A vision of British culture

‘What is the city but the people?’ we are asked by Sicinius, an elected tribune of Rome in Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus. This same sentiment was brought to life in a street performance by the people of Manchester, to open their city’s 2017 International Festival.

Shakespeare provides a common cultural reference point whose influence stretches far beyond the stage of the Globe theatre or innumerable school performances. His plays continue to serve up phrases that seem to encapsulate the dramas of our own times. Ross’s words from Macbeth – ‘Alas, poor country! Almost afraid to know itself’ – seem appropriate to summarise the debate on Brexit, just as Richard III’s ‘winter of discontent’ defined the decay of Britain in the late 1970s.

Shakespeare’s work has also inspired new generations of creators, from Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World, the title of which comes from The Tempest, to Gus Van Sant’s coming of age film, My Own Private Idaho, based loosely on the Henry IV plays, and Sondheim and Bernstein’s West Side Story, reimagining the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet on New York’s Upper West Side; a play which is also referenced by the Sheffield rock band Arctic Monkeys in their song ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’.

In 2016, to mark the 400th anniversary of his death, ‘Shakespeare reCITED’ (hosted by Selfridges) brought together contemporary artists to create new music and performances. These included the south London poet James Massiah, who spoke about how Shakespeare continues to reach ‘the people of the time and perhaps latches onto something that runs through the collective conscience… A lot of the issues he deals with in his work are constantly recurring battles between the individuals and the wills of those around them, engaging with morality, gender, race, sexuality, war, politics.’

The grime artist Novelist also noted the influence of Shakespeare’s innovative use of language: ‘[He] used a lot of slang terminologies and even made up words that we use now… I feel like that’s quite a good thing… He used mad words [and] I wanted everyone to go away [from reCITED] with the understanding that just the words you make up, and just the way you talk, and just the style you approach things with, can actually become something that’s used in hundreds and hundreds of years in the future.’

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, for example, the first written record of words like fashionable, bedazzled, scuffle, swagger, zany and unreal is found in Shakespeare’s work. In fact, a recent study compared Shakespeare’s use of unique words across the first 35,000 used in his complete works to the same number of lyrics created by contemporary grime and hip-hop artists. This showed that, with over 5,000 unique words, Shakespeare was ahead of stars like Drake, Jay-Z and Kanye West.

“Nothing will come of nothing”, King Lear tells his daughter Cordelia in Shakespeare’s play, and so we should look to the UK’s success as a creative powerhouse – not just being based on a rich cultural inheritance, but the inspiration people can take from it, and with that the opportunity to express themselves in new works of their own.

For me, this creates three distinct challenges for the future.

First, how do we make culture accessible to more people? Second, how do we support creative people in developing their talents and reaching new audiences for their work? Finally, what broader understanding do we have of the benefits of culture to the whole of society?

Making culture accessible

St John’s Gardens near Deansgate in Manchester were the site of the burial ground for a Gothic revival Anglican church which was demolished in the 1930s. A monument commemorating the former purpose of the Gardens cites one man in particular who is buried there: ‘William Marsden who originated the Saturday half holiday.’ Marsden successfully led the campaign in the 1840s which saw the mill owners of Manchester give their workers time off on Saturday afternoons – previously they worked six days a week and rested on Sundays to attend church.

This reform would in time be adopted across the country, but its birth in the North-West of England explains in part why that region became such an enthusiastic adopter of football, as a sport for working people to watch and play. Before the creation of this Saturday afternoon leisure time, the idea of organised matches of works teams kicking off at 3pm would have been impossible. Football had largely been a sport for public school boys, and it wasn’t until the 12th season of the FA Cup in 1883, when Blackburn Olympic beat Old Etonians 2-1, that a working-class team won the competition.

After that year, the public school and regimental teams wouldn’t reach another final – and attendances rose from the 8,000 spectators who saw Blackburn Olympic lift the Cup to 45,000 a decade later and over 100,000 by 1901.

I mention this because I believe that football is not only a sport, but also a cultural activity and one of the few that has been created in its modern form by working people for their own enjoyment. However, this creation of mass leisure time in the second half of the 19th century also opened up opportunities for people of all classes to engage with sport and culture, through a wide range of new clubs, societies, galleries and public spaces.

Today the challenge we face is not just keeping cultural spaces available but making them relevant to people who do not engage with them.

Major museums and galleries in London receive significant amounts of public subsidy in order to maintain free access, and they benefit from sponsorship deals with large companies that wish to be associated with their treasures and the large numbers of visitors who come to see them.

In return, these national institutions do more to support regional museums and galleries with touring exhibitions, helping with the training and development of professional staff, and in the case of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre allowing the affordable live-streaming of their performances to smaller theatres and cinemas all around the country. This kind of support for culture in the nations and regions of the UK needs to continue.

In addition to this, the Arts Council will, between 2018 and 2022, spend £1.6 billion to fund 831 ‘national portfolio’ organisations. More than 60 per cent of this will go outside of London to places like the NewBridge Project, a vibrant contemporary arts practice in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and the Creative Foundation in Folkestone, which runs a major public art festival as well as subsidising work and performance spaces for creative organisations and people.

There is no doubt that investment in culture outside of London can develop new audiences and bring in visitors. Hull’s status as the UK City of Culture for 2017 attracted more than five million people, brought in £220 million in investment and created 800 new jobs. According to the Hull Chamber of Commerce, 131 new businesses opened in the city in 2017. There are exciting plans in place for Coventry’s year as UK City of Culture in 2021, and this excellent initiative will benefit many more communities around the country in the years to come.

Supporting creative people

The challenge in any location in seeking to increase cultural participation is trying to bring in people who have never taken part before.

The mere creation or enhancement of a cultural space doesn’t mean everyone will think it is for them.

