Exit left as Arts Council drama panel resigns

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The Independent Online
THE entire panel of drama advisers to the Arts Council resigned yesterday, claiming that the changes being introduced by the new council chairman, Gerry Robinson, will be unworkable.

The 16-strong panel included some of the biggest names in British theatre, including the West End producer Thelma Holt, playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn and the directors Sam Mendes and Jude Kelly. Their public disaffection will be a considerable embarrassment to Mr Robinson, who is also the chairman of Granada. He has promised to streamline and modernise the body that gives pounds 400m a year in grant and lottery cash to the arts.

It also comes at a bad time for the Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, overshadowing the launch last night of his book Creative Britain.

The view of Ms Holt, the drama panel chairwoman, was that, far from being creative, Britain's arts were "now in the hands of businessmen and cost- cutters".

Ms Holt, who was to have been in the post until March 2000, said last night: "I'm very distressed that Chris Smith has not even acknowledged my resignation. I've had a very good relationship with him and I wrote to him a week ago telling him what I was doing, but he hasn't replied. Labour is my party; I've worked for it, but I did better under Virginia Bottomley.

"The drama panel has been castrated. The umbilical cord between the artist and the decision-maker will no longer work under the changes Gerry Robinson has introduced. They will lose all these names, handpicked by me, but they don't care. Their view is we're expendable, we can be replaced." Under a paper drawn up by the Arts Council chief executive, Peter Hewitt, and Mr Robinson, the art-form panels, including the drama panel, would meet only between twice and four times a year, as opposed to 10 at present; it would not have a say in decisions about which theatres should receive National Lottery cash; it would offer advice to a council officer rather than the council itself; membership would be regularly reviewed, and the panel chairman could sometimes accompany the art-form director into council meetings. "In other words," said Ms Holt, "I can carry my director's handbag. I don't buy this. Ironically, I was one of the architects of having a slimmed-down council. But my intention was I and the others should resign when appropriate.

"What actually happened was I receive a phone call when I'm in the bath in Tokyo telling me I've been sacked. I said: 'Oh no I haven't.' Then I get a call from Gerry, whom I hadn't even met, saying he agrees with everything I say, then he goes and castrates us. The Robinson reforms may suit Granada, but they don't suit me. They are all about finance and not artistic merit. So now I shall resign. My panel has met and they will be resigning too."

Last night Mr Robinson said in a statement: "The Arts Council regrets the chairman of its drama panel, Thelma Holt, resigned from the council today. We are grateful to Thelma for the contribution she has made to the council's work since her appointment in 1993."