West and his father play the same man at different stages of life in "The Book of Water". Credit: Joost Rietdijk

Samuel West’s diary: Cutting arts funding is unpatriotic

If we want our children to have access to the arts we will need to start investing in them
December 8, 2022

After the latest round of High Table Musical Chairs, I was delighted to discover that clinicians no longer test somebody for dementia by asking them who the prime minister is. Today I realised I couldn’t remember who the deputy prime minister was. Turns out it’s still (at the time of writing) Dominic Raab. Or at least, it’s Dominic Raab again.

Ninth of November 2022: to Amsterdam for my last big job this year, and one of the trickiest: The Book of Water, a new work of chamber music theatre by the Dutch composer Michel van der Aa, based on Max Frisch’s 1979 novella Man in the Holocene. An hour-long multi­media mashup featuring a string quartet, a live actor and another actor on a film projection. It may not be right at the cutting edge of the avant-garde, but I can certainly see it from here.

My father, Timothy West, is playing Geiser, a man who lives alone, frightened of losing his memory and having a stroke (both of which things happen). Da’s 88 now and, brilliant though he is, it’s moving to see him struggling with the same challenges. While he’s on film, I’m on stage, narrating and playing Geiser at the age he still imagines he is. We opened it at the Venice Biennale and are now touring Belgium and the Netherlands. Da came over for the Amsterdam performance and we shared a happy curtain call.

The Dutch certainly know how to look after a show. The deputy prime minister, Sigrid Kaag, came to the first night at the Muziekgebouw (and, touchingly, was stoked to meet my dad). I made a speech about how Brexit had made many creatives feel we were turning away from our European neighbours, and how doing a piece by a Dutch composer based on a Swiss book with a Lithuanian sound designer that premiered in Italy with a ­German quartet, then toured Belgium with a Dutch one (half of which came from Finland and Hungary) was helping to ease my pain.

I can’t imagine Dominic Raab coming to the first night of a new piece of chamber music in Britain. Probably too frightened of being called a metropolitan liberal wanker. Perhaps I’m wrong; I hope so.

It’s a small-scale tour (ironing my own costume has become a relaxing part of my warmup) and we mostly travel by train, to gorgeous new halls in places with gorgeous new stations. Antwerp in Belgium has the loveliest old station I’ve ever seen. After the show in Den Bosch, a town the size of Macclesfield, there are five trains back to Amsterdam between 10pm and midnight. On a Sunday.

For the trip to Enschede, we go by car. Our Dutch driver, Dennis, is a trained mime artist. Because of course he is.

Twenty-second of November. Back to England, and the first meeting of the new Campaign for the Arts. We discuss the recent Arts Council England settlement. There’s much to cheer: 272 new organisations funded; those with ethnically diverse leadership up from 53 to 148. But the headline is “levelling up”, and I think it’s a con.

Levelling up doesn’t mean more money for the arts. It means leaving “adequate” investment where it is, while trying to shift money away from some areas into others, in the hopes of bringing them up to the same level.

Moving less money around isn’t levelling up, it’s just levelling (or in some cases, razing—the Donmar Warehouse, the Barbican, the Britten Sinfonia and many others have all been cut to zero). This is not to blame the Arts Council; its core funding has been slashed by a third since 2008. But cutting English National Opera’s grant and then offering it funds to move out of London has, predictably, caused a huge row.

Young people want successful creative careers. Cutting arts funding imperils the future prosperity of the country; it’s unpatriotic. Even George Osborne, one of the architects of austerity, called arts cuts “a false economy”. We’re bored with making the economic arguments, because concentrating on the power of the arts to regenerate communities and make money for the government ignores the best reason for funding them: they make people happy. Post-Covid, mental health is suffering and isolation is a new epidemic: good, affordable things we can do together have never been more important.

I can’t imagine Dominic Raab coming to the first night of a new piece of chamber music in Britain

When parents compare fee-paying schools, they ask: what’s the music like? Is there a theatre? Coincidentally, those are the subjects that, after over a decade of school cuts, many state pupils can no longer study. It’s artistic apartheid. Music, in particular, is vanishing from state schools. And yet we used to be really good at this stuff. The Times recently revealed that nearly two-thirds of the country’s greatest contemporary composers were educated at state schools. Where is the next generation to come from? Just the posh postcodes?

Watching the way the Netherlands values its art and its audiences makes me wonder why the UK, which has an artistic heritage second to none, is so low down in the league table of cultural investment. The ultimate question is one I always ask when people challenge the whole idea of investment in the arts: do we want our children to have this?