Being ambushed on local radio

Eric Greene (Billy Bigelow) and Gillene Butterfield (Julie Jordan) in Carousel by Opera North in 2012. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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As the fall-out from the allocation of Arts Council funding continues to ripple across the land, as I wrote here yesterday, it's true there has been some wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst some of the losers, and rejoicing amongst the beneficiaries.

But if it is inevitably the case there isn't enough money to go around to make everyone happy, at least I didn't think, until this morning, that it would be necessary to defend the principle of public subsidy at all. Maybe I'm living a sheltered metropolitan life and I'm just been molly-coddled into thinking that it's self-evident that arts funding is A Good Thing for both the cultural and economic life of the country (the arts pays back in VAT receipts far more than it gets out of the public purse, after all, and it's one of our major exports, but those arguments have been rehearsed to death so I don't need to repeat them yet again).

So it was odd to be reminded that there's a world out there that is simply and blindly prejudiced against any form of arts subsidy, when there are other services crying out for funding like schools and hospitals. This morning I came head to head with this viewpoint, when I was asked onto BBC Radio Sheffield's breakfast show, and presenter Toby Foster expressed utter incredulity that the Leeds-based Opera North has had a funding uplift that will now see it in receipt of some £10.4 million.

Only 3% of the population go to the opera, he went on; why should the rest of us subsidise the entertainment of the rich toffs who should be able to afford to pay for it themselves? Opera, of course, is always going to be a minority interest, and the costs of making it are always going to outweigh the possible returns; though as I reminded Mr Foster, opera broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera in New York into cinemas around the country are a great success, so it's hardly as small an interest as he thinks.

It's also about the world he wants to live in. Does he really want Leeds and Sheffield to be a cultural wasteland? I also reminded him of the success of Sheffield Theatres – one of our most important producing theatres in the country now, as witness its win as Regional Theatre of the Year two years running in The Stage 100 Awards – in establishing the city as a major cultural force.

But it's not what he wanted to hear. No, the arts are a drain and strain on already-stretched resources.  It's interesting, of course, that Mr Foster's own job is funded by subsidy. Remove it from the BBC, and he may very well be out of a job.  How many hospital beds could scrapping BBC Radio Sheffield pay for?