Royal Shakespeare Company

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 9:35 pm on 20th February 1990.

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Photo of Mr Gerald Bowden Mr Gerald Bowden , Dulwich 9:35 pm, 20th February 1990

I have been called upon, Mr. Speaker, to do the impossible—to follow two magnificent acts. It only goes to prove the old theatrical principle that the audience will follow a star performer. To see hon. Members return to the Chamber when my hon. Friend for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) rose to his feet was a measure of the significance and great importance of his contribution to the arts and to the debate in the House.

The subject that we are debating causes sadness and regret on both sides of the House. When a great, much respected and much loved company which gives so much pleasure to so many finds it necessary to cut the number of its performances and productions, we must feel some sadness. We recognise that the theatre presents the world of fantasy upon the stage, but we must also realise that it lives in the world of reality offstage. It has to make many artistic judgments and, at the same time, many commercial judgments. The need to bring those two judgments into balance is one of the great difficulties with which all cultural and artistic endeavour has to wrestle. Today we recognise that the cultural and the commercial, the artistic and the real, produce a tension which is of value in espousing and encouraging cultural endeavour.

The threat to the Royal Shakespeare Company comes from its presentation of classical drama. It has been innovative and has encouraged wider development, but the time has come for it to consider its identity, to think about the thing that it does best, to bring into balance its commercial and cultural concerns and to look to the future in a spirit of positive optimism, not with regret that it has had to close one of its stages for a short time during the year.

The debate also raises the wider issue of what should be a Government's policy in such a situation. Conservative Members have endorsed the Government's policy that the arm's-length principle should apply—that money should be given to an intermediary, which is independent and objective in its artistic judgment, to ensure that the money is allocated in the best possible way without any direct Government interference in the cultural or artistic input.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) and other Opposition Members have paid lip service to the arm's-length principle, but I suspect that that implied a financial finger firmly in the artistic pie. The hon. Gentleman suggested that the arts should rely on state subsidies, on public money, as their main source of support. I believe that the arts have blossomed by virtue of the diversity of their funding. Money should and does come from the state, in the form of public subsidy through the Arts Council, but it should also come from sponsorship, for corporate reasons, from individual firms, whose motives may be higher in some cases than in others. A third but most important ingredient is the box office—the individual contribution and desire to pay the price of a ticket to see a production.

The benefit to the arts of receiving funding from those three sources is inestimable. The danger of any arts organisation, institution or theatre relying for its funding on a single source is that it will become wholly dependent on that source. We have known instances in the past when an entirety of public funding has brought with it implications of corruption.

The Government's policy of a plurality of funding has brought about a flourishing of the arts, the like of which has not been seen before this century. It has brought about a diversity of the arts. A diversity of funding brings about a diversity of production, and that should be applauded.