A recent press release rather unexpectedly brought to mind some artistic performances from the past.

In the same way that Nero fiddled while Rome burned and the band played on as the Titanic sank, the unbeatable artistic team of HM Government, the Arts Council and some renowned grandees are putting on pantos as the coronavirus pandemic rages.

That is only one of a series of financial anomalies which might do no more than raise an eyebrow, were the state of the theatrical industry not so parlous.

To start with the story that got all the headlines. Lord Lloyd Webber and Qdos, the biggest name in panto, have teamed up to produce a spectacle entitled Pantoland at the London Palladium over the Christmas holiday period.

Those that follow the press might remember a story in the summer about his Lordship meeting our Minister for Culture, Oliver Dowden, to talk about the industry’s prospective demise.

Rather than additional funding across the industry, the upshot is this hopelessly un-economic production. The shtick is that every empty seat is going to be bought by the Arts Council, the body that is very belatedly distributing limited government funding to theatres and other arts institutions of which more below.

Running a few numbers together, some of which are estimated and therefore may be inaccurate, one could make the following assumptions:

  1. The London Palladium has 2,295 seats but only 640 will be sold.
  2. 1,655 seats each night will therefore be paid for by Arts Council England.
  3. An average ticket might well cost £100.
  4. The run lasts three weeks and comprises 38 performances.
  5. Multiplying these together suggests that the total subsidy might be around £6.3 million.

There can be little doubt that many people will have a much-needed good night out watching this production. However, one has to ask whether supporting this venture, when so many are in need whether it is to keep a theatre alive or pay for lunches for schoolchildren during the holidays, is the best use of public funds.

Arts Council England is very busy at the moment. In addition to facilitating the production of a high-profile show in the West End, it has also been distributing cash from its “emergency” fund, as reported in recent weeks.

The irony of this as an “emergency” fund strikes home immediately, when one considers that it has taken seven months to decide who will be getting a share before a further delay until payments can be banked by needy theatres and other cultural institutions.

The general impression from the handouts is that they are chunky but not necessarily life-saving. It is great that the Finborough Theatre received just under £60,000, which is richly deserved. However, it is hard to believe that even a small theatre can survive for a whole year of closure on such a paltry sum.

Inevitably, in an arbitrary exercise of this kind, there will be winners and losers. It is very hard to identify those that have failed to receive a penny, since for obvious reasons Arts Council England does not boast about what might be regarded as its failures.

This means that a lot of hard-working people involved with theatres which give many visitors pleasure up and down the country will be grieving at present as they anticipate the demise of such venues as The Watermill in Newbury, the only theatre which sent out a press release to announce that it has received no funding and has launched its Full House Appeal. It isn’t immediately clear whether it applied and was rejected or knew that it wasn’t worth bothering because the theatre failed to meet the qualifying criteria.

More worrying is a situation in which one small but worthy suburban theatre, which had better remain anonymous, obviously filled in the application form to perfection, finding itself almost at the top of the list of London theatres getting pay-outs, as the recipient of not far short of £800,000 or, to put it into perspective, three times as much as the Donmar Warehouse.

In the ordinary run of things, most arty types would be tempted to say “good luck on you” where someone has managed to get more than their fair share from Arts Council England and the government.

However, these are not ordinary times. If one theatre gets several hundred thousand pounds that do not immediately appear to be justified by its size and status, that could well mean that two or three others go to the wall as a direct consequence.

Given that Arts Council England spent seven months in concocting this scheme and then allocating limited amounts awarded by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, it seems a shame that the powers that be failed to take a little more care over what is literally a life-and-death exercise for some theatres.

On a more positive note, it appears that Rishi Sunak’s latest U-turns replacing the disastrous job support programme with something a little more practical might help some theatres, while according to the Theatres Trust, theatres in Tiers 2 and 3 of the lockdown provisions will be able to apply for a monthly local authority grant of up to £2,100.

The final word comes from Theatres Trust Director Jon Morgan who observes, “it remains the case that most theatres in all areas are unable to reopen viably under social distancing. We therefore urge the Chancellor to implement a sector specific support scheme for theatres and other events spaces which cannot reopen and are rapidly running out of money. This is vital to prevent further job losses on top of the 7,500 plus the industry has already suffered.”