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3 December 2020updated 04 Sep 2021 12:44pm

What’s more important – the theatre industry, or the fishing industry?

In terms of employment and economic contributions, the UK's fishing sector is dwarfed by theatre. 

By Jon Whiteaker

What does theatre have to do with the price of fish? And which is more important? From the importance given by both sides of the Brexit negotiations to fishing rights, it would appear that fishing is the bigger industry, and the more essential, as it ensures food supply rather than cultural fulfilment. But the truth is that theatre is far more important to the UK economy.

On 23 November the Fisheries Bill, intended to replace the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy and “take back control” of UK waters post-Brexit, received royal assent. At the same time, theatre professionals, particularly the freelancers who make up 70 per cent of the workforce, say their industry is at huge and immediate risk due to government neglect.

Investment Monitor: The UK is no longer a fishing nation, but a fish-trading nation Part of New Statesman Media Group

Fishing is an emotive, territorial issue. But in terms of employment and economic contribution, it is dwarfed by theatre. Around 12,000 people were employed in fishing sector in 2019, but performing artists alone totalled 46,000.

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The GDP of the UK’s fishing sector in 2018 was £784m. In the same year, the revenues from theatre ticket sales alone totalled £1.28bn, according to industry group UK Theatre.

And while fishing has become a political priority, many in the theatre industry feel they have been badly let down by the government during the pandemic.

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Prema Mehta has been a lighting designer for more than 10 years. “It feels like there is a level of disrespect towards our sector, as if it is a hobby”, she says. “I feel like we’re having to convince the government that our jobs are deserving of respect.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Media, Culture and Sport (DMCS) responded that the government “will continue to do all we can to support the [theatre] sector throughout the pandemic”.

Investment Monitor: Will the UK’s arts industry survive the pandemic? Part of New Statesman Media Group

The government’s main tool for supporting the wider arts sector is the £1.57bn Cultural Recovery Fund (CRF). Arts organisations have been invited to apply for grants based on the funding needed to keep them afloat until 1 April 2021.

The main criticism of the CRF, the furlough scheme and the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) is that while venues and organisations have been propped up, many workers feel abandoned.

The reason for this is that around 70 per cent of theatre workers are self-employed or freelance. This means most of the workforce could not be furloughed. Many of these freelancers also hold multiple jobs, due to the irregular nature of theatre work, and if less than 50 per cent of their income is from freelance work they are also excluded from SEISS support. Roughly a third of these workers have been unable to claim any support from the government.

The system is still more difficult for younger workers, as SEISS is only available to people who have previously filed a tax return. Sam Tutty, who accepted an Olivier Award in October from a bedroom in his parents’ house, is one of thousands of workers left without any income.

Leo Wan has been an actor for ten years, but says he became “more established, or in the words of Rishi Sunak, viable” in the last four. He had been working for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) for 18 months when the pandemic struck.

City Monitor: How one museum fought the Covid-19 crisis Part of New Statesman Media Group

While RSC paid him until the end of his contract in June, he lived on his savings until they were gone, and has now been on Universal Credit for four months.

“I was in an incredibly lucky position compared to most other theatre workers [at the beginning of the pandemic], yet now I am in an incredibly desperate situation,” Wan says.

“People are leaving the industry, leaving this type of work to seek some form of security,” says Julian Bird, the CEO of Society of London Theatre (SOLT) and UK Theatre, which have set up the Theatre Artists Fund to support freelancers during the pandemic. The fund has so far raised £4m and provided grants to 2,600 individuals, with 53.8 per cent of applicants based outside of London.

But Bird warns that the fund is small compared to the number of workers in need: “it is not a replacement for government support… it is not a replacement for a welfare system.”

The implementation of the Culture Recovery Fund, Wan argues, shows “DCMS doesn’t seem to understand how the industry works […] I am astounded that they didn’t understand that this funding would not trickle down”.

Theatre director Bill Bankes-Jones agrees that the Cultural Recovery Fund has only preserved the roles of those with “transferable skills” in administration, management or marketing.

The planned “Seat Out to Help Out” earlier this year also showed a lack of understanding of the time it takes to plan and organise performances. But Nickie Aiken, MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, says it may be needed next year, when the West End may continue to suffer from a lack of tourists.

“We’ve got nearly nine million people living in London and we need to encourage them to come to the theatre,” Aiken says.

Before that happens, however, the government must pass a deal with the European Union. What remains to be seen is whether a government elected on its commitment to Brexit and concerned by emotive, territorial issues such as fishing rights will pause to consider the economic disaster happening under its nose.