Britain’s most prolific pantomime producer has warned of the grave impacts for theatres if the vital Christmas season is lost, appealing to government to provide clarity and guidance by this time next month.
Michael Harrison said the cancellation of pantomimes and other Christmas productions could devastate the wider industry, solidifying swathes of redundancies and impacting thousands of freelancers that depend on pantomime work, as well as cutting off life-saving income for theatres around the UK.
He welcomed the news of the £1.57 billion rescue package for UK culture, but said it must be accompanied by a timeline for reopening venues and specific guidance around health and safety.
The producer also criticised comments made by Oliver Dowden on BBC Radio 4 this morning, in which the culture secretary suggested that pantomimes represent "a huge transmission risk". Harrison said he is yet to have any communication with government or Public Health England about the specific health risks.
Harrison, who co-owns production company Qdos Entertainment, has set the government a deadline of August 3 to confirm ’no earlier than’ dates for the reopening of theatres. He said this time frame offers "absolutely the shortest time to get the production process going".
Without clear guidance by early August, Harrison said pantomimes across the country – including the 34 being produced by Qdos – would be left without enough time to mount performances for Christmas.
"Having these theatres closed from March of course is a disaster in itself, but if it continues beyond Christmas, and therefore there are no pantomimes, I just think the consequences are far greater than we could ever imagine," Harrison told The Stage.
For many theatres, the festive period is their most lucrative, providing ticket income that sustains organisations throughout the rest of the year, and Harrison warned that without it, some venues could be plunged further into crisis.
"It really is that important. Not everywhere has subsidy from Arts Council England or the local authority, so pantomime becomes the subsidy. Pantomime becomes the thing that means education work can happen, that means outreach work can happen and that means the theatre can host things that don’t necessarily appeal to a mass audience but nevertheless should be seen. Pantomime can help pay for that," he said.
It also provides a livelihood for thousands of freelance workers, many of whom Harrison acknowledged had been "forgotten and neglected" during the pandemic.
"To remove that income from Christmas for them is disastrous. The sheer number of jobs and the amount of money that goes into those pockets can’t be ignored," he said.
Its loss could also impact the redundancy situation that many theatres find themselves in as a result of the ongoing closure.
"If there’s no panto then those redundancies absolutely go ahead, I’m sure of it, but if there is a pantomime, it gives some kind of a hint that we may be able to save some jobs. So clinging on to pantomime is important," Harrison said.
If the government offers ’no earlier than’ dates for reopening theatres – in the same way it did for the hospitality industry and Premier League football – Harrison said he could then make crucial decisions around them for Qdos’ productions, which include the London Palladium pantomime and more than 30 others around the UK.
"At least [restaurants] can work out their own map. We’re not even able to do that. We’re just trying to work in the dark and that’s incredibly difficult.
"But I’m not just saying this for pantomime, I want the roadmap for theatre. If we were able to get the Palladium pantomime on, then there will be other West End shows that would do the same. Pantomime would be part of rejuvenating the sector," he said.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Dowden said he would "love us to get to a point where we could have Christmas pantomimes back", but warned that it "looks challenging".
"The challenges are, first of all you’ve got from granny to grandchild, you’ve got kids shouting and screaming ’is he behind you?’ and all the other stuff we love doing. It’s highly interactive, there’s usually bubble soap being chucked around and whatever else. All of those represent huge transmission risks," the culture secretary said.
Responding to Dowden’s comments, Harrison said he was concerned by the culture secretary’s "sweeping statements".
"I don’t know what he means by ’bubble soap’. If he meant what we would determine as a slapstick slosh scene, why is he making statements like that and not saying to us ’don’t use those things’.
"It would be terrific if somebody from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport or Public Health England, if that’s where the concerns are coming from, had a conversation with the specialist pantomime industry about what the cans and can’ts, dos and don’ts would be. They’ve never said that to us.
"If they said, could you open with this criteria and we couldn’t, then we couldn’t, but at least we could have been offered the opportunity to answer those questions," he said.