We have faced an onslaught of heartbreak in the British cultural sector due to the Coronavirus pandemic. We have seen gigs cancelled, performances postponed, and livelihoods compromised. One of the most impactful examples of this sudden downfall of our entertainment industry in the south of England took place here, in Southampton. Nuffield Southampton Theatres (NST) was a beloved theatre company that supported both local artists and performers in Hampshire (through initiatives such as the Make It So Festival) to the newest London-based pieces like Janice Okoh’s The Gift. NST was not an unsuccessful theatre, in fact, it was the most nominated theatre in the country for the UK Theatre Awards.
The NST City building has since been taken over by Mayflower Theatres, and national headlines characterised this as a success because theatre would still be present in the local community, and perhaps it is, but is it good enough to cross over fingers and hope that new management will keep theatre and other forms of entertainment afloat? Can we expect our entertainment and media industries to recover? And if so, what would that recovery look like?
Fears over the future of entertainment have been with us since we saw the pandemic coming over the hill at the start of 2020, especially for branches that rely on in-person events such as theatre, live music, and standup comedy. Every industry in the country has suffered, with an average of 13% of an industry’s workers being furloughed as the government’s Job Retention Scheme, but the entertainment industry has especially suffered as we see 51% of its workers being furloughed. In June, we saw some of the biggest names in British theatre such as Phoebe Waller-Bridge, James McAvoy, and Sharon D. Clarke sign an open letter to the government appealing for more governmental support to theatres, 70% of which reported being at risk of running out of money by the end of 2020 due to the 80% reduction in seats to accommodate social distancing measures. Do we have any good news to show for appeals such as these since the summer?
Well, some in-home forms of entertainment have massively benefitted during the lockdown. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), podcasts, internet advertising, and music streaming services, and gaming are just a few mediums that have seen a sharp increase in engagement. However, this same outlook over 2020-2024 predicts that industries such as live music will not pull in similar revenue as that of 2019 until 2023, which leaves thousands of artists and surrounding workers walking through limbo for three years. Overall, the PwC predicts that by 2024, our industries will bounce back to similar levels as that of 2019, before its activity was interrupted by the coronavirus and its subsequent restrictions. But, what kind of recovery should we hope to expect?
I worry about the consistent pattern we have seen over the last 50 years when we talk about economic recovery in Britain: consistent neglect of the North as we focus all our attention on southern industries, particularly London. The recession of the early 1980s and the closing of coal mines in the north of the country led to the poverty and devastation of hundreds of communities, some areas still have not fully recovered since. The Global Financial Crisis of 2008 followed this trend, with some towns and even cities still in a compromised position due to the disproportionate impact on areas such as Yorkshire and even the Midlands. I fear that our entertainment industry may demonstrate another asymmetrical road to recovery just as progress was being made for increasing regional production. There is a glimmer of hope for our entertainment industry, but we need to be cautious and let all regions of the country bask in its light.