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Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 06 March 2008


6 March 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr David McNarry (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Mr Francie Brolly
Lord Browne
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon

Mr Drew McFarlane ) Equity
Mr J J Murphy )

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr McNarry):
I welcome Mr Drew McFarlane, Equity’s Northern Ireland secretary, and Mr J J Murphy, actor. I advise members that Neil Murray, the executive producer of the National Theatre of Scotland, is unable to take up the invitation today and sends his apologies.

I refer members to the correspondence of 28 October 2007 from Mr J J Murphy, which provides some background information on the proposal for the theatre initiative. I also refer members to a briefing paper from the Northern Ireland theatre initiative. As agreed at last week’s meeting, I will ask a question on behalf of members. Mr McFarlane and Mr Murphy, do you intend to release a press statement after this meeting?

Mr Drew McFarlane (Equity):
There is no intention to do that.

The Deputy Chairperson:
OK; the place is yours.

Mr D McFarlane:
We are glad to be here. Before Christmas last year, on the back of the draft Budget discussions pertaining to culture — and a situation from our members — I sought a meeting to discuss the lot of Equity members working in Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland theatre initiative — in which Jimmy has been redoubtable in his pursuance — has been added on. However, one comes out of the other. The situation for actors, stage managers and the wider membership of the industry in Northern Ireland is dire. Professional theatre is almost withering on the vine.

I sent the Committee details of minimum agreed rates for Equity members. Equity negotiates minimum rates of pay for members throughout the industry, regardless of whether they are working in film, television or theatre. Such companies as the Tinderbox Theatre Company, Replay Productions and the Big Telly Theatre Company employ our members, and they pay around £350 a week. Equity members who work in the Lyric Theatre are lucky if they earn £400 a week, and actors who work in theatre in Northern Ireland are lucky to get three months work a year. The average earnings, therefore, are low — contrary to public perception. The general lot for the majority of our members is one of a low-wage economy; there is not enough work for them here. Many Equity members who used to be based in Northern Ireland have moved to Dublin, London, Glasgow or further afield.

Equity wanted the Budget to bring about a complete sea change in how Northern Ireland views its cultural industries. That view is not helped by the film and television industries. Ulster Television has nothing for Equity members, and the BBC pays mere lip service because it is, primarily, pump-primed by Northern Ireland’s licence payers’ money and the central BBC. However, it does next to nothing to nurture our talent base. For instance, the BBC recently screened a four-part series that was based on fairy tales. I am not an arbiter of taste, but I thought that it was poor. If one had blinked, one would have missed the Northern Ireland-based actors who were involved in the series. It was cast mainly in and around London’s M25 — at the BBC’s request, not that of the independent company, Hat Trick Productions, that shot it. I want the Committee to ponder those points and address them, because the BBC must be called to task; it is a public broadcaster, and it receives public money.

I have sent the Committee a briefing paper on the Northern Ireland theatre initiative; it is a snapshot of the initiative’s beginnings. The initiative was influenced by models that were being promulgated elsewhere, particularly in Scotland. I have brought some publications from that company for the Committee to look at, and I will leave them.

The Deputy Chairperson:
Is the Scotland initiative a success?

Mr D McFarlane:
It is an unmitigated success, from our point of view in particular. Concerns are being expressed — but whispered only at this stage — because it is feared that the strategy will detract from public funding. I can understand that, because companies in isolation that are paid out of the public purse are always looking for more. They want to conserve what they receive, and they see the strategy as a threat. A caveat must be included to state that the funding is additional new money and will not detract from the existing professional theatre infrastructure. It will not exist otherwise. The National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) model works because it works in tandem with existing theatre infrastructure. The NTS is currently involved in a joint production with the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow and the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh. The NTS pay the actors’ wages, and the Royal Lyceum and the Citizens’ Theatre provide their stage technicians and facilities.

The National Theatre of Scotland has used that model of collaboration since its inception. It is not a building-based company; hence, there is no monolithic structure somewhere draining resources to pay for rent, heat, light, power, and so forth. It is a versatile theatre company that is housed in the centre of Glasgow, but it can travel throughout all the airts and pairts of Scotland — and it does so successfully. It not only puts on productions in theatres but in village halls and schools. It has also put on productions in land-specific sites, on ships, in high-rise flats and other locations that I have mentioned in the briefing paper.

The National Theatre of Scotland is highly successful. When it was first mooted that it was going to put on a production of ‘Black Watch’, everyone assumed that it would be an anti-Iraq war production. However, it actually told the tale of working-class young men around Fife who had to choose the Army as a career. The play broke all records, and it swept the boards at last year’s Edinburgh Festival. It is currently touring Australia and New Zealand. However, it will return to Scotland, and it will also be staged in London.

The Deputy Chairperson:
You have about three minutes remaining.

