10 Downing Street
Re: Deus Ex Machina
I was born in 1964, just three months before you.
My brother was an actor, the late Peter Denyer, who played Dennis Dunstable in the TV series Please Sir. You’ll possibly remember him, most people our age do.
It was him that introduced me to a career in theatre.
I never had the slightest inclination to tread the boards in front of an audience. I am of the old-school brand of backstage technician who regards audiences, and a lot of performers too, as a necessary evil.
I worked as show crew and then for many years had a small company, designing and making sets and props. Mostly for pantomime.
One get in day, on a stage somewhere, I met Nick Kirby of Kirby’s Flying Ballets fame. It was the company started by Nick’s great-grandfather in 1898, that worked with JM Barrie on the first-ever productions of Peter Pan at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1904.
I began working in partnership with Nick and, to cut a very long story short, I have managed the company for the last 15 years or so, since his retirement.
We now trade as a Ltd Co. and on paper I have 75% of the shares in the company. I said I “manage” the company rather than “own“ it because I feel I am only the present caretaker.
Kirby’s are theatre history, it’s part of the fabric of UK theatre, so much so that “Kirby wires” became the generic term for theatrical flying effects. If we’re not exactly “Theatre establishment”, we are certainly part of the furniture and the Kirby flying company should carry on, after I am gone and after the Covid crisis has gone too.
In total I personally have some 40 years’ experience in the theatre business. Kirby’s have been around for over 120 years and survived two world wars, the Spanish flu and who knows how many other crises but I am now having to seriously consider the possibility that with the current situation we may not be able to survive financially for very much longer and the costs of a new start up in the future (which have increased exponentially for small businesses over the years) would be prohibitive.
I have no wish to preside over the demise of such a chunk of British theatrical history but the facts are very simple:
No matter how much money we can borrow, with a zero income (not strictly true – as in the last six months we have turned over some £330 for two harness sales, both going abroad – but not exactly the “green shoots of recovery” either), it is only a matter of time before we can’t pay the bills and as a Ltd Co. we will be compelled to cease trading.
Ten months ago, as a going concern, the business might have been worth several hundred thousand pounds. Now it’s worth the scrap value of the aluminium components in our flying systems. A few thousand pounds at best.
Money for old rope ? Not much.
Money to buy and splice 2,000 metres of new ropes? ... Lots.
Not only has our income suddenly been reduced to zero but the value of my main asset – the business I invested so heavily in, both financially and of myself, for so many years – and what was to be my pension, has been wiped out almost completely.
Our equipment is so specialised, custom-made for performer flying in purpose-built theatrical venues, that any liquidator’s sales would realise only a tiny fraction of the replacement costs.
I’m 56 too. Would you want to have to start up from scratch again ? With really nothing. No premises, no equipment, no transport, let alone all the other compulsory costs of trading legally in the UK today. What sort of retirement fund have I got time to establish now ? How many more years can I realistically expect do the quite heavy physical work of installation and the contortionism that’s involved in crawling around ancient theatre grids and roof spaces? I already have bad knees and a hernia but that and the NHS’s response is another story, maybe I’ll write you a separate letter about that later. Since I effectively cannot trade, I have a lot of time on my hands.
So has everybody else who worked in the live entertainments and events sectors.
We, the Kirby company, went into lockdown in quite good shape. We didn’t owe any money and our overheads were always comparatively low. Any small theatrical supply businesses that went in to it already in debt, burdened with loan repayments on top of high rents, rates and salaries etc. is probably bankrupt already.
Unless there is a drastic upturn in events in the next few months, Kirby’s Flying Ballets will have exhausted the £10,000 grant and the £50,000 “Bounce Back” loan. We too will then be forced to close down, probably never to open up again.
If it’s true of us, it’s going to be true of many thousands of other companies and sole traders working in and around live entertainments.
Panto season is traditionally the time we all pay off our credit cards. To miss an entire season will devastate the industry. Many theatres rely on a month of Christmas pantomime to provide 30% or more of their yearly income. Then there are the venue staff, the production companies, set builders and designers, lighting, sound and SFX technicians, the hire companies, the actors, the drama schools, the costumes and make up people, etc, etc, etc. There are two or three specialist theatrical haulage companies in the UK, with fleets of trucks and trailers parked up empty and we’re all in it together. We’re all going down the tubes together and fast now.
