Letters of the week
UK dearth raises fears for future
New polling by YouGov has revealed that opinion formers (68%) and the public (40%) both agree that the top priority for arts funding should be widening access. When asked what areas should be most protected from cuts, ballet and contemporary dance came bottom of the list (with 9% of opinion formers and 5% of UK adults asked choosing this), closely followed by opera (12% and 3%). In a period of continuing cuts, this does not bode well for longer-term funding.
London has no shortage of commercial and publicly funded ballet, while the rest of the country gets very little. This is despite English National Ballet reaching Bristol, Milton Keynes, Oxford, Liverpool, Manchester and Southampton with major works; Birmingham Royal Ballet visiting Belfast, Dublin, Manchester and Dublin; and Northern Ballet adding Bradford, Canterbury, Newcastle, Nottingham, Norwich, Sheffield and Woking to the list of towns getting a taste of its work.
Most of the country is untouched by ballet. The national companies have strength in depth. In the interests of widening access, much could be done by taking scaled-down or chamber-style ballets and educational events to hard-to-reach and smaller venues, particularly in disadvantaged regions. You couldn’t take the 60 ENB swans from the Royal Albert Hall, but you could take 12 dancers to perform Petite Mort, and much could be done with masterclasses and similar events.
I fear for the level of future funding if the public remains so untouched by ballet.
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Pre-empt shock with preparation
The pages of your publication often feature stories of fringe venue managements being asked to vacate their premises by their landlords, most recently in the case of the Union Theatre. Each eviction notice is met with a suitably theatrical level of dismay although in few, if any cases, does there appear to be any suggestion that the landlord has broken any legal agreement with their tenant.
To avoid history repeating itself again, venue managements should study the terms of their lease and, if their position is precarious, they should pro-actively discuss their concerns with their landlord and request further security. If the landlord is not prepared to commit to the tenant’s ongoing occupation of their premises, then the venue management should either create a pre-emptive business strategy for implementation in the event of eviction or acknowledge the potential expiration date on their operations.
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Thank goodness for touring shows
I was sad but not surprised to read of Rochelle Gale’s disappointing preview-booking experience (Stage Talk, June 20, page 8). Like Rochelle and her friends, my husband and I will no longer travel to London to see live shows.
Our passion is musical theatre, and we see some shows over and over again. Years ago it was quite easy to drive into the West End and find a parking space. However, it seems the powers that be are now hell-bent on deterring people from driving into London with the congestion charges, limited car parking and extortionate fees. Travelling on the mainline train and the tube is time-consuming, and so many times we have arrived at Euston station to catch a train back to Hertfordshire only to find it cancelled or delayed. This is also a very costly way to travel.
Expensive restaurants and theatre bars – not to mention ticket prices themselves – mean a night at the theatre for two costs in the region of £150 at best.
The solution we have found is to go to one of the excellent theatres in the suburbs – for example, Wycombe Swan, Milton Keynes Theatre and the Theatre Royal in Windsor – which host fantastic touring productions. All these are within a 70-minute car journey, parking near the theatres is cheap or even free, restaurants – many of which are geared to serve theatregoers – are within walk of the theatres, and ticket prices are much more reasonable.
This year alone, we have seen truly memorable tour productions of Blood Brothers, Starlight Express, The Phantom of the Opera, Evita and The Great Gatsby (ballet). With Cats coming soon – sitting on the front row of the upper circle for £14.75 – we are looking forward to more productions this year.
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We’ve lost walk-on’s great fighter
I would like to add a personal tribute to your obituary of Michael Earl (May 23, page 45) in respect of the work he did as an Equity councillor and a member of various committees over nearly 60 years.
Michael was particularly emphatic that walk-on acting work should be offered only to professional performers. He was equally concerned with working conditions – around 1982, he spoke out at the Equity annual general meeting against the use of dense, dry ice and agricultural fertiliser to create fog on a TV studio set. The latter, in particular, was a grave danger to health and was soon banned.
Today, work outside London for walk-ons is still prone to ‘expenses only’ remuneration. Michael would always speak out whenever such cases came to light, insisting that at the very least everybody had to be paid the national minimum wage.
Michael was one of the founders of the walk-on committee and served as vice-chair until its demise. He was elected to council numerous times until he was in his 80s, which showed that the values of professionalism he stood for appealed to younger generations too.
Several years ago, Michael was paralysed by MRSA, caught when he had a hernia operation. This brought an end to his stage career – he was in the middle of a run of Romeo and Juliet with the Royal Ballet at the time. He spent a year in hospitals, and with incredible physical strength and determination was able to walk enough to get out and continue to attend Equity meetings.
But his opposition to the way the union was being run, not least the continual changing of the rule book by referenda, brought him much opposition. Equity actually took legal advice in relation to him. Michael was bitterly upset by this, and was in tears when he told me about it – not because of what the lawyers might say, but because anyone at Equity could conceive that, having spent all his working life serving the union, he would ever take it to court.
Last year, Equity decided to abolish the walk-on committee. Everything Michael had done to support walk-on actors to improve their pay and status was felled in one blow. Michael’s fighting spirit was exhausted. ‘’Bugger them all,’’ he said to me, and set about destroying his Equity papers going back 50 years.
Michael was a professional of the old school. On stage, he struck a dominant figure and was a fine partner to work with. In the dressing room he would be good fun with a ready laugh, and he was a mine of information on old films and actors and productions of the past.
Michael will be remembered with great fondness by all the actors who knew him at the Royal Opera House, and by his many friends in Equity and elsewhere.
Barnum’s spirit is what it’s about
Nick Smurthwaite’s article on PT Barnum (Showbiz’s first PR man, May 23, page 44) took me back to my early days, when I joined Granada Theatres straight from school as an office assistant.
Under Sidney Bernstein’s leadership, it was de rigueur for a portrait of Phineas T Barnum to be on the wall of head office in Golden Square and on every manager’s office, to remind us all that we were in showbusiness.
I moved into television at Granada, where the portraits of PT Barnum continued.
As I grow older, I fear that the accountants and administrators have lost the Barnum ethic, or lack an understanding of our business.
All the best to the Chichester revival of the Barnum musical.
William G Gilbert