Sorry, Sir Peter, but things are getting better for theatre

Hall's charge that the Arts Council is provoking the end of many small theatres is scandalous

THE ARTS argument has been a long-running serial over the last 50 years. Sometimes it threatens to be a soap opera; just occasionally it becomes a slanging match.

Peter Hall, in his article in Monday's Independent, attacked the Government and the Arts Council's arts funding in relation to drama. It is a great pity that his case is so easy to rebut on the grounds of its inadequate research. As Peter Hewitt, chief executive of the Arts Council of England, pointed out in this newspaper, there are a number of holes in the Hall argument. Most notably, he wrongly claims that increased government funding has not got through to the front line - although in fact a 9 per cent increase went to the National Theatre, 10 per cent to some orchestras and 100 per cent to some small organisations.

Hewitt could have added that Hall's extraordinary charge that "it seems Arts Council policy to provoke the end of many small theatres so that resources can be concentrated on the big boys" is all but scandalous. Is he really suggesting that those who work at the Arts Council and are devoted to breeding the arts in this country and helping them in so far as they can are deliberately setting out to crush small theatres? And which ones does he mean? The Palace, Watford - 11 per cent increase in grant? The Salisbury Playhouse - 11 per cent? The Derby Playhouse - 6 per cent increase? As I said, it is a pity that he is so vulnerable; a pity, because Peter Hall should carry authority that is perilously close to rabble-rousing.

I like Peter very much. I admire his work. I share his hopes for the future of the arts in this country and I have at the very least spoken on as many platforms, written as many articles over the last 20 years, been at as many last-ditch meetings, been as often publicly derided for "loveliness", as he has - and I have not changed.

But the attitude and the policy of the government to the arts in this country did begin to change in May 1997. It was a change for the better and it is gathering pace. Not to acknowledge this - worse, deliberately to misrepresent, undermine and sneer at it - is quite simply unfair. We should take our line from Orwell and try to "tell it like it is". To ignore what is good because it is far from perfect, to ignore improvements because they are not instantaneous and universal, to ignore the fact (which a wily old political animal like Peter Hall must understand better than most) that policy can be made in a few days but will take time, often a year or so to go through the damned process that turns ideas into actions - to ignore all this is to be rashly unfair again, and open to accusations.

For why is this ignored? Peter explains that his recent unsuccessful application to the Arts Council for a pounds 500,000 grant to run a company in London (incidentally, this sum is more than the combined grants given to the Donmar Warehouse, the Actors Touring Company and the Theatre de Complicite) should be brought against him. Alas, what does he expect? Surely after running the most heavily subsidised companies in British theatre (subsidies he used brilliantly) for decades, and after building up excellent film-making and commercial theatre careers partly as a result of this, he above all people must expect the usual careful considerations when asking for such a large lump of public money for a theatre arena (London) that is already pretty well served. He can scarcely complain that there will be those who treat his subsequent attack on the Arts Council as, if only in part, tinted with revenge or at least resentment.

But there are other reasons why the current good news - not enough of course, just a start - is easier to ignore. There exist now, because of the explosion of theatre over the last 25 years, and there will exist into the foreseeable future, so many companies that there will inevitably be some that are under-subsidised. As long as money is finite, that will be the case.

Peter Hall knows this more than most. Although subsidy for the arts has gone from pounds 8m in the Seventies to pounds 240m today, plus the hundreds of millions coming from the lottery, there is still not enough for the burgeoning demand. But Chris Smith's achievement in getting a way-above-average increase in the arts budget in the comprehensive spending review has to be recognised as a firm beginning, and a clear signal.

It is easier to pretend that more money is the only answer than to face up to other facts. Some companies, for example, fall away, lose their grip and decay. Pouring good money after bad may not be as useful as encouraging a new company or growing a company that is already doing fine work.

It is easier to ignore the painstaking work of the National Campaign for the Arts (with which I've been associated for many years) and set up a glittering Alternative Arts Council, some of whose "names" - Tom Stoppard, Jeremy Isaacs - immediately declare that they know nothing about it. This borders on mere gesture politics.

There is still much to be angry about in the arts, but most of it is largely the result of the 18-year inheritance from the Tories. Chris Smith has drawn a line and clearly he is fighting the battle. He is condemned to be the man who can never do enough. But he is far, far better than what we had before, and he deserves a fair chance.

I fear that Peter Hall's regular exercises in public demonisation will do little more than further convince those who need to be won over that the "luvvies" will never be satisfied - they have no sense of proportion, are not prepared to give public support where it could be effective, and are curiously addicted to the quick fixes of opposition.

It cannot be said often enough that much needs to be done - and more's the pity that Peter Hall refuses to see that at last his cause and mine and that of thousands of others is being taken up by a government. Joining in is sometimes the best revenge.

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