As part of its investigations into the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the DCMS Select Committee interviewed three representatives of the cultural industries.

Of greatest interest to the theatre community will be the evidence given by Julian Bird, CEO of UK Theatre and Society of London Theatre (SOLT). He was interviewed by four committee members of whom the Chair, Julian Knight, was the most significant in terms of volume of questioning and time.

The following points should have provided the committee and the government with plenty of ammunition should they feel the need to take desperately required action. In particular, it was noted that, since around 80% of theatre revenues derives from live performances, they have been particularly hard-hit by the current crisis. It was agreed that, should the 2m social distancing legislation continue, the average theatre will only be able to accommodate 20% to 25% of audience capacity.

Despite rumours that Julian Knight had heard suggesting that, should the limitation be reduced to 1m, up to 60% to 70% of capacity might be achieved, Julian Bird said that, based on detailed research in the UK and overseas, such a change would still only enable a figure of 30% to 35%. This was primarily because every other row in any theatre would need to be vacant.

Using the figure quoted by Sonia Friedman in her impassioned Daily Telegraph article, Bird confirmed that 70% of theatres were likely to go out of business by the end of year if there were no changes to public policy or circumstances. He observed that the UK’s 1,100 theatres are cultural assets employing 290,000 people and that 50% are run by charities or trusts. He could not keep a smile off his face as he reminded committee members that each year there are 84 million visits to theatres in the UK, far in excess of the number of attendees that football matches. The income generated is estimated to be £1.28 bn.

Theatre closures would not only damage the industry irreparably, but there will be economic spill over since studies have shown that venues generate 5–6 times their own income in expenditure around the local area, for example in pubs and restaurants. Already, the Nuffield in Southampton and Haymarket in Leicester have disappeared forever, while the Birmingham Hippodrome has recently announced substantial staff lay-offs. More theatres will undoubtedly follow in the very near future unless precipitate action is taken.

The 14-day quarantine for overseas visitors to the UK is also likely to be very damaging since one third of West End theatregoers come from overseas. The high London congestion charge and its extension will also have a noticeable impact.

As Julian Knight identified, it is not just the theatres themselves that will suffer in near future, since one of the first expenses to be cut is likely to be outreach work in the local community. This helps the disadvantaged and also provides cultural opportunities for those who may never otherwise have contact with the arts.

When asked, Julian Bird identified three urgent areas in which support was required.

  1. Finance was required to protect the workforce. In particular, many freelancers, who represent approximately 50% of those working in the industry, have had little or no financial support.
  2. It is vital to promote a recovery, as this will assist the theatres themselves but also their long supply chains, which can include areas such as set builders.
  3. There was also a need to safeguard the future. This might come in the form of grants, tax reliefs or a cultural investment fund.

Julian Bird was passionate in his enthusiasm for an investment fund, which could potentially provide returns for government and be linked into the efforts of philanthropists wishing to support the industry. This chimes with the widely held and propagated view that the theatre industry is a world leader providing significant economic returns to the UK.

As part of the government’s approach, Julian Bird suggested that enhancing theatre tax relief from its current 20% to 25% level for active producers and widening its availability might be a step in the right direction. A minor but potentially important measure that will also need to be considered is the need to ensure that insurance cover can be provided against any future closure of theatres.

An issue identified during the questioning by Kevin Brennan was the realisation that productions in the Christmas period can provide 40% to 50% of the year’s profits, although this varies depending on the nature of the theatres and productions. In particular, those creating their own pantomimes for long runs could be very badly damaged.

The theory that open-air theatres might be better placed to restart was received with some caveats. First, it is probably too late to rescue the summer seasons in 2020. Secondly, researchers have apparently shown that the virus does not spread uniformly in different open-air environments. This means that stadium type theatres are not necessarily as safe as one might imagine, while those that are completely open may be able to operate more effectively and sooner.

In addition to the contributions by Julian Bird, Horace Trubridge General Secretary of the Musicians Union and Caroline Norbury MBE, CEO of the Creative Industries Federation had their say. The latter was keen to see an extension of employment and self-employment support schemes (furlough and equivalents) specifically directed towards the creative industries, pointing out the ways in which artists have a major economic impact beyond their narrow areas, for example citing designers at Jaguar Land Rover who have learned their skills in the artistic environment.