Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Long life: Only the arts can save us!

Tory politicians despise the arts because of their power to bring people together. That’s why they matter 
February 15, 2024

The Tories’ disparagement of the arts is demonstrated by their insulting recent choices for the minister for culture. Nadine Dorries left destruction in her wake and later threw a tantrum at not being sent to the House of Lords to further her ignorant, political mayhem. The current one, Lucy Frazer, has launched a wearily familiar attack on the BBC so ludicrously lacking in substance that, when she was challenged in an interview, I actually felt sorry for her. It was along the lines of: “The BBC is not impartial. It is biased against the Conservatives.” “Give me an example.” “Er…er…”  “Just one example?” “Er…”

The next day Mark Harper, the transport minister no less, chipped in, advising us to consider a “wickedly biased” episode of the News Quiz on BBC radio 4, which at least he had heard of, whereas I doubt our culture lady knew of its existence. Huw Not-Very-Merriman recommended we listen in to its shameful anti-Tory bias. Unfortunately for him, those of us who did were treated to one of the best episodes of the remnants of satirical programming left on the frightened BBC, of which the highlight was a hilariously vicious critique of Keir Starmer.

Recent events have reminded politicians why they have reason to fear my profession. The appalling treatment of the sub-postmasters in the Post Office scandal would have gone unheeded but for the media’s pressure over the years, culminating in an ITV drama that has roused the nation and forced politicians and bosses to take responsibility. It is strange that the establishment is so dismissive of culture. Television, film and theatre (both large-scale and fringe) are highly influential—as are sport, literature and music. 

I recently watched a documentary about the Beatles, which took me back to the late 1950s and early 1960s, when I was working in a super tatty theatre company, performing in the Tudor cinema in West Kirby. One day, a local lad from a regional paper told me of these boys from a similar background to him and me, who were doing interesting things in a place called the Cavern in nearby Liverpool. I was too exhausted doing awful plays to go with him to see them. He, Derek Taylor, ended up touring the world as their publicity supremo. In those days, anything was suddenly possible for the lowly. 

All four boys of the original Beatles were very likeable and from respectable working-class families, which their lyrics reflected. Unlike some of today’s artists, they showed respect and genuine love for women. They wore smart suits and tossed their well-cut hair about in pure joy. They were eager to learn and improve themselves and their music, so from humble beginnings they became brilliant and progressive. They ended up abandoning what seemed like a glamorous life when it became formulaic and boring to them. 

When people get together, they communicate

They were very talented but quite ordinary—yet the band was hugely influential, heralding the end of an era of deference and suppression and opening the door to the youth culture of the future. The image on television of a girl, not listening to the music but standing in a crowd, hysterically screaming, abandoning all semblance of lady-like behaviour summed up the new wild sense of freedom that frightened the grownups. 

The documentary interviewed some people of colour in America, where the Beatles toured when segregation was still enforced in some states. There is a wonderful sequence when the boys are told about it and are not righteously angry, but completely bewildered. For the interviewees, a Beatles concert was their first mixed event. The boys insisted on no apartheid in their massive audiences.

The thing about cultural activity is that it often entails gatherings, and when people get together, they communicate. Whether it be children doing a workshop with classical musicians in a small classroom, or pop fans waving arms in unison at a vast festival, people being brought together start to stand up for themselves. 

I hope my colleagues in television will continue to hold a mirror up to society, as they have done ever since Ken Loach and the opinion-changing telly of the 1960s. Despite the collapse of funding for the arts, I hope the abandoned musicians, dancers, actors and artists of all sorts will somehow hang on. We are in for a rocky ride, but new ways forward will be found. Culture will survive by being creative, while the establishment will shrivel if it keeps holding on to old beliefs and destructive rules.

“Lower taxes!”, “Stop the boats!”, “Stick to the plan!”: the British people want more than this hollow rhetoric. I hope that, despite decimating cuts and government indifference, the arts will be there to provide the vision.