Should public funds be used to prop up West End venues?

The Apollo Theatre in the West End after the accident. Photo: Ryan Forde Iosco.
by -

It is too early to come to any conclusions about what caused part of the Apollo Theatre ceiling to fall. But having been caught in the torrential and unexpected thunderstorm that hit central London on December 19 myself, I’d be surprised if the weather that evening did not turn out to be a factor.

In the meantime, all credit is due to the theatre owners and staff and the rescue services for the way in which this unfortunate incident has been dealt with. Safety checks were immediately carried out across the West End, and Westminster City Council, as the responsible licensing authority, is now undertaking a proper investigation.

Thankfully, there has been no panic cancellation of theatre bookings, and the adage that ‘the show must go on’ stands as true as ever.

The last significant ceiling fall in a West End theatre was back in 1973 at the Shaftesbury Theatre. At the time, the building’s owners wished to demolish it and put up an office block. The campaign to save the Shaftesbury, spearheaded by Equity, was instrumental in safeguarding the future of many theatre buildings. Today, the great majority of theatre owners are in the business for their love of theatre and do not look on their buildings as real estate opportunities. But they face real problems because these days the profit from owning a theatre building is simply not enough to pay for the major refurbishments that are now needed, let alone for any replacements.

One hundred years ago things were different – the Savoy Hotel was built from the profits made from Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas at the Savoy Theatre and theatre ownership was a lucrative business. But during much of the last century many theatre owners had other business interests and, with a few honourable exceptions, their theatres were neglected with just enough done to keep them licensed and open.

The problem has been recognised for many years, going back to a 1959 report for the then Arts Council of Great Britain. Outside London’s West End, most key theatre buildings have long since been taken over by local authorities or are run by charitable trusts or occupied by subsidised companies, all of them eligible for grant aid including funds from the National Lottery. Only in London’s West End is there still a significant collection of theatre buildings owned and run by the private sector.

Inevitably, it is the smaller playhouses that are most vulnerable – the profitability of a 2,000-seat theatre occupied by a successful long-running musical far exceeds that of a 750-seat playhouse; in recent years some theatre owners have effectively subsidised their smaller venues from the profits made on larger ones. But, when it comes to providing the standards of audience comfort and working conditions that are now expected, they cannot begin to compete with operators in the subsidised sector.

Grand Saloon of Theatre Royal Drury Lane after refurbishment

As an example, the one-off lottery grant to enable the 400-seat Royal Court Theatre to be upgraded exceeded the profits made by all four playhouses on Shaftesbury Avenue since the Second World War. The owners of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane claim to have spent £4 million on it – commendable, but only a tenth of what would probably be needed for the sort of makeover recently given to the London Coliseum, home of English National Opera.

These issues were clearly set out 10 years ago by The Theatres Trust with the Society of London Theatre in the Trust’s Act Now! report, and it seemed for a time that a concerted effort supported by the government would be made to address them. Unfortunately, a lukewarm reaction from the then Mayor of London’s office and the successful Olympics bid diverted politicians’ minds, and commercial owners have been left to carry on fending for themselves.

Since 2003, there have been significant changes of ownership in the West End, and additional funds are being raised from audiences through restoration levies on tickets. It is important that this money is spent on tangible improvements that the paying public can appreciate, rather than on routine maintenance. If owners cannot afford to maintain their buildings they should pass them on to others who can. But modernising them is another matter, for which outside aid is surely now justified. We don’t generally expect the private sector to build our libraries or our museums or our swimming pools, at least not without some financial incentive.

The Prince Edward Theatre was refurbished in 1992. Photo: Catherine Gerbrands
The Prince Edward Theatre was refurbished in 1992. Photo: Catherine Gerbrands

The danger now is that people – some of whom ought to know better – will simply throw up their hands in horror, talk about Victorian/Edwardian museum pieces and say it’s all too difficult, or complain that they are not allowed to demolish them. The costs of modernisation are certainly significant, though not as great as putting up a replacement. But there are plenty of examples in London and elsewhere to show what can be done within the constraints of a listed building and given sensitive advice. One has only to look at the Prince Edward and the Prince of Wales theatres, both branded as hopeless cases not so long ago, to see what an enlightened owner (Cameron Mackintosh) spending its own money (made as a producer not as a theatre owner) can achieve. Westminster City Council, English Heritage and my former colleagues at The Theatres Trust have proved themselves hugely sympathetic as well as pragmatic, recognising that the best way to keep a historic building in use is to enable it to adapt and change to meet modern needs.

But if London and UK plc really recognise the importance of Theatreland to the economy and want to maintain it they will need to work with theatre owners and operators to find a solution. Forty years ago, plaster falling from the ceiling of the Shaftesbury helped ensure that our theatres were given statutory protection. Is it too much to hope that the recent incident at the Apollo will draw attention to the need for some financial protection too?

Peter Longman has been actively involved with theatre building and restoration since 1969 and was director of The Theatres Trust from 1996-2006