Staged: a handful of VIP events is no substitute for normality

Uncertainty is crippling our cultural life

3 July 2021

9:00 AM

3 July 2021

9:00 AM

Wimbledon is back. The start of the tournament in June marks the opening of the British summer, sending a signal to everyone that it’s time to take it easy: enjoy a glass of fizz, some strawberries and some sporting drama on the grass. And this year, for the first time, we witnessed a roar of applause from the crowd on Centre Court for Britain’s vaccine success. It looks very much like life as normal.

The same was true at Wembley stadium, where thousands of fans cheered on England this week when they beat Germany. A few plays have opened as well. Several politicians were in attendance at the Garrick for the opening night of Maggie & Ted, a play about Ted Heath’s rivalry with Margaret Thatcher.

Behind the scenes, ministers have been planning this for months. The idea is to lay on a small number of showcase events for the cameras, let in the crowds and then send a picture to the country and the world. Events such as Wimbledon and the Euros are being used as show ponies to convince us — and the rest of the world — that normality has returned.

The hope is that other sporting and theatrical events will soon be back to pre-Covid normality, but the reality may be very different. As long as the government retains the right (and the inclination) to lock us down again, the entire industry is under threat. Using emergency powers, No. 10 can close every venue in the country with just a few days’ notice. The most worrying aspect of the crisis is that many of us have been successfully trained to acquiesce in the abolition of our freedom.

Livelihoods are at stake here. So is our cultural heritage. The uncertainty alone is itself crippling. Who would spend time and money planning a large festival in this climate? Andrew Lloyd Webber has said that predatory speculators are looking enviously at his collection of London theatres, but he has angrily rejected a governmental attempt to enlist him as an ally and to turn his new show into a Potemkin event. He has a point. You can fill the London Palladium with VIPs and invite the news cameras in, but attention should really focus on the lockdown-induced crisis facing those involved in planning such events.

Phase 1 of the government’s Potemkin programme involved nine events, including the FA Cup Final, the Brit Awards in London and the World Snooker Championship at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. Guests were asked to take a lateral-flow test as a condition of attendance.

But the experiment showed just how hard the resumption of normal life will be. The Hot Water Comedy Club in Liverpool, for example, pulled out because a rumour spread that the programme was a pilot scheme for vaccine passports.

Events have still been planned despite all the uncertainty. But disaster struck when lockdown, which had been due to end on 21 June, was extended for another month until 19 July. Numerous events were thrown into jeopardy. The government solved the problem by extending its licensed events programme to include the Grand Prix at Silverstone, Grange Opera Festival and — of course — Wimbledon. So, although the tennis appears to be taking place under normal pre-Covid conditions, it is in fact part of a government experiment whose full results have yet to be published.

Next weekend’s football final is a perfect example of the government’s new cultural elitism. Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, and Dan Rosenfeld, No. 10 chief of staff, agreed that the final should take place in Wembley at all costs, because the event would attract a worldwide audience of millions. But their determination came at a price: Britain was asked to behave like the old Soviet Union, suspending certain laws for members of the party elite — in this case, 2,500 Uefa officials and VIPs who wanted to fly in and skip quarantine. Dowden lobbied his fellow ministers hard, arguing that this was a great result because he’d bargained them down from their initial request for 10,000 VIP passes. If the UK didn’t agree, he added, Uefa would move the game to a capital more amenable to its demands.

Other ministers were concerned about the ethics of such a bargain. They saw Uefa’s behaviour as blatant blackmail. People would ask why Uefa’s officials were able to watch the match while other sporting fixtures were subject to restrictions. Liam Fox, a former international trade secretary, suggested that surrendering to Uefa made Brits into second-class citizens in their own land. History does not record what Matt Hancock thought of it all, but we can guess. You can bet that there will be no shortage of politicians in Wembley at next Sunday’s final.

How do you apply to be a part of this staged normality? There are lots of smaller theatres, music clubs and local sports teams desperate to be granted a ‘liberty licence’. But secrecy surrounds the procedure. Unless you’re staging an event that’s likely to attract headlines, you stand little chance of obtaining permission to go ahead. Without excellent political connections, freedom is hard to come by.

For smaller players in the arts and entertainment world, the system is entirely baffling. Melvin Benn, of the Latitude Festival, applied to be part of the government scheme, but failed to receive a clear reply. ‘I have no idea if it will be part of it,’ he said. ‘The one thing you can’t be clear about is how the department makes decisions.’ Latitude is going ahead. The organisers of the Womad Festival of Music and Dance approached both the government and Public Health England for advice on getting a licence. But this led nowhere. As a result, Peter Gabriel has announced that Womad has been cancelled for the second year in a row.

