Time is running out to save our treasured cultural institutions from closure
Earlier this year, after a 135-year history, the Oldham Coliseum closed its doors for the final time. I know the Coliseum well, having performed there several times over my career as an actor, and I am very sad to see it go.
As chairman of the APPG for Theatre, and as a performer, I know the importance that cultural institutions such as our theatres hold for our national identity and for local communities.
As I said in the House during the Spring Budget, it is through the soft power of the Great British arts that we have been able to export our language, way of life and history to the world. Due to the nature of live performance, theatres were the first to close during the pandemic and the last to re-open; this, compounded with the rising energy costs for businesses, has hit our culture sector hard. It is for this reason that I am delighted that the government has announced that the tax relief for theatres will continue for another two years. This will mitigate some of the financial damage caused by the uncertain times in which we live.
We are at risk of losing many wonderful theatres around the country – almost all of which I have been proud to have performed in
That’s not to say we can’t ignore the elephant on the stage: the funding cuts announced by Arts Council England and the difficult position this puts many cultural outlets in.
The English National Opera has been able to secure a reprieve of £11m from the Arts Council but not all organisations will be so lucky and, as we have seen in Oldham, the consequences include closure. I warned during the pandemic that we were at risk of losing the many wonderful theatres around the country – almost all of which I have been proud to have performed in, some multiple times – if we didn’t act. I fear that the chickens are coming home to roost, and that we are running out of time to further safeguard our cultural heritage against the rot and decay of theatre closures and diminishing audiences.
I’ve run theatres and theatrical productions on a number of occasions throughout my career, including my hometown’s Frinton Summer Theatre. It is not an easy job, nor is it a job made any easier when you have people with mouths to feed and bills to pay who are relying on the same resources that you are to not only bring the arts to the people, but also keep the lights on.
As theatre managers and directors struggle to balance the limited funds at their disposal to stage shows, we all find ourselves poorer when they ultimately are unable to. Whilst many think of stars on-screen when asked about the best actors of today are, many of the finest actors began their careers on stage. How will rising stars continue to give their skills to the stage? Will we deprive ourselves of a future Dame Maggie Smith or Lord Olivier if our theatres do not survive?
We live in difficult times and a hard question for the government is how do we live within our means whilst also protecting the things we care about most in this country? The arts community knows this all too well, having faced the same question many times before.
I hope that both the arts and the government can work in lockstep together to continue to enable actors up and down the country to go on stage every night and give the performances of their life: to bring theatre to people in this country and beyond, protecting our position as a global leader in the cultural sector.
Giles Watling, Conservative MP for Clacton, chair of the APPG for Theatre and former actor
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