Saving the theatre industry with an arts rescue package? You’ll save TV, too

The collapse of the theatre industry would be terrible news for TV fans, says Drama Editor Eleanor Bley Griffiths

Matt Smith and Claire Foy in Lungs

For the last few days I’ve been mulling over a thought: what happens to TV if theatre… dies? If Britain’s outstanding theatre scene is allowed to wither away in the coronavirus pandemic, then just how bad will the fallout be for the television industry? But then, yesterday evening, the news came in: Chancellor Rishi Sunak had finally come through with a £1.57 billion rescue package. Phew.

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And sure, those employed in the arts are (wisely) being cautious until the full details have been worked out, and until they find out how the money will be split between a collection of venues and theatres and organisation. And sure, there are still massive concerns about how (or if) the money will filter down to out-of-work make-up artists, actors, writers, camera operators rather than just institutions.

But less than 24 hours ago, the picture looked much bleaker. The cries of despair from those involved in the theatre world were becoming ever-more desperate.

Watching those SOS calls, one thing became increasingly clear: theatre, film and TV are inextricably linked. And whether you’re an avid theatre-goer or haven’t set foot in a theatre since your school days, if you like to watch good TV then you should be deeply concerned about what comes next.

Just think about actors, to start with. How many of them work across both stage and screen? So many! I’m thinking of names like Andrew Scott, Matt Smith, Claire Foy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Bryan Cranston, Andrew Garfield, Billie Piper, Ian McKellen, Rafe Spall, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Noma Dumezweni, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Jonathan Groff.

Programme Name: Performance Live - TX: 31/03/2018 - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Andrew Scott as Hamlet, in the Almeida Theatre production directed by Robert Icke Andrew Scott - (C) Almeida Theatre - Photographer: Manuel Harlan

And how many screenwriters have written for the stage? Also a lot! Call the Midwife’s Heidi Thomas started out writing plays, for example, while Jack Thorne (of His Dark Materials, National Treasure, Kiri, This is England ’88 and ’90, and more) is also a prolific playwright who wrote the stage play for The Cursed Child. There’s more crossover between the two worlds than you’d think.

So what do you get if you remove theatre from the equation?

For one thing, actors and writers would miss out on a ton of opportunities. That young actor performing with a youth theatre group, who gets scouted for their first on-screen role; if the theatre group isn’t there, how do they get discovered? Or the aspiring writer; will there be a regional theatre group that gives them the space to develop their talents?

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Then there’s the financial side. Because frankly, even though the creative industries are full of insanely talented people, they’re not always paid all that well; and if the theatre industry is allowed to collapse, there will simply be fewer jobs going around. And fewer jobs means that more people will leave the creative industries – and many will think twice about joining in the first place.

That’s especially true in the immediate future, as a question mark remains over when TV producers will actually be able to kickstart filming again without running up against huge costs or compromising their show’s creative vision. But it’s also true in the longer-term; the jobbing actor might spend the Christmas period in panto, or they might slip in a minor TV role between Shakespeare productions. It’s seamless.

Ultimately, when it comes to TV and theatre, the two cross-fertilise each other – and what they produce is all the richer for it. So as we watch what happens with the £157 billion arts rescue package, all fans of television should be paying very close attention.

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