The creative industries need to get back to work

The arts are indeed essential – so why aren’t they campaigning to reopen?

Robert Jackman


Theatre grandees are delighted at the news of the government’s arts rescue package, with some £1.57 billion (that’s £500million more than was expected) allocated to saving the creative industries. But what is the real cost?

The implicit bargain appears to be that theatres will receive the bailout on the understanding that they keep their doors shut for the rest of 2020 – thus extending the cultural lockdown for another six months. Minimum.

As someone who loves the theatre – and who has honestly missed it much more than pubs these last few months – I consider that a terrible capitulation. If the theatre really is an essential part of Britain’s culture and economy, shouldn’t it be demanding the right to reopen?

Instead, we have had the Young Vic’s Kwame Kwei-Armah hinting he’ll happily shut shop until April. Is theatre being bailed out here – or paid off? One of the Young Vic’s more admirable projects has been its support for the Belarus Free Theatre, which has faced arrest and persecution at home. Can you imagine if it had accepted government cash to stay quiet?

It’s odd that this discussion comes at a time when the government is quickly accepting the fact that Britain’s economy needs to get back to normal soon, or risk permanently shrinking our prospects for growth. Yet much of the theatre world is still stuck in the early lockdown mentality, happy to support the very thing that is keeping them closed in the first place – ie, enforced social distancing.

Last week the Old Vic premiered a ‘socially distanced’ revival of its 2019 production of Lungs, in which Matt Smith and Claire Foy play a couple arguing over whether procreation contributes to global warming. Throughout the show (which costs up to £65 to watch online), Smith and Foy remained at least two metres apart at all times. Rehearsals even took place with a large stick between them.

But surely there’s no need to do that? Aren’t Smith and Foy at work? Which means that – even on a conservative reading of government guidance – physical distancing is only necessary if it doesn’t compromise the job itself.

Now football has returned, for example, there has been no suggestion that players should maintain physical distance on the field. Likewise, no one would say that doctors’ appointments can only be done at a two-metre distance. So why actors?

You might say that Lungs – a two-hander play built on separate monologues – lends itself to social distancing, and that’s fair enough. But it also sets a precedent that theatres need to be ‘responsible’ with the plays they choose.

Instead of going out of their way to comply with the sillier aspects of lockdown, theatre bosses need to get tough on the idea of social distancing. That doesn’t have to mean scrapping the concept altogether, but they should at least be asking for the kind of flexibility that is understandably granted to, say, public transport.

I have written before on spiked about how the larger theatres could easily provide social-distancing zones for those who are more vulnerable to Covid-19, or who want to follow the rules more strictly. Meanwhile, school groups, who face minimal risk and who will be travelling together anyway, can be packed like sardines elsewhere. The smaller theatres – some of which run at 50 capacity max – should be exempt from the distancing requirements altogether.

If the creative arts continue to go along with the government’s assumption that they are inessential (and can be wound up at the first sign of danger) it could have disastrous consequences in the future

On the whole, the commercial players have been quicker to take up this battle. On a conference call organised by the government, Andrew Lloyd Webber reportedly interrogated public-health officials on why theatres couldn’t be treated the same as the aviation industry. His point was a good one: no one has demanded that airlines uphold the two-metre rule at all costs. Neither are planes being forced to stay grounded until the pandemic is over.

Sir Cameron Mackintosh has also called on the government to come forward with a plan for reopening. Walk through the West End and you will see his point. Apart from theatres, the only other establishments still forcibly closed are casinos and strip clubs (even then I suspect you will be able to play roulette long before you can see a play).

I understand that theatres might be nervous about comparing themselves to essential services like public transport, but they have had no qualms about doing so in the past – particularly when making the case for state funding. Why go shy now? Lloyd Webber and Sir Cameron are right: Britain’s creative industries need to get back to work.

Robert Jackman is a critic and writer with the Spectator.

Picture by: Getty.

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dom torato

13th July 2020 at 7:11 am

Face it, your in a deeply middle class profession. While big business & us proles know we have to get out and work HERE► Read More

dom torato

12th July 2020 at 7:38 am

The arts are almost 100% woke and therefore make our lives harder, unpleasant and divisive and I really couldn’t care less about them HERE► Read More

Lyn Keay

8th July 2020 at 7:29 pm

Face it, your in a deeply middle class profession. While big business & us proles know we have to get out and work, the middle classes feel that they deserve to be supported in their homes all nice and safe. The fact that most of them can work from home re-enforces this privileged mind set. And, if you doubt this, just look at the teachers.

Jerry Owen

9th July 2020 at 8:15 am

Excellent comment!

Stef Steer

8th July 2020 at 7:11 pm

The arts are almost 100% woke and therefore make our lives harder, unpleasant and divisive and I really couldn’t care less about them anymore, that obviously goes for film and TV and even games. If it all went to the wall then we at least wouldn’t have to put up with being lectured to by massively rich hypocrites.

Mark Beal

8th July 2020 at 6:24 pm

It’s often said that the arts are essential – but almost always by people who work in the arts or belong to the same social circle as people who work in the arts. A lot of this talk seems to me a case of protesting too much, of knowing at the very back of one’s mind, that viewing the arts as essential is a form of self-flattery.

