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Mark Shenton: Old Vic report into Kevin Spacey underlines the toxicity of fame

Kevin Spacey attending the 2014 Academy Awards ceremony. Photo: Featureflash
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In the swirl of sexual abuse and harassment allegations doing the rounds, the suffering of the victims is paramount – there is no place for victim blaming or shaming.

It’s why the recent contribution from singer Morrissey is so mortifying. He said, of actor Anthony Rapp’s recent accusation against Kevin Spacey: “Kevin Spacey was 26, boy 14. One wonders where the boy’s parents were. One wonders if the boy did not know what would happen.”

And of Weinstein’s victims, he also suggested they might have played along with him: “Afterwards, they feel embarrassed or disliked. And then they turn it around and say, ‘I was attacked, I was surprised.’ But if everything went well, and if it had given them a great career, they would not talk about it… In many cases one looks at the circumstances and thinks that the person who is considered a victim is merely disappointed.”

Actually, I’m disappointed with Morrissey. From his gilded celebrity cage, he’s adding a coruscating shame to the victims’ ordeal: that they were partly complicit.

And if one thing that has emerged most powerfully so far from the historic suppression of these stories, it is the toxicity of fame. When the Old Vic announced the findings of its recent investigation into allegations around Spacey, undertaken by law firm Lewis Silkin, it stated: “Despite having the appropriate escalation processes in place, it was claimed that those affected felt unable to raise concerns and that Spacey operated without sufficient accountability. This is clearly unacceptable and the Old Vic truly apologises for not creating an environment or culture where people felt able to speak freely… During his tenure, the Old Vic was in a unique position of having a Hollywood star at the helm around whom existed a cult of personality.

The investigation found that his stardom and status at the Old Vic may have prevented people, and in particular junior staff or young actors, from feeling that they could speak up or raise a hand for help.”

This admits that the Old Vic’s own processes were faulty, but it doesn’t fully take the blame. While the situations are obviously different in a number of ways, it is perhaps instructive to compare this response to that given by BBC director general Tony Hall when the results of the Janet Smith review into the Jimmy Savile debacle was published in 2016.

Hall took full responsibility, on behalf of the organisation he was leading, for what happened to Savile’s victims (even though he wasn’t in charge at the time these events occurred). As he said: “One of the survivors was told: ‘Keep your mouth shut, he’s a VIP.’ This hit me because it made it so very clear that we did that. We, the BBC, did that. Jimmy Savile committed many crimes in many places. But, uniquely, it was the BBC that made him famous. We made him a VIP. And what this terrible episode teaches us, amongst other things, is that fame is power. A very strong form of power. And, like any form of power, it must be held to account. It must be limited. It must be scrutinised. And it wasn’t. It’s too easy to say that this took place a long time ago in another time and another BBC. But we are not going to say that.”

The Old Vic are understandably keen to draw a line under the matter quickly, but it is crucial that its desire to protect the institution – Matthew Warchus commented at the inquiry press conference that “my big hope is it doesn’t reflect on the Old Vic as a name, and a brand. It was a very very hard situation to spot” – is balanced with justice for the victims.

The Old Vic is to be commended for the speed of its response and the support it is offering victims. But surely, as my colleague Alistair Smith suggested, the inquiry is the beginning of the process, not the end, and additional, detailed work must now be carried out to verify and investigate the claims that have been made. There are no official legal charges against Spacey, just a surfeit of allegations, though the Old Vic has confirmed that it encouraged 14 of the 20 alleged victims that contacted the theatre to go to the police.

However, the theatre’s chief executive Sally Greene, who had appointed Spacey to the role of artistic director in 2004, has dug herself into ever deepening holes, issued a statement ahead of the report being published: “I would like to make it clear that prior to the emergence of these recent claims, I was unaware of any allegations involving Spacey, or any form of sexual impropriety, whether connected to the Old Vic or not. Had I known, I would never have appointed him.”

And she effectively shifted responsibility: “Given my wide business portfolio, in each of the venues with which I am involved, I rely on having a professional team in place, who work diligently and tirelessly to handle day-to-day management. Had anyone raised any complaints with me about inappropriate or potentially unlawful behaviour, I would have acted swiftly to address them.”

Smith reported that one of the key factors that allowed Savile to go unchallenged in plain sight was the hierarchical nature of the BBC at the time, with staff unable to talk to managers and very remote senior management.

This chimes with the findings from the Old Vic review – it was Greene’s own structure for the theatre that seems to have been one of the reasons for the failure. Until current incumbent Kate Varah, the theatre had no executive director: only a producer beside Spacey (first David Liddiment, then Kate Pakenham, then John Richardson). So no one was in charge other than Spacey. No wonder there was no one in place to provide oversight and to challenge him.

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