The Case of Lincoln Drill Hall
Last week, the City of Lincoln Council decided not to renew the funding for the Lincoln Drill Hall. This has led to feelings of anger and despair in the local community, with yet another cultural venue being left completely vulnerable and unsupported during the Covid-19 pandemic. In a statement released by Lincolnshire Live the Labour led council expressed that they “believe the Drill Hall is not financially viable in its current form”. This led to attacks from the local socialist party in Lincoln, which claims that the Labour councillors have turned their back on the community. Whilst it should be said that the socialist party have not been at the forefront of this campaign, nor have they provided permanent solutions to the problem, it is disheartening to see the eventual consequences this decision will have on the local community and the plethora of services the Drill Hall provides - other than financial profit. That is the fundamental issue wedged into the Arts sector at this time. What is more disturbing, however, is the self-assured choices presented by Labour councillors during Labour Party CLP meetings. This article will examine the history of Lincoln’s Drill Hall, its variety of programmes that still operate today, focusing on the councillors’ complete disregard of differing opinions offered during CLP meetings, and on local governments’ economic disintegration, whilst looking at how the future of art and culture should be preserved in the time of Covid. At the time of writing, the Lincoln Drill Hall will keep operating until the end of the financial renewal in 2021. The Arts Council has also threatened to pull out of funding if the venue is not seen as commercially viable, a decision that both the Arts Council and the Lincolnshire City Council share in values as well as practical assertion.
The Lincoln Drill Hall was built primarily for military and police training, but it developed into a social community setting for arts and culture. After it was built in 1890, it would be used for dances, bingos, and concert programmes. Most drill halls have been passed off to local authorities which use them for social and cultural events, although many, in the past few years, have been demolished or privately sold off due to the financially incompatible upkeep of the institutions. As time went on, the Lincoln Drill Hall was used primarily for jazz and rock bands. The Rolling Stones performed there the night before their Top of the Pops debut in 1963 on New Years Eve. The venue closed in 1999 as it was considered in ‘disrepair’ but was eventually re-opened in 2004 due to public demand, after being awarded a £2.6 million refurbishment. In 2010, it became part of the Lincoln Arts Trust Ltd, a charity system that runs the five arts centres in Lincoln. Despite its history and popular demand for the venue to stay open, the Drill Hall has never made a huge amount of money. Although the council glossed over it, the venue offers services to the community such as drama clubs, dance and salsa classes, movement classes for over 50s, and operates on an open-door policy that allows creatives to discuss and potentially produce their performances. These are only few examples of what the Drill Hall has to offer. It includes theatre and performance, music concerts and festivals, participatory festivals for people with disabilities, pantomimes, child-friendly and stand-up comedy shows, with comedians who have gone onto mainstream circuits of the likes of Russell Howard. The venue offers a wide variety of programmes that are not only expansive, but inclusive and interactive. To make it more commercially exploitative means that less people will be able to access culture. Just by looking at the astronomical prices of the West-End it is easy to understand that working-class families are precluded from enjoying a big part of British culture. This is one of the main reasons why it is crucial to save regional and local non-profit art’s venues.
The CLP meeting, attended by Labour members, saw a lot of bickering about bureaucracy and dogmatic affairs for an hour and a half. A useless meeting up until the point when the City of Lincoln council’s report was due. The councillors – when approaching the non-renewal of funding, spoke in a self-defensive manner, and at the same time revealed a self-congratulatory tone, as they were putting “people” before the venue. Ironic, of course, given the fact that the Lincoln Drill Hall does employ people whose livelihoods are now in danger, and will ultimately be lost. This has been confirmed by the Lincoln Drill Hall’s Twitter profile. The council defended their choice by claiming that the venue was not “commercially viable”. Thatcher and William Rees-Mogg used that term in the 1980s, whose policies had a disastrous impact on the cultural scene, leading to the closure of many venues which never fully recovered from the cuts to their funds. This is thoroughly analysed in Olivia Turnbull’s Bringing Down the House, which focuses on the impact of the cuts imposed by Thatcherism, and the mirage of Blair’s “golden years” for the arts and culture and regional theatre. That same history is now being repeated by councillors and the Arts Council itself in venues across the country. The CLP meeting tried to counteract as quickly as possible this agenda, hoping to limit the damage that had been done to the confidence of Labour party members. Unfortunately, these decisions are currently being made at a national level as well, with mass redundancies occurring in national and local theatres alike. This is proving to be a catastrophic crisis for arts venues across Britain and when seeing other countries securing billions for its arts and strongly investing in culture to assure its survival - like Germany or France’s £7 billion for its arts and cultures - it is inevitable to question UK’s national and local government decisions. The councillors could have voted it down and opposed harsh austerity measures, but they instead opted to appease the Tories, now demanding members to blame the Tories for their actions. This will only lead to the alienation of left-wing Labour members, which will be ultimately pushed out of the party. The damage that these councillors are doing only remind us that they are trying to dismantle the Labour movement, but let’s remind ourselves that we are stronger than that. Campaigns will be set up by groups like Art-Rising to go out and protest in the upcoming weeks. The PCS union have also been a real driving force in the last few weeks of protests. They have been able to galvanise workers across the arts sector to demand no redundancies and better working conditions. The Tories, the millionaire producers and the Blairite Labour councillors serve as a reminder to us socialists to fight against their tyranny, once and for all.