Mr D McFarlane:
I have a tendency to go on about the issue.

Essentially, the theatre industry in Northern Ireland is in a dire state, and our members have a real problem in gaining employment. The theatre initiative is only part of the solution. It will work with existing companies and will act as a feeder and a training ground for the burgeoning film and television production industry. Northern Ireland Screen is banging on about that. I hope that the initiative will attract inward investment and migration, and assist in the local economy. We believe that the concept is much needed.

Scotland provided such a successful model that the Welsh Assembly examined the idea, embraced it and is now funding it. Today’s meeting isnae the be-all and end-all, and Neil Murray — who sends his apologies — said that he would love to come to the Committee and talk about how the Scottish model works from a business point of view. I am a full-time trade union official, and Jimmy is an actor; therefore, we are not in a position to talk about that issue.

We regard the Committee as being our guardians; therefore, we are trying to get a groundswell of opinion so that you can do something about the situation, especially with regard to the employment of actors. However, there is also a much wider economic argument.

The Deputy Chairperson:
I have heard you talking about the initiative before, and I think that it is thrilling. I wish you well with it.

Mr McCarthy:
I am delighted to hear what you have said, but what would be the Committee’s role? Would it campaign for funding to get something off the ground or to keep you going? The actors’ wages are pathetic, and they would not encourage young people to become involved. Perhaps you would tell us what the Committee could do as a starting point?

Mr D McFarlane:
We are only two individuals, and our union speaks with one voice, but the Committee has far-reaching powers that we do not have. You can vocalise the concept if you adopt it as a strategy and state that something must be done about the situation. You can do it here in Parliament Buildings, and your colleagues at Westminster could take the argument there so that something could be done about the situation in Northern Ireland. As you are the guardians of the arts and cultural industries, we are asking you to take the matter forward for us.

Mr J J Murphy (Equity):
We want you to agree to the initiative, take it to the Executive and get them to fund it. The National Theatre of Scotland is funded directly from the Scottish Parliament, which also directly funds Scotland’s opera company, ballet company and orchestra. Therefore, they fund the four major contributors to the arts and cultural sector in Scotland. We would like the Executive to find the money: it cannot come from other Departments’ purses.

This is not a new idea. As far back as 1931, there was talk of the new Northern Ireland Government following the lead given by the new Dublin Government, which funded the Abbey Theatre. By the way, the Minister of Finance at that time was a Lisburn man. In 1931, a go-ahead organisation called the Ulster Literary Theatre wondered whether the Northern Ireland Government would do the same.

In the 1970s, there was more serious talk about building a theatre funded by the Government, but it did not go any further. The situation now is that there is no talk of building a new theatre: no one will use the money to buy bricks, toilet rolls, sweets or ice cream. Some money will go towards paying the wages of an artistic director, a business manager or administrator, and a personal assistant. The remainder will be for production costs and to pay the wages of actors, stage managers and technicians. I put it to you —

The Deputy Chairperson:
You would be using existing theatres: you are not going to build a theatre, are you, J J?

Mr J J Murphy:
No; that is the last thing that we would do with the money, but that is not to decry the National Theatre in London.

The Deputy Chairperson:
There is plenty of room for one at the Maze. [Laughter.]

Mr J J Murphy:
Perhaps we can discuss that at the next meeting.

This is a brand-new concept of what a national theatre should be. It is perfect for areas of small economy, such as Northern Ireland, which is why Wales has adopted it. It is also, if you will pardon the expression, going a bomb in Scotland where extraordinary things are happening.

Last year, the two main parties across the water, the Conservatives and Labour, decided to take an in-depth look at the policy for culture and arts. In the middle of February this year, there was an article in the ‘Guardian’:

“What seems to be emerging is the recognition that a society with a strong cultural policy is better at almost everything it does. Creativity — reflecting on what is, imagining what could be, dreaming about how we get from where we are now to where we might be — is an essential human skill. With it, we’re better scientists, economists, medics or pretty much anything. We’re better at communicating and problem-solving; our leisure time and quality of life are enriched.
An excellent Government arts policy now seems a real possibility, even if some of the details are vague.”

An initiative will come from across the water, and it would be great if our place were ready to accept it.

Mr McCausland:
Mr Murphy referred to an “in-depth look” at theatre and other forms of arts and culture in England, and Drew used the word “strategy”. My recollection is that, when the Committee asked the Arts Council whether there was a strategy for the theatre and other sectors of the arts, its response was to hand over its funding criteria, which covered one page, if even that. There is no policy: everything operates in a vacuum.

That lack of policy is not unique to theatre, because we discovered that there is no policy for museums in Northern Ireland either. In fact, there are hardly any policies for anything. Therefore, I suggest that the development of a policy or strategy is the way forward, because there are several issues to consider.