The Contact theatre in Manchester has responded to this challenge by focusing on changing the lives of young people aged between 13 and 30 through the arts. Here they work alongside the theatre staff in deciding the artistic programme, with a mission to “redefine theatre for the 21st century”.

As this is a cultural project being shaped by young people, for young people, their engagement with it is far greater. In addition to this, Contact is partnering with the Battersea Arts Centre, the People’s Palace projects in Glasgow, the National Theatre of Wales and Fablab Belfast to deliver a project called “The Agency” which was initially developed in the favelas of Rio De Janeiro. With support from the Big Lottery Fund, ‘The Agency’ awards up to £2,000 to successful bids from young people in marginalised areas to create social enterprises, events, projects and businesses that will have a positive impact on their local communities.

So far these have included setting up arts festivals, supporting music production and teaching English as a foreign language through football. We need to see more initiatives like this which seek to empower young people through culture and release their potential. For most young people, cultural education comes from school and varies greatly depending on the institution itself. One of the greatest differences between private and state schools in the UK is the amount of investment in cultural and sporting education.

In private schools they have both the resources and the time, with a longer school day, to make these a major part of the curriculum. In 2015, a survey carried out by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference estimated that private school students did three times more sport a week than children of the same age at state schools. Furthermore, according to The Sutton Trust charity, 19 per cent of the people named “best solo artist” at the Brit Awards between 1977 and 2016 went to private schools, compared with 7 per cent of the overall population; in 2016, 44 per cent of undergraduates at the Royal Academy of Music came from state schools, lower than the proportion at any university.

I believe we should look at developing a national strategy to support an 8am to 5pm school timetable for 11- to 18-year-olds that creates the opportunity for all students to engage in sporting and/or cultural activities every day.

The benefits of culture

There are some state schools, working within the constraints of their budget, that have achieved amazing results. In November 2018 the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee heard evidence from Naveed Idrees, the headteacher of Feversham Primary Academy near Bradford in Yorkshire. The school has been transformed through putting music at the heart of its curriculum and bringing in specialist teachers to assist the school.

In the words of Naveed Idrees: ‘Children come to our school with very little life experience, with little or no English, from deprived areas of housing and health. There is only 6 per cent of tertiary education, so the differentiation is quite high. We started with the question: what do these children need? What they needed was to be engaged and music was the vehicle we used because music allows children to see pattern
and rhythm… We have gone from being in the bottom of the league table to being in the top 1 per cent.’

The example of Feversham shows what it is possible to achieve. But we need to create a mechanism that allows other schools to understand more about its experience. Currently, formal case studies are not available which highlight the successes in cultural and sporting activities of schools like Feversham. The Department for Education should look to make information about stories like these more widely available to other schools. Not only are Naveed Idrees and his team introducing more children to music, but through this they are improving the school’s performance across the curriculum as well.

Another important part of cultural development is supporting spaces where young creative people can perform and show their work. While social media has made it easier for artists to reach and grow an audience, many musicians complain about the declining number of venues where they can entertain their fans. According to the Music Venue Trust, London has about half the number of live performance spaces as New York, and research published by UK Music last year claimed that 35 per cent of venues had closed across the country in the last 10 years.

When the rap artist ShaoDow gave evidence to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee’s 2018 inquiry into live music, he highlighted the problem that artists face as a consequence of the decline of smaller venues. In particular, he noted that as revenues from music sales decline, live performance is an increasingly important part of a musician’s income:

“As people are paying less for the physical music, as artists our income stream has taken a massive hit and in order to supplement that and just keep the lights on you have to be doing other things, such as
performing live, selling your merchandise, [online] streaming… But live [performance] is still a very integral part of our revenue stream. Without it… it is going to get to a point where musicians simply cannot afford to live and create, and I think that is a crying shame. I live entirely off my music. It is something that I love to do, and it is something that I want to continue doing, but it is becoming increasingly more difficult to do that.”

In order to support a sustainable future for live music venues, we need to look at the longer-term challenges to their existence. These include the impact of high business rates on premises that may take up a lot of space but don’t generate large revenues. There should be a special status for live performance venues that recognises their wider importance to the creative economy and the communities they serve.

The Treasury has created a range of production tax credits to support film-making, theatre production and the work of orchestras. We should also look at the benefit that could come from a music production and performance tax credit. These creative industries tax credits have not acted as a subsidy, but rather as an accelerator. For film, TV and video games in particular, production tax credits have increased revenues to the Treasury by stimulating more creative and economic activity and stopping this work being sent abroad to be completed in other countries.

We also need to consider what role the major music and film companies could play in helping to develop the artists that they will later come to rely upon. In sports like football, the Government – through Sport England, along with the Football Association and the Premier League – jointly funds the improvement of community facilities through the Football Foundation. Further to this, professional clubs in the top three divisions in England fund the identification and development of young talent aged from eight to 18 through the Elite Player Performance Plan

We should look at whether similar schemes could be developed and funded through a new body, which would work independently of both government and some of the major businesses in the creative industries, but receive financial support from them. This is an idea that the Music Venue Trust has championed as well by asking leaders in its industry to sign up to support a proposed Pipeline Investment Fund.

Conclusion

The cultural and creative health of the United Kingdom is dependent on everyone being able to share in it and to contribute to it. This engagement is not only essential to the identification and development of the leading artists of the future but has a positive impact on the lives of everyone who engages with it.

From Britain Beyond Brexit: A New Conservative Vision, edited by George Freeman MP - published on CapX here

Copyright 2019 Damian Collins. All rights reserved

Promoted by Russell Tillson for and on behalf of Damian Collins, both of Folkestone & Hythe Conservative Association both at 4 West Cliff Gardens, Folkestone, Kent CT20 1SP

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