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Hello Westminster! An Arts Roundtable Chat

9 min read

Even before stepping into the political spotlight, many parliamentarians were used to taking centre stage. From DJs and dancers to singers and musicians, The House brings together some of Westminster’s former performers for a revealing roundtable on buttock-clenching, jet-setting and losing their shirts.

Labour MP Jeff Smith, 58, spent 20 years as a DJ in Manchester’s club scene and played sets at the V-Festival before being elected to Parliament in 2015. He is now shadow minister for local government.

Crossbench peer Baroness Deborah Bull, 58, was a star of the Royal Ballet and former creative director of the Royal Opera House and is now vice-president and vice-principal of King’s College London.

Conservative MP and deputy chair of the European Research Group, Andrea Jenkyns, 46, is a soprano singer and former music tutor. SNP MP and chair of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee,

Pete Wishart, 59, was the keyboardist in one of Scotland’s biggest bands, Runrig, between 1986 and 2001 and toured the world. Event chaired by Kate Proctor.

What was your career highlight?

JS: Some of my favourite events were the festivals. I’d be warming up for the big stars and we’d have 30,000 people in the crowd. That was nice to build up an atmosphere.

AJ: I was invited to perform in Pakistan for the independence day celebrations with 8,000 people there and it was amazing. I met the prime minister at the time and I sang one of my own songs, The Spell.

PW: Guesting for the Genesis We Can’t Dance tour in the mid-1990s at a gig for 120,000 people in Hockenheim, Germany. All the Genesis guys were really lovely. Phil [Collins], Tony [Banks] and Mike [Rutherford] had separate helicopters to come across from London, and there was us in our little cheap hotel. Phil and Mike came straight from the helicopters to the stage. That was something else.

DB: I could list performing for the president of the United States, but the thing that sticks in my mind is [the series of] performances we did in hospices and hospitals in the early 80s. I did my performance and I was asked to speak to a patient. As I left, the matron said it was the first time [the patient] had spoken since she arrived in the hospice. I’ve spent the rest of my life chasing the understanding of what happened in that moment. What was it about the art that enabled this woman to communicate in a way that hadn’t been available to her before?

How did performance prepare you for politics?

DB: When I first spoke in the Lords, I was struck how like the Royal Opera House it is, because you’ve got the gilt, the red velvet, the costumes. The process was really similar in that the preparation for a maiden speech is very private. You work, perfect, practise… then you’re called and you get your moment and you perform. I swear, in my head I actually saw the lights go down!

JS: It’s interesting hearing Deborah talk about the Lords because I always think the Commons feels like a performance space in the way it’s lit. I used to do a lot of work in stage management, where it’s all about preparing what’s going to happen on stage, so I that definitely prepared me for my work in the whips’ office where you’re organising what happens on the stage of the Commons.

PW: Making a speech is very much a performance and you go through the ritual of rehearsing it. I always try to make my speeches as dramatic as possible. So it’s preparation and then you go off and do all the PR after to get good reviews.

DB: That’s very true!

AJ: I learnt that nerves are a good thing in performance, it keeps you on your toes and makes you prepare better. Still now with my speeches for the Commons, I will write them out and put where I’m going to breathe.

What was a memorable stage fail, and the oddest place you’ve performed?

JS: Hah! The Stereophonics did a big gig at Old Trafford cricket ground and we did their after-show party for them underneath the stage on the cricket pitch – which was a kind of strange experience and we weren’t supposed to be there, especially not on the pitch.

AJ: Mishaps? Oh God yes. I went for an audition for a hotel chain who wanted a resident singer and I didn’t realise dancing was involved. I only have one style of dancing – 1980s dad dancing. I did Abba’s SOS and all I did was move side to side. The guy said “fantastic singer, but go and get dancing lessons”. Embarrassing.

