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Rob Halliday: Made in Britain – we export great things but get little in return

Billy Elliot the Musical will close in April 2016. Photo: Alastair Muir Billy Elliot is no longer just a product of one country, but of the world. Photo: Alastair Muir
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So, I’m an export. At least, I think I am. I’ve been in Tokyo for five weeks now, working on a new production of Billy Elliot. It’s in great shape, thanks for asking. And yet again it is a reminder of the power performance has to transcend mere language; the show still moves me even when performed in Japanese.

I’m being paid by the show’s Japanese producers, which means I’m bringing a little bit of money from this country back into the UK. So, yes, surely an export doing good for the nation’s economy in these turbulent times. But I wonder who else knows that?

At home I hear a lot of talk of the need for Britain to sell more products and services abroad. I also hear a lot of talk about the arts. About the money it costs the country, how theatre is a drain on resources and whether Arts Council funding is a ‘good investment’ – does it earn a decent financial return?

The latter shouldn’t matter, of course. The Arts Council should be about empowering people to create remarkable work, damn the consequences, and not making money.

And actually, it does that pretty well. But there is a sense among those working in it that the arts are a good investment: that it does do good things for the country’s coffers and its reputation around the world. That what we do is in demand. Billy is here in Tokyo, English National Ballet were in town this week, to huge acclaim, Mary Poppins is coming and eagerly anticipated – as is the return of Matthew Bourne’s company.

British theatre is a hit in Japan, and it is a hit around the world.

My question is: who’s measuring that impact? Some hidden government or civil service office, maybe. But what are they measuring? That the show is here in Japan?

But what about the individuals here from Britain making it happen – not to mention from America, Australia and, of course, Japan. It may have started in Britain, but Billy is no longer just a product of one country, but of the world. Do the boxes I, and others, tick on our tax returns mean that the income we’ve received from this show, small as it may be in the grand scheme, has counted as part of the net contribution of the arts to the economy of whichever country we live in?

If that contribution has not been counted, doesn’t that mean the arts are undervalued? If we’re undervalued, we’re under-appreciated. And if we’re under-appreciated, it’s harder to win the argument that the arts are worth supporting – let’s not say ‘investing in’.

We need to continue building the stepping stones to make shows that the world clearly wants to see.

Or, to phrase it in language perhaps more easily understood by the those who control the money: there is a huge demand for these top-quality products around the world.

We are good at not only creating them but supplying them as well. How many other industries in this country would love to be able to say this?

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