Actress takes centre stage in battle over cash for 'resting'

Culture clash: Performing artists up in arms over Government proposal to remove financial safety net for the out-of-work
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The Independent Online
MARIANNE MACDONALD

Arts Correspondent

Charlotte Cornwell, one of the few members of the acting profession who manages to get a fair amount of well-paid work, is spearheading a campaign against government proposals to treat actors as self-employed.

During the four and a half months she was out of work last year, she signed on the dole. "It's a matter of principle," she says. "If we made the contributions we should take it up."

Ms Cornwell, 46, who is as famous for suing a critic who alleged she had a large bottom as for her parts in Dressing For Breakfast and Rock Follies, is furious about plans to change her tax status. Actors, dancers and singers pay higher Class 1 National Insurance contributions which entitle them to unemployment benefit of pounds 46.45 a week, sick pay, maternity pay, and industrial injuries benefit.

But the Department of Social Security proposes to change their National Insurance status to Class 2. This would mean they are only able to get income support, which is means-tested.

Ms Cornwell says the move could be devastating. "This goes to the heart of the whole question of how we value the cultural contribution of performing artists. Without being able to sign on, life would become really terrible."

This is the story of a year in her life:

January and February 1995

A View From The Bridge at Bristol Old Vic, on pounds 260 a week plus expenses of pounds 52.50. Luckily, she can stay with friends. "I'm lucky I didn't have to pay for digs, because they are at least pounds 60 a week for a room in a house," she says. But her earnings do not go very far after her agent deducts 10 per cent and she puts aside one-third for tax and child care for her daughter.

March

Play moves to Birmingham Rep, on a half-subsidised basis, and her earnings rise steeply. She is now on West End rates of pounds 925 a week. Once again, she has a friend she can stay with.

April, May, June

Play opens at the Strand Theatre in the West End, still on pounds 925 a week. She can now live at home with her daughter and that saves on child care. "I'm on good money," she says, "but the West End minimum is only pounds 241.51."

Mid-June, July, August

The work has dried up, and with little money coming in, it is easy for the overdraft to build up again. "The thing that happens to actors is they keep money back for tax but then they come to the point of having no money for food and their children and they dip into it."

September, October

Lands a main part in a new television sitcom, Dressing For Breakfast. Spends two weeks on location around London, then six weeks in rehearsal before filming on Friday nights at the South Bank. She is earning more than pounds 1,000 a week - an actor's dream.

November, December

Signing on again, but it has been a good year. "It's the first time ever where I've been in the luxurious position of being able to turn down work," she says. "In my 30s and 40s, although I got prestigious jobs in the theatre, I was out of work a lot. Only this year, have I managed to pay off all the debts that accumulated from those 15 years."

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