On Her Majesty’s secret service to the arts

Simon Tait is a former arts correspondent of The Times and is co-editor of Arts Industry magazine.
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Does royalty matter? I don’t mean the concept of sovereignty, that’s an issue that will always be a matter of opinion. I mean being allowed to carry 'Royal' in your title.

You have to petition for it, and your petition goes to the Cabinet Office and you then have to canvas all the royal institutions in your field of endeavour to see if they have any objection - and they may well - as well as the members of your own institution and when you get it you may not be given any reason why. However worthy you think you might be, the process can take five years or more, and even then there’s no guarantee that you’ll get it – word went out not long ago that that the Her Maj was cutting down on royal institutions.

At the end of November, however, the Central School of Speech and Drama became the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, joining only RADA among acting conservatoires with the title, the first in the performing arts to get it since Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama was accorded the honour in 2002. This time it was apparently a Jubilee year gesture, and since it was conferred student applications have gone up by an astonishing 50%.

Gavin Henderson, the school’s principal, was almost beside himself with glee at the announcement, but managed to control himself with his restrained response: "Central has a powerful history and global standing,” he said. “That history begins with its founder Elsie Fogerty, who believed not only in training for the theatre but in taking drama and poetry to the children of the London slums. Central will continue to build upon this history and champion community engagement in the arts". Chuffed as he may have been, the announcement attracted not a jot of national press interest.

[pullquote]Despite the lack of any publicity for the new name, there has been a phenomenal rise in applications to the school, particularly from abroad, which can only put down to its new royalness[/pullquote]

Yet the National Theatre, which was given the royal name in 1988, has never really bothered to use it, preferring to stick with the more plebeian sounding 'NT'. How the sovereign feels about that is not recorded, but there is reported to have been a decent row over the Royal Court’s name when the Jerwood Foundation came to the rescue of its refurbishment programme.

The story – hotly denied by Jerwood, it must be said, and eliciting no more than a knowing smile from Vikki Heywood who was in charge of the project for the Court at the time – was that the intention was to rename the theatre the Jerwood Royal Court and the unequivocal word came from Buckingham Palace that the theatre could take sponsorship from whomever the trustees chose, but the royal title could never be superseded by a sponsor’s. Jerwood had to be content to have The Jerwood Upstairs for the Court’s studio, however crucial to the theatre’s survival its grant might have been.

Central, Royal Central, has an impressive list of alumni to reel out – Lynn and Vanessea Redgrave, Natasha Richardson, Judi Dench and her daughter Finty, Peggy Ashcroft, Joss Ackland, Laurence and Tamsin Olivier, Cameron Mackintosh. Michael Grandage and so on – but never a royal in its numbers, unlike the Royal College of Art, for instance.

What might have stood it in better stead was that it had had a royal connection when it was founded in 1906, in that it was housed in the Royal Albert Hall what is now the Elgar Room there had been Central’s theatre - and got royal patronage that way, but nothing since. Even more germane might have been that the school’s patron is Princess Alexandra who undoubtedly put a word in, and Central having been a part of the University of London since 2006 its chancellor Princess Anne undoubtedly put her two-penn’orth in too. But in these matters, it is said by that growing army of 'palace watchers', an over-heavy canvassing from within the family circle tends to meet with a monarchical blank wall.

So what good is it? It turns out to be of immense value to Central, at least. What the title does for the school which it wouldn’t necessarily do for the NT is that it conveys an extra step on the rostrum over other drama colleges both here and abroad. So despite the lack of any publicity for the new name, there has been a phenomenal rise in applications to the school, particularly from abroad, which can only put down to its new royalness, against its own trend and very much against the trend of universities around the country, according to the Higher Education Funding Council. And fees are not going up because of it, in case you were wondering.

Central also has a major capital development to roll out as soon as the economy looks more cheerful, and it will be casting around for major sponsors who just might be more impressed by a begging bowl coming from a royal than than a mere central.