Danny Boyle, who was born in Lancashire and studied in Bolton, is HOME's chief patron. Photo: Getty.
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Danny Boyle: The BBC is “as important to our democracy as Westminster”

Danny Boyle, the man behind the Olympics and the upcoming Steve Jobs biopic, speaks to the New Statesman at the opening of HOME, Manchester's answer to London's Southbank.

“Public funding of the arts represents about 0.1 per cent of government spending,” Sir Peter Bazalgette wrote this week, but “The creative sector represents 5 per cent of our GDP and has created jobs five times faster than the overall economy since 2010. We should set about doubling it.”

Few politicians will disagree with such words, but arts funding was one of the first things to be cut when the coalition axe fell five years ago. £1.3 billion was spent funding the arts from 2008-2011. Less than £1 billion was provided during 2012-2015, and inflation means a billion isn’t what it used to be.

But there is still money for a few new projects, and one of the most eagerly anticipated launched in Manchester this week. HOME is a new and very modern arts space: it’s a cinema, theatre and arts gallery all rolled into one. Or, as Danny Boyle, HOME’s chief patron, put it to us on Thursday, it’s “five cinemas, which is amazing, with brilliantly-sized seating ideas, two theatres and three art galleries.”

Boyle and HOME’s other patrons, such as Nicholas Hytner and Meera Syal, hope the space can be “not just for Manchester, but the whole of the North West – we hope it’ll draw people from all over”. For Boyle, “It’s a shining light of how we should make cultural investment in our great cities.” Similar spaces are needed in the North East too, he adds.

Why? What do these spaces do? Boyle offers two answers as we huddle in the corner of HOME’s bar/lobby, 5 minutes after the curtain falls on The Funfair, its inaugural production (from playwright Simon Stephens). The first is fairly formulaic – culture is critical to a “nation’s well-being and an individual’s well-being, in the way that hospitals are, and schools are” – the second is circuitous and more interesting.

“Have you read The Circle, the Dave Eggers book? You should read that, it’s an amazing book.” Boyle begins. He is fairly subdued after a day of interviews – and hours of being encircled by a new admirer as soon as each fleeting conversation ends – but Eggers animates him.

“It’s about these utterly benign institutions which are going to replace all these institutions which we take for granted. And some of the things they’re going to do are so benign and so useful, that they’ll be irresistible.

“Currency and money and barter have been replaced by data. You don’t just give your money to a company any more, they want your information, and they will find a way of monetising that. That information is deeply personal.

“That will need to be policed. But the vast majority of that isn’t illegal, and will never be. It’s a moral issue. And I think no greater policing of that can be done than by artists.”

Boyle's fascination with data seems to have been piqued in the past few months by his shooting Steve Jobs, the long-awaited biopic written by Aaron Sorkin and starring Michael Fassbender as Jobs.

It's unclear how much the film will deal with the significance of data, but Boyle thinks it's the role of artists to “inspire us to be alert”. “We need to be armed and ready for the challenges to come. There’s a danger, it looks like to me, that we’re sleepwalking into an abandonment of our individuality. When we’re reduced to data, individuality is lost. And it’s up to culture to insist on that individuality, and a place like this can do that.”

HOME will try to do so through film, theatre and art. But of the three, theatre seems to be its greatest focus—or at least Boyle’s, despite his cinematic background.

“A body like this that will allow a director like Walter [Meierjohann, HOME’s artistic director], and other directors, to work here – that’s a wonderful space to work in. It’s like the Royal Court Theatre, the size and the intimacy of it. That’s a wonderful opportunity.”

Slogans for the 21st century: the maiden exhibition at HOME.

Such flagship spaces are rare. Theatre is hard to finance, and a hard way to make money. “Even when it works – unless you do huge Broadway shows, or big West End shows – I’m not sure it’s designed to make money. You saw the big cast on-stage tonight. Economically that is very difficult to make work.”

It’s the role of artists to “inspire us to be alert”.

But Manchester City Council prioritised the project in 2012. They put up nearly £20 million of its £25 million budget, with Arts Council England providing most of the rest. And its theatres are what Boyle keeps coming back to.

“Theatre is the most extraordinary experience. When you see great, great theatre, there is no experience like it. It touches and connects with people. You rarely see it, but when you do it’s beyond all your experiences, and I come from film, and I love film, I love music, but when you get it… I remember seeing Jonathan Pryce play Hamlet, and I still haven’t seen anything like that, ever. And it’s never left me. And that was like, 30 years ago.”

I ask him about his universally celebrated Olympic Ceremony, and why no politician seems able to offer a vision of Britain half as compelling. We drift onto the BBC. He calls it a “a wonderful double-headed thing. It supports culture, and it’s as important to our democracy as Westminster is.”

“We have an independent and almost all-pervasive state broadcaster that is trusted and respected around the world, and I think pretty much trusted and respected by people at home.”

Boyle showcased the NHS in his Olympic ceremony, but he would have chosen the BBC if it hadn’t been inappropriate to praise the channel hosting the show. He thinks both institutions are “urgent and necessary and believed in by our people”.

“If you asked the British public whether the BBC should be funded by a specific tax, I don’t care who you are, I think they’d say yes."

He is confident about their importance in a way that recent left-wing politicians haven’t managed to be. Boyle has always been unafraid to champion his beliefs, and was unrestrained in his criticism of Maria Miller during her short-lived tenure as Culture Secretary. He is more subdued on this night, but, with a incoming Tory Culture Secretary known to be sceptical of the licence fee, he does offer one remark.

“If you asked the British public whether the BBC should be funded by a specific tax, I don’t care who you are, I think they’d say yes. I think they’d say yes about the NHS too.”

Although he adds, “I don’t know enough about it to say whether it’s an appropriate model for it anymore.” But he thinks we will be asked such questions far more in future. “I think as democracy becomes more electronic and instantaneous, it’s [voting] not going to be every five years.”

The central image of HOME's maiden exhibition comes with little explanation.

“There will more and more plebiscites. We’re going to have ring-fenced funding set against specific tax rises.” If Boyle is right, and we’re asked about taxes too, any attempt to cut budget deficits will quickly collapse. When asked, the British want well-funded public services – as Boyle says, few want to dismantle the BBC – but don’t want to pay the taxes they demand. Asking voters for approval to raise taxes nearly bankrupted California.

Regardless of whether Boyle is right, he and HOME’s many other backers hope such debates will be enlivened by the shows and art exhibitions put on here. Unlike London’s Southbank, its most obvious comparison, HOME is tucked away in a south-west corner of Manchester. It isn’t surrounded by the Thames and centuries of history. But it’s a hub of the sort Britain rarely builds outside London, and good shows are sure to sell-out.

Perhaps £25 million could have been better spent in the forgotten towns around Manchester, restoring places like the Victoria Pavilion Theatre in Morecambe, but the twenty-first century will be lived in cities, and HOME could become an iconic part of George Osborne’s great ‘Northern Powerhouse’.

Harry Lambert was the editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood