Interview: Evening Standard (1987)

This interview was published in the Evening Standard on 19 February 1987.

The Cost Of Bringing Them Closer To Us

by John Walsh

Should the arts be cost-effective? Should the arts world have a part to play in job-creation programmes? Should the sums handed out to arts bodies be contingent on their economic usefulness to the community?

You might think these to be questions that would occur only to bureaucratic Philistines - but they're precisely what was under discussion in Parliament this week. On Monday, Arts Minister Richard Luce fielded no less than 40 Parliamentary Questions in reply to his announcement that two studies - one funded by the Government - were investigating "the value of the arts from the point of view of the public and private sectors," with special reference to "the impact of the arts on employment."

Alan Ayckbourn doesn't like the idea at all. "Money" he says firmly, "just doesn't equal job creation when you're dealing with the arts. Provincial arts bodies like my theatre in Scarborough need money to lure actors away from their home base, which means London. With more money, you increase the salaries you've already got, or improve the production, or possibly take on one more member of staff - but that's it."

Ayckbourn, an ebullient and engaging cherub of 46, is an articulate commentator on the vicissitudes of theatre funding. A Londoner, he made his name over 20 years in Scarborough at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, first as a " very spotty " stage manager, later as Artistic Director.

While becoming the most prolific and popular playwright in the country, he fought a running battle against shortages of cash, and now is suspicious of any whiff of cutbacks in an already straitened industry.
In fact, the Government's Arts and Libraries department (which commissioned the survey from the Policy Studies Institute) insists that there is nothing sinister about the new funding debate. But in the current climate of parsimonious grants (the Arts Council's plea for £160m - and no less than £140m - for its 1987/8 budget elicited a grudging £138.4m) and threats to the rich subsidies granted to the National Theatre, the Royal Opera House, the ENO and the RSC, it raises worrying spectres. i

Will a new series of criteria decide who receives what in the future? Will considerations of sociological need and commercial pragmatism invade the ivory tower of artistic excellence? Will it lead to luxuriantly-funded productions of
Cavalcade in Wigan, to a moratorium of Beckett plays and one-man shows, to a scrum of hamburger palaces and minicab offices next door to the new recipients of the Government's largesse?

Ayckbourn recalls his' first production for
Stephen Joseph. "I asked what my budget was. Nothing, they said, but we won't complain if you go up to a fiver... This was for a costume drama called Gaslight.

"As we established ourselves, we could afford the odd frock here, the odd tree there, to break the monotony. But we're always short. For years, I've drawn no salary in Scarborough - but not every director can live on private means. Every theatre could make a strong case for getting more money. And every theatre should be accountable for what it does. The local arts authorities, which give parity grants along with the Arts Council's, check that we don't charge more or less than civic theatres, see that the returns are good, and that we produce a clean sheet of figures. If we could spend £10 or less on a new play, we would."

Ayckbourn is sceptical about the efficacy of private sector sponsorship, about which successive arts ministers have so enthused. "The fact is that the provinces don't hold much attraction to private industry. Unless I'm prepared to put on something like, say,
The Shell Petrol Show, they don't want to know."

He is now on a two-year sabbatical, in charge of a company of actors (who include Michael Gambon, Simon Cadell and Polly Adams) at the
National Theatre, where he is directing three plays, one in each of the three theatres: the farce Tons of Money at the Lyttelton, Miller's A View From the Bridge, which opened at the Cottesloe this week, and his own latest work (his 33rd), A Small Family Business, at the Olivier from May 21.

Ayckbourn exults about being given "total artistic freedom as to how to do them and whom to choose," and about the National's bottomless resources. " What's wonderful is the back-up team. In Scarborough, if you want a wig, it's hopeless because all the wigmakers live miles away. Here there's a whole wig department!"

Was he conscious of divided loyalties, in his easy new surroundings?

" Well, the budgets for plays in Scarborough varied from £5000 to £10,000 - that's about the lower end of a Cottesloe production. But I'd hate to see the National underfunded to finance the provinces. There's often been a feeling of Them and Us about the National and elsewhere - any attempt to divide us further would be dangerous. To see the National stripped of its assets so that the Royal Exchange can have more would be nonsensical. We must keep the flagships going…"

Copyright: Evening Standard. This edited transcription and the end-notes have been compiled and researched by Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.