How should we approach these cuts against our arts venues? Some people choose moral obligation towards the intrinsic value of art, others believe that it is an economic value that should not be wasted. Both present noble intents, but short-sighted. There is a third option: art reflects the society we live in. Not just thanks to the experience of the performance or its content, but by registering the conditions and reception it receives which are essential to document the changes in society. It can make us look back and study the world from the perspective of a playwright, a painter, an artist. It also has the potential to become a political campaign, a message of thought. Let’s throw away the stuffy theatre venues and begin to re-create work such as the one offered by the Red Ladder Theatre company, John McGrath or 7:84, which presented their works to working-class communities by relating it to their experiences. Let’s bring theatre out in the streets, town halls and pubs. Creatives need to drop their careerist attitude and start understanding how their work can contribute to the socio-political frameworks of our society. That makes art relevant to the ordinary worker.
The Lincoln councillors have not only damaged an artistic space for the community, but they have demolished any sort of interaction with that same community. It is time to put aside the Kensyian economic model of arts subsidies and instead design a new system for the Arts Council that nationalises theatre, putting it back into state hands. To provide fair and impartial work, it must run using “arms-length” policy that was already supposed to be implemented by The Arts Council. It must now be a demand that all arts workers fight for the short-term and the long term, with the former being defending the workers, protesting redundancies and calling out the disgusting treatment of the millionaire producers who have created appalling working conditions. Long-term fights will be focused on creating a network of state-owned theatres organised by A New Arts Council, serving a wide variety of programming that reflects our society. By taking those steps, the Lincoln Drill Hall will and can be saved.
The Tories’ Secret Privatisation of the BBC
The promised arts package devised by Oliver Dowden and the Tories was delivered too late, as suggested by the Guardian “‘Government's £1.57bn UK emergency arts fund 'too late for some'”, and its effects are yet to be seen. Actors, theatre technicians and Front of House staff have been made redundant in commercial and subsidised venues alike. The situation has become dire for all venues across the board, with the RSC recently announcing they have also started redundancy consultations. This is the complacency of the Tories, whose interests certainly do not lie with saving the Arts, and Labour has barely responded to it. Instead, the attention has been shifted from the crisis at hand in another attempt to manipulate the British population: the focus is now on the removal of the “patriotic” song Rule, Britannia! usually performed at the end of the BBC Proms. Oliver Dowden expressed his opposition to this decision by tweeting “Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory are highlights of the Last Night of the Proms, Share concerns of many about their potential removal and have raised this with @BBC, Confident forward-looking nations don’t erase their history, they add to it”. This tweet might be his way to admit that we are not a “confident looking-forward” country at this moment. It is otherwise really puzzling why he would weigh in on such an event that has no real interest to the arts sector or the general public, rather. The only explanation is his criticism is actually a reinforcement of colonialism and imperialist pride. If the British people were better aware of the history of their country and had not been taught a rose-tinted view of the British Empire, they would probably be less appreciative of a song that proudly exclaim “Britain will never ever be the slaves”. This sentence implies, in fact, a dark history of slave ownership and trade at the hands of Britain itself. The Rule, Britannia! question hides, however, a bigger issue: the defunding of the BBC. This has become a political campaign, one which has been taken up by rich individuals who are pouring money into slogans and posters plastered up onto the road signs of London. The Defund the BBC campaign is led by Tory sympathisers, with the help of some Tory MPs. This article will examine the role of the BBC in its current state, and the argument against privatisation and a new “arms-length” policy, that will be vital for its future, impartiality, and development.
