Playwright James Graham has become the latest theatre figure to call for government intervention to help the industry survive the coronavirus crisis.
Appearing on BBC One’s Question Time, Graham made the case for specific support to help theatre and its workforce weather the months of closure ahead.
While many parts of society will be reopening, theatre will be among the last to restart operations, Graham argued, adding that social distancing offers “no real, viable” solution to get audiences safely back into theatres.
“They would have to be 20% full if you did the measures, and they need to be about 80% full in order to sustain themselves economically. So that’s just a problem, because the cultural sectors are so profitable. It’s not like this is the 1970s and we’re bailing out industries that are not profitable,” he said.
Graham said a government support package should not be seen as a bailout “because it really is an investment”, and would support an industry that “can contribute substantially to the revitalising and the reopening of Britain”.
“The money we need to cover this shortfall until we open is almost instantly paid back in the annual tax revenue and the VAT. In London alone, tourists bring in £2 billion of cash every year specifically for London theatre,” he said.
Graham, whose plays include This House and Quiz, recently adapted for ITV, warned that many theatres may not be able to open fully and confidently until this time next year.
“So what we need is more flexibility for the job retention scheme for sectors that will have zero income for many months, and unfortunately yes, we do have to start asking for an investment package that will allow us to bridge this gap in the short term between not being able to open and being able to open all guns blazing,” he said.
One in every two people in Britain attend a play or a musical each year, Graham said, and he argued that those who are not theatregoers still enjoy the benefits of theatre talent in British films and TV dramas, which have “entertained and provided mental health and well-being to a nation in lockdown”.
“There is so much to be celebrating and such a global thirst for British content and British stories in all their wonderful modern mixed identity. It’s all connected. I come from theatre, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who sold Fleabag to the world, comes from theatre. You will start to notice a difference if we can’t be saved. 70% of British theatre will be closed by Christmas and we won’t be able to reopen,” Graham said.
Graham’s appearance on Question Time came on the day that several major theatre figures ramped up calls for government support.
Producer Sonia Friedman has said the industry is on the brink of “total collapse”, while SOLT chief executive Julian Bird asked the government to work with the sector and put money “into a world-leading industry that is at risk of failing”.
Telegraph columnist Camilla Tominey, who was also a panellist on Question Time, said theatre had been “cast adrift” during the pandemic, and left “in complete limbo”, not knowing when work will be able to begin again.
She called for more clarity over timelines and for the government to offer provisional target dates for reopening, as it has for other services such as restaurants, retailers and hairdressers.
The panellists also included former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham and Conservative justice minister Chris Philp.
When asked whether the government would consider specific support for theatre, Philp recommended employers make use of the furlough and loan schemes that are available, and pointed to the government’s new taskforce, which was set up this week to help sectors such as entertainment develop plans for reopening.
“Clearly the arts sector is among the most difficult to restart for obvious reasons and this taskforce is designed to address exactly these issues.
“But as the science improves and we get to the antibody testing, and that antibody testing is rolled out and there is some level of immunity, which we hope there will be, people who have those antibodies probably can go to the theatre. So I think science can really help us get through this, and in the meantime that taskforce is there to help with exactly what James has raised,” he said.