Reference was made to Northern Ireland Screen, and a point was made about insufficient commissioning of local programming. Would you support a proposal from the Committee to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure that a piece of work be completed fairly quickly on the theatre sector in Northern Ireland, its potential and where a Northern Ireland theatre initiative would fit in? That could be done by the Department, or the Arts Council and Northern Ireland Screen, because it would probably come under their remits. The BBC and UTV must also be involved to cover the commissioning issue. The work should not take for ever and a day or cost a fortune, but it would mean that a theatre initiative would probably have a better chance of getting somewhere. I do not want an answer to that today.

The Deputy Chairperson:
The Committee should return to that issue, Nelson. I do not want to get bogged down by making a wish list today; we will do that as a Committee. I am sure that today’s witnesses would support Nelson’s suggestion

Mr D McFarlane:
Absolutely, with the caveat that if I had a pound for every page that contained an Arts Council strategy, we would not have to come here to ask for money: we would already have it.

Mr McCausland:
Most of those strategies were merely fluff and gloss that contained big fancy pictures and little text.

The Deputy Chairperson:
I am taking a note of that because it is a valid point.

Mr D Bradley:
I remember the Interplay Company that travelled around schools in a big furniture van and performed abridged Shakespearean plays in about two hours. Those productions were a great experience for schoolchildren, who would otherwise not have had the chance to see such plays, and the ability to make use of any available space demonstrates the plasticity of such companies. Although on a grander scale, that template seems to be what you are suggesting. Such a project is quite exciting, and we would support it. Have you discussed it with the Arts Council and, if so, what was the response?

Mr J J Murphy:
No, we have not had any discussions with the Arts Council, simply because we want the Executive to handle the initiative. Money for the Northern Ireland theatre initiative should be new, and the Arts Council should continue to get its money — little as that is, having lost £2·5 million to the Olympics, which is a sore point. In this part of the world, actors’ morale is pretty low. We envisage that the initiative will be directly funded by, and responsible only to, the Executive.

Mr Brolly:
Over the years, we have exchanged correspondence. I would have expected the Arts Council to undertake such an initiative. I have always said that the Arts Council should be proactive, particularly in its efforts to promote drama, which, as somebody said, only warrants half a page at the end of a report. Although I appreciate that, for historic reasons, you wish to bypass the Arts Council and deal directly with the Executive, the fact is that you are likely to be told that the Arts Council receives arts funding, and you will get your share of that. Rather than pushing the Arts Council about funding, you should approach it in its capacity as an arts promoter. I attempted to highlight that role, and I postulated to Roisín McDonough that, as Nelson said, the Arts Council does little other than administer funds for those with the loudest voices.

The Deputy Chairperson:
Francie, do you have a question?

Mr Brolly:
Would Equity not be better advised to do as I have done for years, and get stuck into the Arts Council?

Mr D McFarlane:
We have been getting stuck into the Arts Council for donkey’s years. Concerning your earlier point, we did consult with the Arts Council. The £3 million that was spent on consultancy fees was mentioned, and the Arts Council brought in a consultant to draw up its five-year strategy. I had input to that process and, based on my experience with the Scottish-theatre model, I spoke about this model. The consultant was in favour of it; however, on publication of the final five-year-strategy document, my proposal had completely vanished.

With the greatest respect to the people in the Northern Ireland Arts Council now, in the 17 years that I have been doing my job, the Arts Council never took on its required advocacy role. It was great at dispersing funds, but there has always been an Oliver Twist begging-bowl syndrome here, and, although I may be being cynical, having recently been questioned, and with direct funding having been mentioned, the Arts Council has only now got on its hind legs to kick up a fuss.

The Arts Council manages all the arts. We want an initiative that can work hand in glove with the council’s existing theatre infrastructure.

The Deputy Chairperson:
That is important; thank you.

Lord Browne:
That sounds exciting, and it is an excellent concept. Performances in public spaces, such as railway stations, airports, and so forth, will open theatre up to a much wider audience.

Victoria Square has just opened recently, with its walk-through area. Have you approached the private sector for any sort of sponsorship or money towards the project — for example, big companies such as Tesco, Ikea or the Victoria Square development? As well as a Government contribution, the private sector should have a role in bringing theatre to a much wider audience.

Mr D McFarlane:
There is no doubt that the private sector should have a role. Despite all the years of other organisations trying to involve the private sector, the problem is that not much money comes to the arts from the private sector, and that sector tends to piggyback on successful projects.

In order to give the private sector an example of a successful project that it should be buying into, a project such as a theatre initiative must be up and running. The private sector’s providing matching funding for certain areas can then be discussed, particularly funding for the areas that were mentioned, because workshops should also be brought to schools. Young people should gain first-hand experience of theatre, not only to give them a taste of what it is about but some aspirations of where they could go in the industry if they so choose. However, that must be initiated politically, and the private sector would, I hope, follow.