The BBC proms is being used as a political tool, as an ulterior pretext for the Tories to defund the BBC. Who we should be focusing our attention on is Tim Davie who will take over the role of general director of the BBC in early September, and was acting general director during the Jimmy Saville sexual allegations cover-up. Davie has been a long-term friend of the Conservative party: he ran to be a Tory councillor in 1994 and 1995 and was the Conservative party deputy chairman in Hammersmith and Fulham in the 90’s. The chairman of the BBC is going to appointed by the Tory government, and the frontrunners are conservative MP Nicky Morgan, Tory ex-cabinet minister Amber Rudd, and Andrew Neil, current senior journalist for the BBC, former writer for Murdoch’s The Times and right-wing newspaper The Spectator. Of all the candidates the latter would seem the most likely to run the BBC, and, whatever the decision, it is clear that the Tories are securing their influence over the company. This goes to show the amount of corruption that is plaguing the BBC, which is mainly reflected in their news programme. The amount of complaints they have received, along with their frequent breaches in impartiality, have proven time and time again that the BBC is being misused as the government’s propaganda machine. Their coverage of the government’s failing on the coronavirus, whilst picturing a drawn animation of Rishi Sunak in a superhero costume, has shown that the BBC is anything but impartial and must be condemned.
But should we scrap the licence fee, which both the left and the right have demanded?
The BBC is a creative base that gives emerging artists the opportunity to showcase their works and access the entertainment sector. Moreover, the BBC is one the last nationalised entities within the public sector. It is, therefore, quite preposterous for self-appointed “socialists” to call for the end of funding for the BBC. If the BBC loses this fight, the Tories will sell it to a private company and the quality of entertainment will drop. BBC’s primary issue now, as we mentioned before, is the organisation of its news broadcast and the overall corruption of the leadership team. It is necessary for the company to adopt an “arms-length” approach, similar to what the Arts Council was designed to do. The mistake of the Arts Council was appointing chairmen that were politically poisoning the fabric of its institution of the likes of William Rees Mogg. The BBC is suffering a remarkably similar fate and it is destructive for the British public to be influenced by manipulative messaging. Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist who was imprisoned for his beliefs, wrote about capitalism’s hostile takeover of the cultural hegemony. The Tories are the representation of capitalism, and their defence of capitalism has been broadcasted by the BBC for decades. How can we change this? We must start arguing within the Labour Party for ways to secure the political impartiality of the BBC and implement an “arms-length” policy. No more government appointed chairmen, no more political involvement, but people who represent the true diversity, and class of our country. This revolution includes its entertainment sector, which should provide the most radical and thought-provoking work and not just worry about ratings. Rather than give up on it, let the BBC flourish, and make sure that it never falls into the hands of the privatised sector.
The Producers: “Essential” redundancies, leading to “essential” profits.
Cameron Mackintosh, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Ambassador Theatre Group and Netherlander Theatres. In the last couple of months all these high-profile figures and companies have been leading redundancy consultations which recently resulted in thousands of theatre staff been made redundant. These companies have amply profited from their staff’s hard work, who in return have been subjected to poor workers’ conditions, low pay and even abusive behaviour, methods used by these ‘entrepreneurs’ to bully and exploit their employees. Now, they have the audacity to make them redundant. The government have been extremely uncooperative, silent, and ineffective, acting too late by setting up an emergency fund that will mainly benefit these commercially exploitative and capitalistic ventures and will be used to further fill their pockets with profit. Most of these redundancies have been made right before the companies had to pay national insurance contributions for the furlough scheme. With the employees being made redundant and these companies’ inherent wealth, it seems unnecessary for commercial theatre venues to receive further support from the government, if it wasn’t for the fact that it is a profitable initiative, rather than motivated by needs of survival. Commercial venues are now working with a skeleton crew, offering minimal pay-out to staff, and allowing the loss of thousands of jobs. £1.57 billion seemed a nice incentive from the government, but it has not offered any protection or support to the workers, providing instead the producing powerhouses with more profit. It is time to not only criticise the government’s slow response to the crisis, but to attack the selfish producers and to demonstrate against the commercial industries to avoid any further exploitation of the workforce.
