Encore Theatre Magazine
:: Sunday, October 10, 2004 ::
We got a couple of emails from people who weren't sure we were joking at the end of the piece on Matt Fraser's comments. But we're serious. Why not nationalise the West End? These theatres need extensive renovation; some of them are glorious and need to be restored; some of them are hideous and need to be rebuilt. The only theatres that make profits are the ones with bit fat long runs in and can't therefore be rebuilt. The small cabal of businesspeople who own these buildings have shown very little interest in seriously addressing its problems, and they're always moaning about the difficulty of making any money. Last year's Theatres Trust report estimated that £17m needed to be spent annually until 2018 to make the West End viable in the long term as public performance spaces. The Disability Discrimination Act only makes this claim more urgent. The owners insist they can't afford these changes.
So let's nationalise the theatres. Since the buildings make them so little money, the theatre-owners won't need much compensating. Usually they say they carry on running them through love of the theatre; if so, they could be invited to join a small number of new public boards - because a little competition's undoubtedly healthy - that will run the theatres in the public interest.
Each board will look after, say, five theatres and would be expected to plan for the renovation of each of these theatres over the next 7 - 10 years. These boards will also have artistic representation and it would be valuable to have input from the National Trust. Some negotiation will be necessary to balance the needs of preserving their architectural interest and meeting the needs of twenty-first century theatregoers. There should be public funds made available to co-fund the rebuilding of these spaces, but much income will derive from the box office. But successful transfers from the subsidised sector - at more favourable rates than are usually offered - will help greatly here. Something similar could be put in place to renovate what used to be called the 'no. 1 touring circuit': the grand but fading network of regional theatres. The Hippodromes, the Grands, the Empires.
Having put so much public money in, it is reasonable that the public should keep control of these theatres, and they should not be returned to private ownership only to run, once more, into neglect. It would create a new kind of National Theatre, a dispersed, decentralised network of national theatres. It's something akin to what Scotland are about to embark on and it will help save the West End from itself.
The theatre is irresistable! Nationalise the theatres!