The Great Plague and the Puritans didn’t quite manage to finish off theatre, although the stage did go dark for decades. At the current rate, current government might just manage to go one better.
Having seen Oliver Dowden’s long-awaited roadmap to save live theatre, this writer was confused to say the least.
It looked like the kind of botched job that the work experience trainee (almost certainly the boss’s inept son or daughter) would come up with regarding a project about which the boss has no interest.
The irony is immense. Having last week proudly boasted that his government had created a roadmap, on Twitter yesterday the Minister who was supposed to be on top of things literally announced that “I understand the deep anxiety of those working in music & the desire to see fixed dates for reopening I am pushing hard for these dates & to give you a clear roadmap back These involve v difficult decisions about the future of social distancing, which we know has saved lives”.
The italics are those of the writer, who was nonplussed by the assertion that the man who has just provided a roadmap is about to provide a roadmap. Perhaps he can explain what he means because it isn’t clear to me.
It is increasingly looking as if Oliver Dowden and the Department for Culture Media and Sport are, in keeping with so much else in this government, more interested in soundbites and chances to meet famous people than saving an industry that employs 290,000 people (a figure quoted by Sir Mark Rylance on The Today Programme today), without even considering the cultural damage that the destruction will do to the country.
The idea that Lord Lloyd Webber’s South Korean Phantom of the Opera solution, involving massive expense for each theatre for a system that may not work, is a panacea should be regarded as a diversion from the real problem.
It might just help the London Palladium to reopen but then again… At least it gave the Minister the chance to rub shoulders (not literally one hopes) with a famous person and get a great photo opportunity.
At the other end of the scale, increasing numbers of theatres are closing forever, large numbers of redundancies becoming a sad reality, while freelancers have no financial support and are presumably feeding themselves on meaningless statements from ministers.
The cynical could ponder on the appointment as cultural supremo of someone whose career has involved no previous interaction with the arts at all, even if he does enjoy the occasional trip to a high-profile musical and saw One Man Two Guvnors on TV.
Being David Cameron’s right-hand man must have been fun but, along with stints at the Cabinet office and as Paymaster General, is hardly an ideal background when it comes to understanding one of the country’s most successful industries.
It certainly looks as if he doesn’t understand the underlying culture that is needed to breed a Hamilton or, for that matter, a James Bond movie built around those who have trained in theatre.
There must be every chance that Mr Dowden’s heart is in the right place, although it is also possible that he is desperately awaiting transfer to a higher profile department in which his skills will be better appreciated.
The most worrying and surprising aspect of this story is the failure of Mr Dowden, Rishi Sunak or a Prime Minister who, whether you love or hate his policies, prances around in front of a camera like a second-rate stand-up comedian, to appreciate the financial aspects of killing off theatre forever.
An audience that understands theatre will already be well versed in the numbers, if only because they have been touted in this column and elsewhere so often, understanding that the positive impact of the arts on the country’s GDP are astounding, while the cost of making 290,000 people plus those in secondary industries redundant will be eye-watering.
This is the time for Mr Dowden to stand up and prove that his appointment was something more than a sinecure. It is quite possible that he really does want to help the arts but, if that is the case, then he needs to pop round the corner to the Treasury, demand an audience (at 2m range) with Mr Sunak and make the case for the resurrection of theatre, music and all other live arts before it is too late.