Cameron Mackintosh is a celebrated producer, architect of the ‘mega-musical,’ promoter of globalisation within the theatre industry and creator of the so-called ‘mctheatre,’ an initiative that made theatre viably commercial in the United Kingdom. Cameron Mackintosh is also known to be very rich and has made numerous appearances on The Sunday Times Top 100 rich list. Mackintosh has an interesting political history. He is a conservative supporter who regularly donates to the party and has recently come out in support of Brexit. It is also well-known in the industry that he often displays hostile and aggressive attitude towards his staff, thinking that filling them with terror is how they will keep providing the celebrated 5-star standard of customer service. To top that, his response to coronavirus has been atrocious: he has made no effort to develop practical methods to ensure the re-opening of theatres, nor has he produced reports or consulted with the government on how to approach the theatre crisis. He has often been critical of union activity, which he has repeatedly tried to suppress. Even though he proudly announced to his staff – during redundancy consultations – that he has “never taken a loan” during his long empire, to produce his early works he did not shy away from relying on angel investors as discussed in detail in Theatre, Music and Sound at the RSC. Les Misérables, for example, one of those projects to be supported by external investors and subsidised assets. Mackintosh tends to hide from the spotlight, as he only cares about the profit he is making, and he is extremely protective of his image. In the past week, his companies – DMT and CML – have recorded between 200-800 estimated redundancies, these figures however have not been entirely confirmed as he has declined to comment. The multi-millionaire producer has decided not to keep his employees in furlough as he is afraid to lose even a fraction of his wealth. His former and current workforce, with the help of more organised and effective unions, need to pose an opposition to these forms of exploitation and dismantle the ‘mctheatre’ way of manage theatre companies.
Andrew Llyod Webber is another benefactor of this culture of exploitation and profit. Although he has been praised for his efforts and attempts to re-opening the theatres during the COVID-19 pandemic, the multi-millionaire is also in the process of making a great deal of his staff redundant. What is even more damning is that – when the lockdown started – he proclaimed that he would not have deprived his staff of their livelihoods during such a crisis. Webber is not trying to open theatres to preserve culture: he is trying to regain and keep making profit from his shows. Webber’s political history clearly shows his reservation towards the working class and those struggling actors who are trying to make ends meet in such a tough and competitive industry. He has been a Tory supporter since the days of Thatcher, which led him to write music for the conservative’s 1987 political party broadcast. He was made a life peer in the House of Lords, where he was able to vote for austerity measures that indirectly affected the theatre industry. He even hopped on a private jet to travel to London to vote against tax credits, a motion which affected vulnerable children and their families. Let us remember that Webber does not care about the community, only his business. Webber and Cameron have recently been involved in a battle about the permanent closure of Phantom of the Opera. Webber has completely disregarded Mackintosh’s comments on closure and suggested that, instead, it would be reopening soon. These are rival capitalists fighting to win the throne over the realm commercial theatre. Ambassador Theatre Group, the largest commercial theatre in the country, have laid off thousands of their members of staff in an order to maintain their profits. They have showed a questionable behaviour towards the customer, failing to refund over 50% of the tickets booked before the pandemic. This type of anti-consumer greed of capitalistic ventures is the reason why all these producers have damaged the industry. They will continue to damage if the workers and their unions will not organise and demand increasing pressure.
One of the most saddening things to become apparent during this pandemic is the lack of union response in criticising the government. Both BECTU and Equity have tried to support a small minority of their workers by creating hardship funds, and although this might have been a nice offering, their efforts have been weak and futile: they have been complacent in accepting mass redundancies and failed to put pressure on the government in regards of the handling of the emergency funds, which could have been used to save thousands of jobs. As a result, BECTU will lose most of the workforce they are supposed to protect and will become redundant themselves when the pandemic is over. Labour have been particularly quiet on this matter, and while the leader Starmer was coming up with slogans such as “jobs, jobs, jobs”, the jobs were actually lost by the thousands. The arts workers must start organising and adding pressure on both politicians and trade union movements, even if they have already been made redundant. The fight does not end because you believe you are no longer part of it. Write to BECTU criticising the ineffective handling of the redundancies, join the Labour Party, become a delegate, and speak at conferences to put forward motions to protect theatre jobs. If not, the capitalist producers and this hopeless government will continue to do their own interests, and there will be no one fighting the workers’ corner. We must be arguing for a permanent furlough scheme until the theatres are able to open, and a forced legislation for these companies to demand a hire-back contract for their staff. Or at the very least, a much better severance package than what people are receiving. We cannot let Cameron Mackintosh, Webber, Ambassador Theatre Group or the Tory government let capitalism rot the very work force that built this industry, again.