We need immediate action before, not just Kirby’s Flying Ballets disappears but before a lot of the other specialist suppliers are ruined and the theatrecrafts at which the UK has always excelled are lost for ever.
I fear also that many theatre buildings are prime targets for developers and if conditions persist then some will change hands never to be utilised as entertainment venues again. Then there is also a whole other tier of businesses revolving around and reliant on working theatres, I’m thinking particularly of the tourism and hospitality trade and all the pubs and restaurants in the vicinity of the venues and the attendant transport needs but I’m sure there are many more less visible casualties.
For reference, and just in case you haven’t seen it already, there’s a very concise list of this season’s pantomime cancellations and theatre redundancies at britishtheatre.com/panto-cancellations-and-theatre-redundancies-a-running-tally.
To date. there are a total of 4,453 reported theatre redundancies. The number of people in the industry with no work, though maybe not technically “redundant” or “unemployed”, will be many, many times this figure. Apart from all the out-of-work actors, professional technicians and suppliers, many theatre shows in the UK are often partially crewed by “casuals”. They might have worked on every show for years, never officially becoming staff but who still rely on the local theatre as their primary source of income.
It seems to me that nobody in government or the media yet fully appreciates the gravity and enormity of the disaster that continues to be wrought upon so many people in what I am loosely calling the theatre industry, by the Covid-19 virus and subsequent restrictions imposed.
Next to none of the trumpeted £1.57 billion investment package to protect the arts will trickle down our way.
I have little doubt that The Opera and The Ballet will not be allowed to fail, which I wholly support (we get quite a lot of flying work with opera and ballet dancers make great flyers) but what of the amdrams and the provincial theatres? They’re at the root of it all, they’re where most people have their first ever experience of theatre and where people go on to learn their trades and hone their skills.
A lot of individuals and smaller companies have received no grants or loans at all.
Like a lot of theatre renovation projects – all the big grant money gets spent front of house, while the grid, the engine room of a theatre, hasn’t been touched in 60 years and the dressing rooms smell like an open drain (I speak from experience).
Probably enough has been said already about Fatima and all the highly transferable skills she could bring from her years of training as a ballet dancer into the world of Cyber something or other. It was insulting. Just thought I’d mention it.
To sum up….. finally………
Theatres, like the airlines, have always been about “bums on seats”. I don’t see them becoming financially viable again while any social-distancing measures remain in place. We (the industry as a whole) have to assume that we will get back to something approaching the “old normal” over the next few years.
What we need is money. Not in the form of further loans, we need a handout, a bailout, a grant, whatever you want to call it. It needs to be enough to get us through the worst of this with our businesses still in sufficiently good shape to function properly again as soon as circumstances allow.
If a significant number of us small theatrical suppliers do go out of business there will be a great physical loss of the equipment we have taken years to accumulate, plus a loss of continuity that will result in a skills gap. These factors will combine to slow any recovery of the sector as a whole.
To lend us more tickover money for what looks like it might still be a long time to come, will only saddle us with debt repayments just when we are trying to re-stock and rebuild, also badly hindering any recovery.
Theatre is such an important part of British culture, heritage, history and tradition that it warrants really drastic action right now to save it. Not just the big league and “worthy” institutions but all of it.
To lose a massive chunk of the industry would be a financial disaster for a great many people but it would be a social disaster for a great many more.
You explain to the kids of Kilmarnock why Peter Pan became a pedestrian.
If a village in Britain has a church and a pub, you can bet it also has a stage somewhere, be it in the local school or village hall or wherever. Every small town has at least one purpose-built theatre.
They are often attached, these days not so much to a pub but to a community centre/cafe and are always a focal hub for any area. We and a lot of other theatre technicians and suppliers, do a lot of reduced rate and free work to support the really low- and no-budget community productions, the amateurs and the artistes and the schools. If the UK theatre industry is ruined in the way I believe it will be without huge and immediate grassroots support, the whole of the UK will very soon become a much impoverished and a much less colourful place in which to live.
Bread and circuses Boris. Don’t underestimate the importance of the circuses.
With best regards,
Kirby’s AFX Ltd