DB: The third act of Sleeping Beauty … I looked across the stage and thought, there’s supposed to be a trio there, but I could only see two of them. One of the women hadn’t noticed she was on! I was the Bluebird, went into the wings, and shouted: “Get me [their] tutu” and I decided to go on and do the solo I had never done before. I did that, came off, then thought, God I’m up next, so I had get straight back into the Bluebird costume.

PW: All my laundry had gone missing and I had no stage gear. I was in Liverpool and bought [what I thought was a] very smart and fashionable shirt in two panels. Halfway through, the panels had come apart, and [the band] were all pulling it. By the end it was just about round my ribs. It was one of the most mortifying experiences I ever had on stage.

Can you share any tips for a good performance?

AJ:  One tip as a soprano is clench your buttocks – that really helps you hit the high notes.

DB: I spent my career clenching my buttocks! I had a couple of meaningless rituals, like don’t sign an autograph before a performance. The other thing I used to do was spit in the back of the pointe shoe. You do everything you can to stick it on.

JS: No rituals for me, just turn up, plug in and press play. But I’d have loads of Red Bull and loads of Coke …

PW: Clarify that!

JS: Coca-Cola! Actually it was Diet Pepsi and Red Bull, that’s what I lived on for years.

PW: As a performer you were always trying to prepare your day to peak around 8.30pm. When I went to the Commons in 2001 it was pre-modernisation and we were still regularly sitting until 11pm. That suited me perfectly. Start work at half past two in the afternoon, what’s wrong with that?

Why is it important to have politicians that come from a creative arts background?

AJ: I saw first-hand how music and performance being accessible to young people is so important for mental health. I taught in some quite deprived areas, and it was that release for an hour a week for these children.

DB: It’s not just having an appreciation for the arts, because lots of our colleagues do, it’s an understanding. Sometimes we can be a bit fluffy when we talk about it. We need to bring the same rigour to our debates about the arts as we would on the Budget or health. And to do that you need people who really do understand, are connected and can bring the evidence.

PW: We have the confidence to [bring issues up]. When I was elected in 2001 there wasn’t even an [All-Party Parliamentary Group on Music]. It wasn’t that my colleagues didn’t feel this was important, I think a lot felt it wasn’t their place to do this. I came in and put it together, and it was met with such enthusiasm.

JS: Just recently I set up an APPG for the night-time economy, which never existed before. If people come in with a little bit of experience they might be able to rectify [the gaps].

Has the government supported the arts enough during the Covid pandemic, and what else needs to be done?

AJ: We had a £1.57bn rescue package and I think we’ve done a pretty good job considering this was unprecedented. It’s so important young people don’t miss out on engaging with the arts. I remember taking my little one to the Royal Albert Hall to watch The Snowman. Things like that will be so important in the post-Covid recovery. I don’t think there’s much more we could have done but I’m sure my colleagues will disagree.

PW: Maybe this will surprise Andrea but I actually think the government has been reasonably generous. The testament to that will be what we have in our constituencies when we are through this. Though there are lots of grey areas for support for self-employed musicians, there’s a whole load of people lost to the industry forever. There are very few opportunities for them to come back, and more could be done to sustain support [for them].

DB: Our arts venues will only breathe life if they are filled with artists wearing costumes, and sets and lighting rigs that have been designed by freelancers. Those who fell between the support schemes paid taxes [too]. A freelance commissioner to look at this issue and try to solve it would be good because actually there isn’t a single body speaking for freelancers and that’s made it difficult for government to know who to speak to.

JS: The Culture Recovery Fund is a big chunk of money but I believe only 12 nightclub-type venues received money. The biggest problem now is the rent and debts accumulated over the last year on overheads. Nightclub owners are saying it’s going to take them three years of profits just to pay off the debt so there needs to be either some extra support from government or a restructuring solution for the debt. The Australians have got a shared burden [model] where the government pays some of the debt, as does the tenant and the landlord, but there needs to be some creative thinking on that.

KP: Thank you so much to everybody for sharing your experiences. I’m sure you’ve given the government some food for thought as well.

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