Mr D Bradley:
How much does the Scottish Executive invest in the Scottish model?

Mr D McFarlane:
I am glad that you are all sitting down. [Laughter.] It is not true what they say about the Scots, by the way.

Mr D Bradley:
You would say that. [Laughter.]

Mr D McFarlane:
I have to say that; I am from the east end of Glasgow.

At the moment, the Scottish Government directly fund the National Theatre of Scotland to the tune of £4·4 million for this year. The theatre also receives £1·5 million in additional funding through box office private sponsorship. However, the main meat — £4·4 million — comes entirely from the Scottish Government. Obviously, there are economies of scale, and Northern Ireland is completely different to Scotland, but that is the sort of investment that the Scottish Government have made.

The Deputy Chairperson:
Gentlemen, I suggest that we set up a rogue consultation company, which we pay £250,000. [Laughter.] We will then slip that money into a theatre initiative, because consultants can be paid here, but it is very difficult to pay real people.

Mr Shannon:
Is this all being recorded by Hansard?

The Deputy Chairperson:
Is that why you are saying nothing?

Mr Shannon:
That is why I am keeping quiet. [Laughter.]

Mr K Robinson:
Money is tight in Scotland, so can you tell me why the Scottish Executive felt it worthwhile to invest that amount of money? Why did they think that it was worth investing £4·4 million in the project? What would they get out of it?

Mr D McFarlane:
The National Theatre of Scotland acts as a first-class cultural ambassador, putting Scotland and its cultural issues onto the UK and international map. It has put productions of ‘Wolves in the Wall’ — which is, by and large, a piece of children’s theatre, but which is breathtaking — on Broadway and in Los Angeles, and it has performed ‘Black Watch’ in Australia, New Zealand, and America. In June 2007, Alex Salmond opened the new Scottish Parliament with a production of ‘Black Watch’ in the main Chamber; it was political whimsy on his part.

The Scottish Executive, therefore, see the National Theatre of Scotland as part of their economic strategy. The theatre acts as a cultural ambassador and is an economic strategy, because it creates added wealth from tourism and migration. We reiterated those figures previously. However, surveys of the reasons that people are attracted to Northern Ireland show that visitors consider what is in the area and what is available culturally. To me, theatre is never an add-on; it is an economic generator, exactly the same as any other industry. It must be perceived in that way, and politicians must perceive it in that way.

The Deputy Chairperson:
We are running way behind — by half an hour. I will ask just one question. Is there scope for variety in the proposal, perhaps to include musicals as part of the initiative?

Mr D McFarlane:
Absolutely; in the programmes of the productions that have been staged so far, there is space for variety. I look after Equity members in Northern Ireland, and we meet in the Dockers Club. There is that space for variety.

The Deputy Chairperson:
Gentlemen, we have received your presentation with enthusiasm; thank you for bringing it to us. In summary, I think that the Committee is of a mind to consider the issue. We will not make any further promises, but the subject of this Committee meeting deserves more time being set aside for an in-depth discussion and to read the Hansard report. No doubt we will come back to you with further questions, or for clarification, and we will also do some spadework ourselves by examining what is happening in the theatre sector, as Nelson has suggested. There is perhaps room for joint ventures with private money, and so forth. Your presentation deserves serious examination; I promise you that we will do that, and you will be informed about our progress. Thank you very much indeed.

Mr D McFarlane:
Thank you very much.

Mr McCausland:
Before we leave that issue, can I also suggest that we write to the Arts Council — which has a touring arrangement with the Arts Council in the Republic — to suggest that it might examine its relationship with the Scottish Arts Council, with a view to bringing the National Theatre of Scotland to Northern Ireland?

The Deputy Chairperson:
That is a very good idea.

Mr McCausland:
It is important that we have relationships in all directions — east-west and North/South — and it would help us to put the case if people had seen a National Theatre of Scotland production. If there are touring arrangements with one country, there is no reason that there should not be such arrangements with another country.

The Deputy Chairperson:
As you know, I am not one for junkets, but many members sit on Belfast City Council, so we will pass over that very quickly. [Laughter.]

Mr McCausland:
That is being recorded in Hansard.

The Deputy Chairperson:
I am aware that that is being recorded in Hansard, and I will tell you later, Nelson, why I have said it. It may be conducive to the entire project, if we are serious about it, to have a look at what is being done in Scotland, and I am sure that you could arrange that.

Mr McCausland:
The problem, Mr Deputy Chairman, is that you have parliamentary privilege, and I cannot sue you for that. [Laughter.]

The Deputy Chairperson:
The Committee Clerk is clear about Nelson’s further proposal.

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