the national companies. I know that this is technically difficult because the transfer from the stage to the screen raises a great many troublesome artistic problems. However, those problems could be solved if there were not other obstacles of a quite different nature. The national companies themselves are willing to be televised; the television companies are willing to screen them, but the unions, who dictate the fees paid for television performances, have demanded such high rates that many negotiations for producing the nationals on television have fallen through. At times it has been cheaper to buy a picture of a ballet made in Paris than to make one here where our dancers are obviously better.

The unions' extravagant demands ought to be exposed as Lord Harewood is at this moment exposing them at the Coliseum, and I ask the noble Lord opposite: are the Government giving Lord Harewood full support or are they staying neutral and looking helplessly on? After all, we have the best actors, the best musicians, the best dancers, the best producers and the British public should have the benefit of their talents. But there is a price in hard cash which neither the nationals nor the television companies can pay. So always to give into the unions who make these extravagant demands simply means that in time there will be no subsidised theatre, and what good would that be to anyone employed either on the stage or behind it?

So, in giving full support to this Bill and to the subsidy which the National Theatre will require, I hope that the Government will look into the problem of extending their audiences and in particular to televising their productions, and will tell the unions that either they act reasonably or there will not be any national companies. The National Theatre is a marvellous project. We must complete it; we must finance its operations and show them to the widest possible audiences. Television could do a lot here. It could perhaps do for drama what sound radio has so successfully done for music. No one I think understands this problem better than Mr. Peter Hall himself. Parliament is going to give him a great deal of taxpayers' money. With that money he can, and I am sure he will, continue the tradition of British drama which is the best in the world. I hope the Bill will have an unopposed Second Reading.

4.8 p.m.


My Lords, I am indeed fortunate to have the opportunity to make my maiden speech on a project that is in the final stages of completion after over 100 years of discussion. I speak as a lover of the theatre, although I do not attend as much as I, and certainly as much as my wife, would like. As with many great projects nearing completion, signs of nerves and doubt can be seen to emanate from various quarters, though not, I hasten to add, from the National Theatre. Whether these are based on jealousy, theatrical bitchiness or genuine fears is hard to ascertain. There has been criticism of the architecture; there has been criticism of the wage structure for stage hands; and there has been criticism of having three stages within the National Theatre complex. Not least important are the fears that the National Theatre will require such Government subsidy that other branches of the Arts, and theatre in particular, will suffer such severe financial cutbacks from the Arts Council that they will be forced to close.

My Lords, the main problem so far has been the problems encountered in the actual construction of the National Theatre. Most of your Lordships are probably familiar with the maladies facing the building industry at the moment—shortage of materials, increasing costs of finance, the sharp rise in the cost of many building materials and the threat of severe wage demands, are all conspiring to escalate the cost of this project way beyond any figure envisaged a few years ago. Even allowing for extra inflation that may yet be to come, the National Theatre should not cost more than £13 million, but hopefully, £12 million. A current estimate if the building was started now, I am told, would be in excess of £30 million. Surely in view of our enormous legacy of English plays down through the ages it is not too high a price to pay for their exhibition. We have museums and art galleries to display our static heritage. It is right, then, that we should have a National Theatre to show off the plays that are our living heritage. The English theatre is the envy of the world, and a valuable help to tourist income, although, unfortunately, no exact figure can be attributed to it.

My Lords, the National Theatre will be not just a library of classic productions, but a centre of innovation and invention. There will be a touring company going to theatres across the nation, and other theatres of the country will have the opportunity of playing to London audiences. Some extremely good plays never get to the London stage for a variety of reasons, from non-availability of theatres to not being thought to be big enough profit-makers. The National Theatre will enable some of these plays to be staged in London for the benefit and enjoyment of many who otherwise would not have seen them. It will be a showplace for new ideas and new talent in all branches of the theatre, as well as producing the classics which already have worldwide recognition.

My Lords, because of the modern behind-stage facilities at the National Theatre, the cost of changing productions will not be as high as in other more conventional and in some cases, dare I say, old-fashioned theatres. It has been said in some quarters that the London theatre cannot support three more stages. The National Theatre has refuted this. At a time when, for the moment, the excessive profitability has been taken out of the property development market, we must still show concern for the future of some of our West End theatres. Pressure is still on for development land, and over the next 10 years or so I should be most surprised if a few theatres did not come under pressure for development.

My Lords, because of the careful and special design of the theatres within the building, with no spectator more than 65 ft. from the stage, it is hoped to be able to price tickets in a way that will enable many more people, who might previously have thought the theatre too expensive, to attend. It will be interesting to hear whether the Government have any proposals to encourage people to go to the theatre. I am thinking particularly of the young and the elderly. I know that this usually means a price reduction which will probably have to be met by increased subsidy from the Arts Council. But it would give a wider meaning to the word "National" if the scope of the audience could be widened beyond a small percentage of the population and foreign visitors.

The queries about wages for those employed by the National Theatre, and other internal criticisms, have been ably dealt with by Mr. Peter Hall, Director of the National Theatre. Although the subject has already been mentioned, I should like to hear an assurance concerning the grants to the theatre and other branches of the Arts. There is real concern, which I hope will prove to be unwarranted, that the extra money required to run the National Theatre will be at the expense of those already receiving grants. I am not aware that any assurance has been given that this will not be the case. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, could enlighten me in his summing-up as to the proposals of the Government, or correct me if I am wrong.

My Lords, while realising the economic difficulties at present prevailing in the country, I feel it would be most regrettable if the extra subsidy required for the National Theatre were to come from existing grants. Equally, I feel that not to allow the National Theatre to open at full strength and with a full programme would be a tragedy such as the critics of the National Theatre are only too eagerly awaiting. It has been suggested that economies could be made by merging the National Theatre Company and the Royal Shakespeare Company. I am not aware of any figures available for this premise, but I cannot help feeling that the competition between these two companies which will exist when the National Theatre is operating will lead to some very exciting productions, and a heightening of the quality of plays to be seen. I believe that competition is good for the customer and I, for one, look forward to such competition.

The National Theatre is a monument to the excellence of the English language, and as such we should be proud of it and give it our full blessing. Under the able directorship of Mr. Peter Hall, the National Theatre will, in the years ahead, quickly become world famous and attract people from all walks of life and from all over the world. Let us not in the final stages halt or stunt a 100 year-old dream that is just about to become reality.