No let-up in the quest for quality

Just because price cuts are imminent, argues Michael Meacher, don't imagine environmental standards

Just because price cuts are imminent, argues Michael Meacher, don't imagine environmental standards will be allowed to slip

Much reporting of the current Ofwat price review has focused on environmental investment versus price cuts, as though it were impossible to provide for both. But that debate is false: I believe that all interests can benefit. The government's proposals for an ambitious £8 billion investment programme have been widely reported. So, too, have Ofwat's plans to make scope for a significant price cut. But the real story is in the difference we make to the local environment and the pockets of customers.

Over the past ten years the environmental record of the water industry has improved. But there are still some key areas where we want to see improvements: beaches, sewage treatment, rivers and nature conservation sites.

Much more must be done to raise the standard of bathing beaches. I want to see consistent compliance not only with the mandatory standards for bathing waters but also with higher guideline standards so that more of our beaches achieve blue-flag status. In 1998 only 36 per cent of our coastal waters achieved blue-flag quality - about half the European average. This is unacceptable. I expect significant improvements, especially at key holiday resorts, as it makes them more attractive for visitors and helps the local economy. People who holiday in this country have a right to expect clean bathing water.

Water companies must also ensure that all significant sewage discharges receive at least secondary-level treatment. We do not think it right to pump raw sewage into the sea and just hope that the tides will disperse it. In particular, secondary treatment will be the minimum requirement for all coastal discharges serving populations of 2,000 or more in England and Wales (not merely those serving populations of more than 10,000, as before). I have told water companies to install secondary treatment at major coastal discharges by the end of 2000, wherever possible. In some cases more stringent tertiary-level treatment will also be required - for example, to protect bathing beaches or sites of special importance for nature conservation.

Earlier this month I announced the designation of 76 new shellfish waters and the extension of the existing 17 designations in England. This is very good news for the shellfish industry and for public health, but more importantly it will bring further improvements in water quality around our coasts and in estuaries. Water companies are already planning for the necessary investment to ensure tighter standards for discharges.

River-quality objectives provide a basic measure of river quality across England and Wales. The Environment Agency and I attach considerable importance to improving standards, not only raising compliance, but also ensuring that, once achieved, standards do not slip back. So far 82 per cent of river stretches meet the objective set for them. We have set a target of more than 90 per cent compliance by 2005.

Coastal and river quality can be adversely affected by the output of intermittent discharges from storm outflow pipes. These deposit unhygienic and distasteful solids and undo the benefits from other improvements. At the present rate of progress it would take until 2015 to deal with all the unsatisfactory discharges. The public should not have to wait that long. The programme we have announced will mean nearly 18 improvements to intermittent discharges coming on line each week in the five years to March 2005.

Many important nature conservation sites are affected by water abstraction or effluent discharges. These areas represent the best of our national heritage of wildlife habitats, geological features and landforms. We are determined to stop damage being done to these precious sites: 102 schemes have been identified for action by water companies to protect sites from the effects of sewage discharges, in most cases by combating phosphates enrichment. One river, the River Beult, in the Kentish Weald, is affected by 13 sewage works. Other key areas to be protected include high-quality rivers in Cumbria - the Eden, Ehen and Derwent - and the Fal and Helford estuaries.

We are also making vital improvements in raising further the standard of drinking water, for example by cutting lead levels, reducing the risk from cryptosporidium, phasing out the use of untreated sewage sludge on agricultural land and reducing the incidence of low-flow rivers.

As well as overall average price cuts, two further aspects of customer interest are important. First, regional price differences. Different prices do not just reflect the scale of environmental investment; they also depend on the customer base, the efficiency of a company and other local factors. It is inevitable that the price limits will vary between companies. But we have to take account of the pressure of prices on local customers in deciding the environmental programme for each company.

The second aspect is the profile of bills. Many customers have said they do not want to see a large price reduction in April 2000 followed by rising bills in subsequent years. They would prefer an initial price cut and then prices held constant in real terms. This is a matter for Ian Byatt at Ofwat, but I have sympathy with these views and have drawn them to his attention.

Michael Meacher is the environment minister

This article first appeared in the 26 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, I took tea with Pinochet

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.