I have been thinking a lot lately about the British public’s relationship to freelancers and specifically (because it’s me) to self-employed creatives. As lockdown eases and we wait patiently for the government to announce whether they will indeed open up the next stage of the roadmap on May 17th, contact with old acquaintances are beginning to increase, and alongside it comes the cringeworthy conversations and patronising lip-service to the arts and creatives:
‘The arts are so important to our souls’
‘We must be respectful of the fact that you cannot do your little shows yet’
‘Obviously the arts aren’t essential but they are a nice bonus’
Here’s the thing, chaps: I’m as guilty as the next man of posting memes like ‘The earth without art is just “eh?”’, but to stop at that is really missing the point in a big way. How big? How is £10.47billion? That big enough for you? Because that’s how much money the arts and culture contributed to the UK economy in 2019. In that same year the Premier League brought in £7.6billion. Yes, that’s right. WE BEAT FOOTBALL. And yet we have all watched recently as Boris drops literally everything to take meetings and make public statements about the proposed (now defunct) Super League and its potential damage to ‘The Beautiful Game’, whilst a global pandemic rages on and our theatres, music venues, comedy and cabaret clubs and more all stay closed on his say-so. Dominic Cummings disgraceful alleged comments on the arts early on during the coronavirus crisis (‘Let the f***ing ballet dancers get to the back of the f***ing line’) continue to go unchecked, and the pathetically inconsequential Oliver Dowden (in charge of both culture and sport – why are they lumped together??) limps along saying little and doing less.
Where are our champions?
Who will fight for the arts?
It is unfortunate that two of the biggest producers of theatre in the UK’s history are falling short of the mark. Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber rather unhelpfully quit his peerage in 2017, and seems more focussed on his own legacy as a theatre impresario with the – albeit extremely impressive – renovation of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, whilst Sir Cameron MacIntosh has been all but silent publicly for the past fourteen months, except to defend his decision to halve the orchestra of Phantom of the Opera when it returns to the West End (Add to that the amount of mannequins filling the stage of that production in lieu of real actors, and it may as well be a one-man show.)
Perhaps Johnson’s recent support for British football is more about crowd-control and the very real threat of increased domestic violence, than a fair weighing up of the viability of that sector. Remember when all actors, dancers and singers were called ‘unviable’ by our own government? That was a nice day, wasn’t it? Do we have to riot in order to be treated with equity (Don’t get me started on that tooth-less institution)? Must we storm Drury Lane and rip out Webber’s newly uncovered cantilevered staircases to get a response from the powers that be?
A recent article in The Guardian reports that figures released last month by the Office for National Statistics show job vacancies in the arts and entertainment, in the period January to March 2021, were down 79% on the equivalent period in 2020. We are ‘by far the worst hit part of the economy, well ahead of even hospitality at 70%, and soaring above the average across all industries of 23%.’
Where will this leave us a year from now? How many drama schools will go to the wall? Think of the dance studios and rehearsal rooms all empty and under threat of conversion into luxury flats along with the music and entertainment venues that we have already lost.
If I haven’t made my point clearly enough yet, let’s finish by taking a look at my own current work and its effect on other freelance creatives. Since late 2019, I have been working on the creation of a stage show entitled LOOKING FOR ME FRIEND, which celebrates the musical genius of the late, great Victoria Wood. In spite of all that has happened in the past year or so, I am committed to this show and its future – £8K worth of commitment to date, actually -, in spite of the fact that the opportunity to share it in any meaningful way – fiscally speaking – will continue to elude me until later next year, thanks to the decisions taken by our government. Nevertheless, my work on its development does not stop, and neither do the many collaborations which are involved.
You can’t promote a show without great images, and the photographer Steve Ullathorne has taken some absolute corkers, with the help of my Director, Sarah-Louise Young – another self-employed creative and invaluable co-conspirator from the start.
Similarly, the demand for clips and trailers in video form are a must these days and thanks to the skills of Rebecca Kenyon of Mote of Dust Films and Jason Thompson of Sound Ideas, I now have a lovely selection of clips from the show as well as a banging trailer, full of fun and colour: https://youtu.be/WZGMvbybxVA.
My yoga teacher Lisa Askem continues to help balance both mind and body during the most turbulent of times, and yes I do one hundred percent see her work as integral to my own. It is not a ‘luxury’ to counteract the effects of thirty years of corsets, heels, costumes that don’t fit and the lugging of suitcases on public transport (thanks Sadiq Kahn for handing all the luggage racks on buses to The Metro ‘newspaper’).
As well as my tremendous accompanist Michael Roulston (pictured below), who must be paid for each rehearsal, performance and R&D process (why would he not be?), over £1k has been spent on creating bespoke sheet music that could not be otherwise sourced, much of which will never get used in the final show. That is no reflection on the great work of transcriber Carl Greenwood, of course.
Tailor Gabriel Adams is now commissioned with making my two jackets for the show, specifically branded in our signature pinks and yellows, and prop-maker Leigh Hayward made me a beautiful banner for social media post purposes early on; not that it is currently appropriate to use at the few gigs we do have coming up.
Some of the few gigs I have been able to pop up and perform in-between lockdowns (it’s very like a game of whack-a-mole, to be honest) have been thanks to the help of venue booker Catia Ciarico of Goldtrash Productions and this very blog was optimised and published, as ever, by Mark Snell of Ideal Vantage.
That’s eleven. I could go on, but you get the point. These people are all freelancers like me, who pay taxes like me and who, in turn, give work to others. As I do.
I am the lucky recipient of a SEISS grant, based on my last three years of tax-paying, and that is a wonderful initiative to have. One cannot remain unaware of the enormous privileges we have in this country, seeing as we have the catastrophic effects of coronavirus on others. However, Rishi Sunak has left behind thousands of other self-employed people who have fallen through the cracks of his scheme. We are not all in the same boat.
So, next time you consider the arts, maybe consider us as a real, viable sector of the UK’s workforce with a significant impact on the economy, rather than just ‘a nice bonus’. Something I highly doubt that anyone the arts has ever received or expected, by the way.
‘Looking For Me Friend: The Music of Victoria Wood’ is fortunate to be able to performing one-off nights at a handful of venues across the country between May and Oct. Full details at www.lookingformefriend.com.