A Financial Bailout for the Arts: Short-Term Solutions, Long-Term Problems
A couple of weeks ago the government offered a £1.57 billion bailout package for the arts. Whilst most arts workers were ecstatic by the announcement, some expressed criticism as it was offered with little knowledge of the roll-out, and it arrived too late, after many theatre closures and a grave loss of workforce. The government have been lazy in responding to the arts, primarily as conservative governments have never been greatly interested in preserving culture. This spending, however, will not offer full solutions, and the situation in theatres and exhibitions will only become worse economically speaking. It is necessary to make time for real discussion, and to create a proper opposition against the current treatment of the arts. We should now discuss a programme for state-ownership which would offer theatres the choice to stay closed and not rely on the economic language of box office sales, and open up new conversations about how we see the value of arts, putting the emphasis on the benefits it brings to society's cultural and anthropological development rather than focusing on its economic value. Labour’s current position on the arts has been ineffective, offering no real and concrete solutions, due to their hesitant views on spending and the efforts put on trying to become ‘electable’. Even Margaret Hodge, a labour MP who recently spoke in parliament to demand more from the government in regards of saving the arts, could not offer any economic solutions on how to actually do that. Labour must start planning for when the money runs out and there are no more borrowing solutions for the future.
What makes the situation worse are the producing powerhouses and venues that are purely interested in the commercial side of the business. These days it is possible to scroll through videos and speeches in social media channels, praising Andrew Lloyd Webber and other producers/creatives considered now as the “saviours” of theatre for trying to adopt ideas from South Korea’s theatre model. This saviour complex becomes a paradox when the same so called saviours are announcing redundancies of their staff. This was recently reported by the Stage in an article entitled: Coronavirus: Lloyd Webber’s LW Theatres begins redundancy consultations. Andrew Lloyd Webber currently has a net value of £820 million, not including his business assets. He still has operating shows currently running, and that poses a huge question on whether these sackings are necessary, or just an excuse to protect his profits. He is not the only one in the process of making his staff redundant: Cameron Mackintosh, Sonia Freidman, Ambassador Theatre Group, Netherlander Theatres. All these high-profiteering producers have announced redundancies and no one has really spoken or given much attention to it. Especially Labour. Why? Because Labour’s right-wing members are ineffective when it comes to protecting Capitalism’s interests. Now a push is needed within the Labour movement towards protecting artists' rights. Furthermore, it is necessary to re-focus on how our economic system is run through the arts. Theatre and culture produce finacial benefits to this country, yes. Their contribution was currently estimated to be around £2.68 billion in revenue in the 2018/2019 financial year. There is also the matter of their artistic value, and often the “moral responsibility” to protect our culture has been addressed, yes. My argument, however, is that there is a third argument, one that little have been spoken about or discussed: art and culture can reflect the economical, political, and cultural landscape of the present day. Not only does it provide entertainment, but it offers critical thinking, logical evaluations and a sense of collectiveness that is rarely seen in other forms of artistic expression. It is not just a mere consumerist pleasure, nor a spiritual release, it is an educational tool that can explore and widen existence. That is why theatre and art are cornerstone of Britain's very essence.
That is not the only reason why the arts should be saved: workforce and job retention are a crucially important factor. That is why we have launched the #saveourartsworkers campaign. We need to highlight and raise awareness not merely about the arts, but also about the artistic workforce that is now facing severe consequences if left to the producing houses' profit driven actions and inefficient union activity. Unfortunately, Equity and BECTU have been critically weak on defending workers from redundancies, and we urge them to now adopt an approach like the NEU (National Education Union) to threaten strike or protest action if these redundancies are set to continue. That is why it is vital that all workers in the arts sign up and push their unions, in order to be in a better position to protect their jobs. The same must be said about the Labour Party. In the upcoming weeks and months, we will be actively campaigning for the safety of arts workers and demanding from the Labour Party a strong push towards a safety net for jobs in the artist workforce. It is not good enough for Labour party politicians to offer problems, and yet have no tangible solutions to solve the crisis. The Department of Culture, media, and sport has already declared that the government was too slow to react to the incoming crisis, and as a result, we are about to lose several artistic venues. The solutions are as follows: Setting up a wide-scale nationalisation act that will lead to the Arts Council taking full-control of the theatres and artistic venues, but still keeping the “arms-length” policy from the Arts Council when creating work and ensuring that the artistic democracy is independent and protected from state-propaganda. It is then paramount to also put big producing houses into the hands of state entities, to avoid redundancies and ensuring that a variety of programming is offered by ALL venues.
We will be campaigning for all the issues listed above and many other socialist concerns. Right now, our priority is to #saveourartsworkers and to make these demands to the Labour Party. If we achieve our goals, the Arts will have a much brighter and healthier future for all involved in its creation.