That Was The Year That Was

Reporter: Peter Lathan

Dateline: 2nd January, 2000

Part 1

Another theatrical year ends. What were the high- and lowlights of 1999? Was it a vintage year? Let's take a look back.

For Wales, at least, it was definitely a bad year. The inevitable tensions that exist between funding bodies and their clients exploded during the course of the year with open warfare between the Arts Council of Wales and theatre companies throughout Wales, warfare which not only extended to the new National Assembly but even into the House of Commons. We covered it in a feature article on this site just a few weeks ago, but there have been further developments since then and the row looks set to rumble on for many more months. You can follow the developments - in great detail, for Keith chronicles everything that happens - on Keith Morris' excellent Theatre in Wales site.

Politically, of course, devolution in Scotland and Wales, and the setting up of the power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland, have been major events in the UK. It is, perhaps, a little too soon to predict the effect of these political changes on theatre, although ACW has proposed the setting up of two National Theatres in Wales, one in English and the other in Welsh, and only recently (at the beginning of December) the Federation of Scottish Theatre decided to lobby the new Parliament about the setting up of a Scottish National Theatre.

The Arts Council of England went through all kinds of convulsions during the year as it reorganised itself, becoming leaner and slimmer, and devolving more funding responsibilities to the Regional Arts Boards, who weren't always entirely happy with what they received. It was - probably - a better year for ACE, although it was one which began very badly, as our feature ACE: The Disaster Movie showed!

The Big Companies

At the end of the year the Royal Opera House re-opened - late! The sad saga of this major institution continued right up to the bitter end when the first performance in the newly opened, state-of-the-art Covent Garden theatre had to be cancelled because of technical problems. Now the House has to prove itself and become much less elitist or risk losing much of the funding which has kept it afloat.

The RSC began to climb back up the slippery financial slope it had been sliding down. By the end of 1998 it had a deficit of a quarter of a million pounds, but by February it received a one-off grant of £600,000 from ACE; in March it was announced that its production of Richard III at the Savoy had taken over £1m; and at the end of April Allied Domecq renewed its £1.1m sponsorship. By mid-November the deficit had been reduced to £100,000, although it does have the worry of having to find a new sponsor, after AD let it be known in September that they would discontinue their sponsorship in 2001.

The Royal National Theatre continued to be the most successful of the major companies and its major worry, a long-running pay dispute with BECTU which had begun in '98, was settled at the end of July. ACAS, the conciliation service, ruled in favour of the union and this cost the theatre an estimated £30,000.

One of its major artistic successes of the year was the Beckett Festival which saw all of his nineteen plays performed to great critical and public acclaim. In an entirely different field, its hugely successful Oklahoma! also got a TV airing on Sky in September.

Musicals

1999 was a bad year for musicals, seeing the closure of the long-running but ailing Miss Saigon, of Rent, Saturday Night Fever, and Great Balls of Fire, whilst Simon Callow's production of The Pajama Game took a real panning from the critics and also put up the shutters early.

On the other hand, Disney's The Lion King arrived with a roar and was almost immediately declared Theatrical Event of the Year at the 1999 Evening Standard Awards.

It seems that no one could agree on the best musical of the year, or at least none of the award making bodies could. For the Critics' Circle it was the National's Oklahoma! (which the Olivier judges made Outstanding Musical Production although they chose Kat and the Kings as best new musical), whereas the Barclays judges chose Birmingham Rep's Fourteen Songs, Two Weddings and a Funeral and the Evening Standard chose Spend! Spend! Spend!.

(It should be noted, however, that the Critics Circle and Olivier Awards are really based on the previous year, and that the Barclays Awards are for regional theatre.)

Cats, of course, continued to pull in the crowds in the West End and on tour, and Les Mis and Phantom toured to large enthusiastic audiences. Joseph continued its seemingly unending succession of national tours - and a new video was launched, but it was not as successful as the Cats video released the previous year. Bob Carlton's Olivier winner Return to the Forbidden Planet had yet another successful tour and has become a staple of youth and school theatre.

Cameron Mackintosh celebrated thirty years as a producer, and we saw yet another attempt to revive Martin Guerre!

And just a week or so back Phantom of the Opera was revealed to be the biggest earning musical ever. Having cost £3m when it premiered in 1986, it has gone on to earn over £1.82 billion. It has been seen by more than 50 million people in 91 cities in 15 countries around the world, and productions are soon to open in Belgium and Mexico, which means there will be nine productions running. Still playing at Her Majesty's, it is approaching 5,500 performances in London alone.

Now a film version is being planned, and it is rumoured that Antonio Banderas will play the lead, something which has infuriated Michael Crawford fans everywhere, for it was Crawford who created the role - and, incidentally, became an international star as a result of it. The other original lead was Sarah Brightman.

Man of the Millennium

BBC Radio 4 listeners voted Shakespeare as "Man of the Millennium", quite a surprise in many ways, when you consider how many scientists' work has revolutionised our lives and how many political and social reformers have improved the quality of our lives. On the other hand, it does show the amazing power that great drama can have over the lives of everyone, even those who never set foot inside a theatre.

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