August 1979 | The Most Unkindest Cut of All

First published in Plays and Players

The march through London's West End on 24 July (1979) was a high-spirited and invigorating experience. At least 4,000 members of British Actors' Equity were on parade, representing every theatre in the country. I was under the Criterion Theatre's banner with the cast of Bent, who were reinforced by the box-office and stage staff and by our manager, Ian Albery. At a brief rally at the Opera House in Covent Garden, its director John Tooley welcomed us all; Trevor Nunn was there with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Peter Hall cabled his support from the National Theatre. Such unity of workers and employers, of commercial and subsidised theatres, was an example to other troubled industries. But then, we had an urgent case to present to the House of Commons, where the day ended as we lobbied our Members of Parliament.

Our case had three compartments.

  1. Value Added Tax is now levied at 15% on all theatre tickets. In most Common Market countries, VAT is reduced for the arts—in West Germany, the theatre is zero-rated.
  2. The current year's grant to all the arts via the Arts Council has been cut by £1.5 million—an unprecedented (not to say immoral) government action, almost certainly in preparation for a wholesale reduction in real terms of next year's grant.
  3. Local government spending is to be immediately reduced — affecting all regional theatres which are subsidised from the rates.

The government argues that these three were all promised in their election manifesto and that they must plan the nation's economy. But VAT and their cuts are entirely negative and no more resemble responsible planning than Lego resembles full-scale architecture.

I hope there is no longer any need to explain that the Theatre ought to be subsidised as, I suppose, it has been ever since 1604, when James I gave his patronage to the King's Men, who included Richard Burbage and William Shakespeare. One measure of a civilised society is the freedom and cheapness with which it encourages ideas to be communicated. (In Britain, rightly, no VAT is levied on the sale of literature—hence the anomaly of tax-free Shakespeare or Stoppard in the bookshops and a 15% addition to every ticket bought to see them in the theatres.) Accept the principle (and, in almost all situations, the necessity) of subsidy and alternative plans present themselves.

For instance, the Workers' Revolutionary Party (led in Equity by Corin and Vanessa Redgrave) advocate the nationalisation of all theatres. On the other hand, Mrs Thatcher (whose strongest supporters in Equity sit on its Council) expects industry and rich philanthropists to patronise selective theatrical enterprises. But she has not yet authorised the tax relief (on the American system) which alone would encourage this patronage, nor can anyone imagine that it would go where it is most needed, to the small and the struggling. The Thatcher roof is leaky. And the Redgraves are yet to define how their nationalisation would work in practice and how they would guard against censorship of original work and experiment. Lego planning again.

Both these extreme alternatives are barbarous if you agree with me that the glory of the British Theatre shines in its diversity. This variety—geographical and artistic—has, since the war, been protected, encouraged and housed by Arts Council funds, free from political censorship and, as far as possible (which is not always), independent of any oppressively established attitude. It was disheartening, therefore, that of all the Regional Arts Associations, only one should openly approve of Equity's march and that the central offices of the Arts Council, when we passed them by in Piccadilly, should be guarded by a double phalanx of policemen. As the President of Equity asked our rally: *What did they think we were going to do?'

The national theatre of Great Britain isn't truly the South Bank theatres. Rather, it spreads across the nation from Stratford-upon-Avon to Glasgow Citizens and Bristol Old Vie, from a tour of the Highlands to a summer season on the south coast. It encompasses the oldest classic and the newest outrage. And it is all interdependent. Actors can traverse the whole range. I, for instance, have managed in this last year to do Shakespeare, Chekov, a one-man show and a new American play, working under the patronage of the Arts Council and private industry, for the Royal Shakespeare Company in London and on tour, and for the Royal Court, ending up in the commercial West End. But for how much longer will actors lucky enough to be offered such a variety of work accept the financial uncertainties of, say, a regional tour with its inadequate living allowance, or a repertory season at £70 a week, or even a West End play, when only one in five run long enough to cover production costs? Even without the present VAT and cuts, actors, directors and, worst of all, playwrights, will stick with the telly and its certain money.

All theatre-people suffer, and so do theatregoers. Combined, we are a tiny percentage of the population and too easily ignored by new governments, even by cultured arts ministers. But consider what is already happening.

In the commercial West End, only long-running successes can support VAT. One impresario, it is rumoured, is about to go bankrupt. Others will look to past hits and flinch from the challenge of attracting new audiences with new work. There are only nine straight plays in the West End. In the subsidised sector, the National has dropped the directing job it had planned for Bill Gaskill and the RSC can't proceed with its third auditorium at Stratford. Fringe companies, theatre-in-education, any group with a new idea to experiment with, will find it increasingly difficult to wrest even tiny grants from the Arts Council. Expensive touring will decrease. Under-used theatres will house underpaid companies. Lego reigns: not OK.

It is a doleful prospect—for actors, literally so—threatening our cultural heritage. If you want to avoid it, write to your Member of Parliament urging him to help remove VAT from theatre tickets and to support an increase in next year's Arts Council grant. In the meantime, keep going to the theatre and appreciate what, quite soon, you might be missing. — Ian McKellen

Ian McKellen and Tom Bell stars of Bent with the show's company passing the Criterion in Piccadilly Circus, Photo by Donald Cooper

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