I live opposite a gallery. Currently showing is an exhibition consisting of woke slogans by a graffiti “artist”. Essential? Not in my world, matey. Very occasionally there’s a work or two shown that does provide food for thought and/or a decent aesthetic experience, but mostly the exhibitions range from the kind of thing the artist thinks is radical but which is utterly conformist in its adherence to fashionable rightthink, to something that looks like a two-year old has run amok with a box of crayons.

It’s painfully clear every time the Booker or Turner Prize is announced that “art” is now judged entirely on whether or not it’s politically correct. If the prime motivation behind art is to make a political point, are we really talking about art, or are we talking about politics by another name? If artists, authors, playwrights, Lily Allen etc are all engaged in saying something I could read in a Guardian op-ed, what’s the point of them?

Essential, not as things stand.

James Knight

8th July 2020 at 5:32 pm

When will those who squealed like stuck pigs for stricter lockdown ever be held accountable for the carnage they created?

I keep hearing how “covid” has destroyed this or that sector of business. Not it hasn’t. The government lockdown did that. An estimated 1.5billion world wide lost their income. It was only when “the arts” were affected that Guardianistas really started to lose their sh*t.

James Knight

8th July 2020 at 5:27 pm

Given what they charge for drinks in the interval, they should be awash with cash.

Gareth Edward KING

8th July 2020 at 5:16 pm

What’s life without a source of entertainment? Why are social distancing measures even thought about being maintained? Why does no-one in this field take a long, hard look at the casualty figures in terms of Covid-19 even if they are unreliable? i.e. Who can be said to have died of Covid-19 rather than merely with it? At this stage of the proceedings is it still not clear that most casualities are in the 70+ age group? This is all about social control. Period. The trouble is these anti-social measures do have an enormous social cost, it’s as if the ‘social costs’ can merely be dispensed with because safety-at-all-costs is the only thing in life that matters. What kind of life are we creating for ourselves? A life without theatre (including AmDram), a life without (affordable) cinema; a life without the gym, a life working and/or travelling with endless, petty rules. It’s as if China is the model for the way forward. No thanks. We seriously need to get a grip NOW.

Dominic Straiton

8th July 2020 at 4:38 pm

Imagine if the”evil” Tories had told the arts to f off rather than showering them with billions. The outcome will be exactly the same.


8th July 2020 at 3:39 pm

This government has devastated this country’s economy , people are out of work or their businesses have closed who were profitable contributers . It is said there may be 50% unemployment., so how many people will beable to go to the arts anyway? When times were tough in the 1930’s people enjoyed going to see musicals and light comedies , I would imagine people will still pay to be entertained . It is unfair to give the arts such a large amount of money when other areas of the economy get nothing , particularly ironic as this government was voted in to get brexit done and now its giving billions to its arch remainer enemies.

Jo Shaw

8th July 2020 at 6:21 pm

“when other areas of the economy get nothing”

But that’s not true, is it?

James Conner

8th July 2020 at 1:03 pm

“The arts are indeed essential ”

No, indeed they are not.

Jo Shaw

8th July 2020 at 2:24 pm

Food, safety and shelter aside, they are no less essential than anything else.

Not sure what your reasoning is, you haven’t said, but in my experience comments like that tend to come from people with huge chips on their shoulders.

James Conner

8th July 2020 at 2:35 pm

“Food, safety and shelter aside, they are no less essential than anything else.”

If the arts are as essestial as you assert, then they should be able to fund themselves, and not be a constant burden on public funds.

Jo Shaw

8th July 2020 at 4:10 pm

“If the arts are as essestial as you assert, then they should be able to fund themselves, and not be a constant burden on public funds.”

Two different things. The arts CAN get by without public funds (eg: Glyndebourne Festival) but they are expensive. Public funding reduces prices and makes them more accessible.

I believe that our best achievements should be reasonably accessible to everyone, not just those with deep pockets. I don’t like to use the word “right” too much, but I don’t think poorer people should be excluded and left with no alternative to poor quality dross on TV (TV doesn’t have to be that way, but most of the time it is, IMO).

If you’d be happy for accessibility to be entirely price dependent, that’s your choice. I wouldn’t.

France and Germany seem to have a better understanding of this.

James Conner

9th July 2020 at 6:26 am

“Public funding reduces prices and makes them more accessible.”

In fact there is plenty of evidence that ticket prices at subsidised and unsubsidised venues have not tended to differ significantly.

Jo Shaw

9th July 2020 at 3:03 pm

“In fact there is plenty of evidence that ticket prices at subsidised and unsubsidised venues have not tended to differ significantly.”

Can you provide a link to the source of these facts please?

Subsidy in opera reduces the prices of the cheapest tickets, not the most expensive. If average prices are compared, the difference might not be obvious, and the most expensive tickets (which might not necessarily be for the best seats) may indeed be as high as unsubsidised opera, but will sell regardless. I think I’m right in saying that the marketing term is Elasticity of Demand.

Linda Payne

8th July 2020 at 12:52 pm

I’d like to see more theatres outside London, its very expensive for me to travel into town along with the prices of the ticket plus a drink I dont get much change out of £100. Sometimes I wish I lived up north because they have shows in pubs and small venues, I wanted to see ‘black teeth and a brilliant smile’ on the life of playwrite Andrea Dunbar but it is not being shown south of Bradford which is a shame because she wasn’t just popular in the Northern regions and they revived her most famous play at the Royal Court which was sold out

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