Britten at the Coliseum or 2 for 1 cocktails at a Slug and Lettuce?

Written by Dan Shute, 24.

In light of Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak’s recent suggestive remarks that those in entertainment roles simply aren’t fit for purpose and therefore better off “finding a fresh new opportunity,” it would be reasonable to assume that our government may not have all of its citizens in its best interest. This steep decline in support is seeing artists being forced out of a living; taking their craft and talent with them and leaving the white collar workers clutching only their Kindles and phones like new-age fossils of a time that could be irreparably be lost.

For all the glaring faux pas our ‘British common sense’ often makes abundantly clear to the rest of the world, it’s encouraging to hear rightful indignation from the wider public regarding the apparent preferential treatment one sector’s receiving compared to another. Obviously excluding, shocking as it seems, the great unwashed who marched on Trafalgar Square a few weekends ago, brandishing crudely drawn placards of Bill Gates as a child molester.

Where art feeds the soul, a £3 Wetherspoons pint feeds little more than the pockets of Tim Martin and the UK’s wider habits for excessive drinking. At a time where physical and mental health is paramount, emphasis should be directed at systems that will stimulate and improve one’s wellbeing, not contribute further to the UK’s chronic obesity and alcoholism epidemic. It goes without saying that I enjoy infrequently indulging like many, but the collective government-led campaigning to promote inapt festivities like Super Saturday is testament to where their priorities lie. It’s not your health.

The latest fiscal analysis of the music and alcohol industries would correctly highlight that the latter contributes approximately nine times more to the UK’s GDP than the former, meaning those figures alone would be enough to tempt any acquisitive government seek to re-energise the economy with little perspicacity or imagination. But the arguments fall short the minute one cares to hold a mirror up to our ministers.

Film director and producer Sam Mendes put it to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden recently in saying, “how is it (referring to seated audiences at cinemas or theatres) different from sitting next to someone in a metal tube for eight hours on a plane? It’s not different, it’s a matter of personal choice.” To which Mr Dowden’s answer was plainly, “they (the UK Government) will not be contemplating further easement soon.” Oh… well there we have it, folks. Not even a scintilla of a hint that a classic Tory u-turn might be imminent.

In fairness, there were early plans to open stages in the West End with a reduced capacity; maximising the space between those seated, but ultimately keeping theatre as it should be – live! Though most productions, particularly of those in Leicester Square, quickly did the maths and concluded they’d barely be able to cover overheads if such a strategy was implemented. And now with rising cases being recorded each day, the likelihood of this occurring in any form seems slim to none – thus a balance needs to be struck.

A live performance in any form, touches upon physiological and psychological sense that its prerecorded counterparts simply cannot match. But we’re a species of technophiles, easily attached to our digital extensions of ourselves; embracing anything that allows us to feel connected without the encumbrance of having to actually be in that physical space. So the National Theatre saw their niche early into lockdown and broadcasted a series of prerecorded performances on YouTube for free each week for sixteen weeks between April and July. This is where a short term revival could be practiced; utilising burried companies to assist with the safe filming could prove enormously valuable for the industry.

Broadcasting a limited number of screenings each week from the theatre to platforms like YouTube or similar, and charging an equivalent fee to view the performance may indeed be a short term solution. This would of course require an amount of trialing to see whether it will actually garner enough interest to make it financially sustainable. Sporting events for more than thirty years have made full usage of the pay per view model to air content to private telecast providers; as well as debates from the Royal Society, Intelligence Squared and Science Museums all having shows screened to remote viewers for a nominal fee during lockdown.

Having been to the Vortex jazz club in Dalston in February, I was greeted with an exceedingly spacious array of individual tables arranged across the main floorspace. Now thinking back to that evening, they had a pre-covid model that cracked the 2m guideline and Rule of Six without even realising it. And I had a fabulous evening – even though my date stood me up (tragic, I know)! Open air cinemas too have also been flocked in great swathes by the general public during the marginally safer summer months; though marketing and the day’s weather likely played a large part in guaranteeing its success. A stage show in the fresh air, albeit with a reduced stage setup, lighting and music, would give fans something rather than nothing at all.

This is not by any stretch of the imagination a cut and dry argument I’m putting forward, as there have been far more pragmatic recourses made public long before I decided to put pen to paper. But when you look at the cold hard numbers, the disparity in treatment between one professional field and another is patently unjustified. Incessantly pandering to an industry that makes up 6% of the UK’s workforce, while its media and creative equivalents continue to employ a significant 3.5% - excluding freelancers which could increase this figure by a further 1.5 points – seems scarily obtuse.

Whether we care to admit it or not, art kept all of us sane probably more in the first three months of lockdown than they did for the entirety of last year. And although most of the media we were consuming was prerecorded in one form or another, we continue to rely on creatives to lose ourselves in imagination and escape from the unpleasantries the real world offers in bulk. I therefore ask readers to take a step back and notice the utter devastation that’s befalling this country of unbridled artistic and cultural precedence. Please, feel wholly unconvinced that our only ‘safe’ recourse is to lampoon creative spaces, but flood public venues only when they contain barstools and a mixologist.

This contribution was written by Dan Shute, 24. Visit his profile here to find out more about the voice behind the words.