As this column was being drafted, statistics prepared by Imperial College hit the headlines suggesting that the pandemic is becoming as prevalent in almost every region of the UK as well as across Europe, where many countries are closing down again.
While the UK government is resisting this route, it seems to be almost inevitable that before too long there will be a need for a national lockdown of some sort, even if it is dressed up as a series of local initiatives which link up. Inevitably, that begs the question as to what will happen to theatres. While England has not imposed a blanket closure, unlike Scotland and several other European countries, there is no guarantee that this situation will continue, as infection rates and deaths rise at terrifying speed.
As Nica Burns, amongst others, has regularly reminded government committees, the media and those in the industry, one of the problems that she faces while reopening her theatres is the risk that all of the effort and expense could come to nothing. She no doubt still has nightmares about that terrible day in mid-March when West End theatres were closed at around one hour’s notice following a prime ministerial TV appearance.
Following the recent rounds of funding announcements in which Arts Council England has begun to distribute government grants, with loans to follow for the largest theatres and other arts organisations, a strange congruence has become apparent. First, many of the recipients have issued press releases including almost identical wording, lavishly praising the efforts of Arts Council England, culture minister Oliver Dowden and sometimes the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
While no theatre has a right to government support, as this column has pointed out so often, the Chancellor could easily regard this as a commercial decision that will, in the long-term, be to the economic benefit of UK PLC, without even considering the immense social benefits that theatre can offer at a time of crisis.
A second level of correlation is also appearing. It does seem that, whether overtly or otherwise, the government / Arts Council England seems to favour, if not actively sponsor, theatrical activity during the lockdown. This might seem odd, given that every play which is produced indoors at present is going to be running at a loss, although at least on the plus side, many productions will give short-term employment to individuals and income to at least a small number of the self-employed.
While the powers that be are happy to act as shadow co-producers—indeed, if angels (whoever would have thought of Boris Johnson’s government as an angel) were operating in this way in New York, they would probably be somewhere quite high up on the list of 20 or more names above the title on almost every Broadway production—they are not going far enough.
Putting all of these factors together, you still come up against a brutal fact. If the pandemic does gain further ground and theatres are closed, then all of these efforts will literally come to nothing. Theatres could find themselves insolvent and forced to close either temporarily or forever, more employees will become ex-employees, while the self-employed will be in even direr straits.
The missing link here is insurance to guarantee that if theatres are forced to close and have to repay all of the ticket money, at the very least, someone will underwrite the loss. This won’t be commercial insurance companies, which would not be so stupid as to insure a risk that is not too far from a racing certainty.
Ironically, to date the only sign of risk offset that has been apparent from Oliver Dowden and co. has gone to those who, with all due respect, may not be the neediest. Arts Council England has agreed to pay for all empty seats resulting from social distancing requirements for Pantoland at the London Palladium. If the worst comes to the worst and is abandoned, then one wonders whether Lord Lloyd Webber and Qdos have had the good sense to write a clause into the contract ensuring that this will be every seat in the theatre if the show cannot go on.
Now is the time for the government to step up to the mark and offer this kind of cancellation insurance to all of the shows that they have encouraged, either via Arts Council England or directly. In doing so, they really would be offering a much-needed degree of protection to our beleaguered industry and might even persuade more producers to take a chance on opening shows to brighten all of our lives in the dark days of winter.