Companies are desperate to be given the green light. ‘We’ve offered the hall to the government several times but without any interest from their side,’ said Craig Hassall of the Royal Albert Hall. He hinted that Andrew Lloyd Webber seemed to enjoy better treatment than anyone else because he has a profile.

Lloyd Webber is an intriguing part of the story. He appears to have played his hand very cannily. Like all theatre owners, he spent a fortune last year making his venues Covid-secure. Extra staff were hired to implement new screening procedures at the entrance. Special routes were laid out along the corridors to minimise the risk of infection. The loos and the bar areas were reconfigured, and mobile sprinklers were introduced to facilitate the spraying of every surface area with disinfectant. These labours were expensive and Lloyd Webber complied with the regulations in the hope that the government would show him some goodwill in return. He felt let down. In a radio interview, he said the government was treating him as a ‘sacrificial lamb’.

His new musical, Cinderella, started previews at the end of last month, and as the first show approached he lobbied hard for it to be given special licence to run without social distancing. He even declared that he would play to full capacity whether he was allowed to or not. Let them arrest me and my staff, he said defiantly. This baroque threat paid off, and he was duly given permission to open the show without social distancing. At which point, he switched tack and said he didn’t wish to receive preferential treatment. Yet this was precisely the favour he had sought.

Let’s not begrudge him his machinations. He’s got an expensive new show to sell (and his commitment to the exquisite buildings he owns has never been in doubt). Each time he announces a fresh twist in his campaign, he gains exposure in the media and a chance to promote himself and his production. Lloyd Webber is giving a masterclass in the art of publicity.

So what will happen after 19 July? Even now, nothing is clear. Within the government, there is bitter debate: why engage in all this pretence? And why not focus on getting the country back to normal rather than faking it? Several ministers want to maintain a one-metre rule for social distancing and to put pressure on venues to introduce vaccine passports. The truth is that such measures would be financially devastating.

Ministers know this because their own internal review into the events that were licensed first time around showed it to be the case. It found that asking indoor venues to impose a regime of face masks, alcohol bans and Covid certification would lead to a 30 per cent drop in revenues compared with the pre-pandemic figures. Indoor non-seated venues would see their takings fall by half. Crucially, even the lightest restrictions — just face masks — would cut takings by almost 20 per cent, still enough to make the events financially unviable. So there’s no point talking about a phased return to normality: the fact is that not many people want to sit in a theatre for two or three hours wearing a mask.

And for what? The results have showed that the events posed negligible risk. The World Snooker Championship attracted 10,000 visitors, of whom just five tested positive for Covid after the event. Of the 3,500 who attended the Brit Awards, none registered as infectious. And the overall total of 58,000 participants yielded a mere 28 positive tests. Bear in mind that the ratio of infections to deaths at the moment stands at one per thousand. It’s hard to argue, on the strength of these figures, that the resumption of cultural life in Britain poses a serious risk. Yet the government’s scientists poured doubt on this excellent news and complained that the data was unreliable. At first, they refused to publish the results at all.

Tory MP Mark Harper told parliament that when the government conceals data, it usually does so because it fears bad news. This time, the government seems worried about good news. Culture minister Nigel Huddleston told him not to peddle ‘conspiracy theories’. But the figures demonstrated the truth of Harper’s assertion: there is nothing, in any study of any event, to show that society should not have reopened on 21 June.

The live events industry still faces two calamities. The first is short-term: the month-long extension of restrictions is likely to force the cancellation of 5,000 music gigs and numerous theatre productions — at a cost estimated at hundreds of millions of pounds. If they are extended after 19 July, we’ll be in a peculiar two-tier system where wealthy and well-connected lobbyists can secure favours from the government. But no such opportunities exist for fringe venues, boutique festivals and independent theatre producers. They can’t plan for their events anymore. They can only pray.

The only answer to their prayers — arguably the only answer to the calamity still facing Britain’s cultural life — is that all restrictions are abolished on 19 July and that theatres, cinemas, music festivals and sporting events are allowed to carry on as before. No masks, no tests, no vaccine passports: just a resumption of normal life, on the understanding that everyone who turns up at an event and sits in a densely packed crowd of strangers takes a risk. As has been the case since the earliest days of the theatre. The show must go on.

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