Adrian Hilton is a conservative academic, theologian and educationalist.
‘Equity is not affiliated to a political party,’ says the union’s summer edition of its magazine which has just landed on my doormat. ‘But that doesn’t mean we’re not politically active,’ they swiftly qualify, if only to justify 40,000 membership subscriptions, many of which come from impoverished actors, aspiring models and struggling entertainers who spend more years waiting tables and filing red tape than enchanting any audience with the virtue of its own feature.
But it’s a curious political impartiality in the run-up to a General Election. The union provides a handy postcard to remind thespians (et al) of what ought to be their overriding concerns, and it reads like a Labour(/SNP) press release. Demands include: i) protect the BBC licence fee; ii) reverse the cuts that have been imposed since 2010; iii) support local authority duty to fund arts and culture; and iv) ‘improve the representation of all groups in society on stage and screen’, which amounts to quotas for minorities. When Equity says: ‘Make you vote count’, they actually mean: ‘Don’t vote Conservative, you moron.’
And just to emphasise the point, they have a ‘Meet the Membership’ double-page spread given over to the impeccably apolitical, professionally dispassionate and totally unprejudiced Samuel West, who lauds trade union solidarity en passant: ‘..decent minimum time off, overtime, safe workplaces, holiday pay.. Employers don’t give you those benefits of their own accord,’ he counsels.
Don’t they? Note the tense: he’s not talking about impotent 18th-century textile workers or nimble-footed boys sentenced to years of obligatory chimney-sweeping. No: his target is the malignant corporates of modernity which float on the Stock Market, churn out shareholder dividends and collude in outrageous executive bonuses. They whip their employees’ legs and plunge stubborn heads into cisterns filled with iced water. It’s how employers inspire loyalty: all stick and no carrot. He might even be talking about the Royal Shakespeare Company, which has obviously never pondered “sore labour’s bath”, and wouldn’t dream of doing so without the robed man of justice and the yokefellow of Equity.
He then segues into the NHS, which is apparently ‘the best thing this country’s ever done’. What, ever? Didn’t we produce Shakespeare and the King James Bible? What about parliamentary democracy, Magna Carta and Habeas Corpus? How about inventing the telly, which provides jobs for an awful lot of actors, including Sam’s mum and dad? And didn’t we win a war or two against imperialism and fascism, teaching the world a few things about freedom in the process?
The actor’s photo dominates the spread (actually taking up more space than his text). He leans against a doorframe, just behind an ornament of some pinkish deity (it looks a bit like Mickey Mouse, though it could be Ganesh with a busted trunk). But he might as well be standing for a selfie with Ed Miliband as he rails against the ‘false dichotomy’ and ‘thieves’ trick’ of ‘terrible and punitive cuts’ which imperil civilisation (yes, really). The Arts, he says, make citizens ‘less fundamentalist’.
Who can he be thinking of? Well, there are clues. He refers to ‘the virus of low pay’ and he grieves that ‘the dole is almost impossible to get’. Doesn’t IDS go to the opera often enough? ‘You can’t base your economic model on those who can afford to live with their parents,’ he importunes, being sure to check his privileged theatrical dynasty (not to mention private education at Alleyn’s followed by Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where he was a member of the Socialist Alliance).
A few pages further in, Equity does get round to telling its readers what the Conservatives intend to do for the Arts should they win (Saint Genesius forbid) on 7th May. We read that there will be tax-breaks to fund philanthropy and tax credits for theatres and children’s TV. There’ll also be £340m to support cultural education, and a greater commitment to diversity and equality. It’s all a bit desiccated and economic: nothing warm-blooded at all.
But the Labour manifesto includes Ed Miliband’s grand commitment to establish a ‘Prime Minister’s Committee for the Arts’. Very impressive. With a seat reserved for Sam West, no doubt. And the LibDems go on about touchy-feely stuff like ‘personal fulfilment’ and ‘quality of life’. And the Greens ‘support the role of union’ and promise to ring-fence the BBC licence fee.
If you want to know about the SNP, DUP, Sinn Fein and Plaid, you get referred to their websites, which isn’t very equitably regional, but at least they get a nod. And if you want to know UKIP’s policies for the Arts.. well, as far as Equity is concerned, the party doesn’t exist. Yes, despite having appointed their first dedicated spokesman for Arts and Culture (espousing policies which have no bearing on Brussels), Ukip is beyond the luvvie pale, suspended in revulsion somewhere between Nick Griffin and Aaron the Moor.
Turning over a few pages more, we get a hunky splash on David Morrissey who talks about debt, poverty and low pay for youngsters training in the Arts or trying to begin their careers, all of which are concerns which I and many Tories share. But note, again, the promotion of another prominent Labour supporter.
Moving further on, along comes a piece by Malcolm Sinclair, Equity’s President, plugging a book by Michael Pennington which talks about the ‘moral imperative for people, especially young people, to join and pay their dues’.
Funny, that. When I was young, Equity’s closed shop presented me with nothing but hurdles, impediments and broken dreams. There was I with gloriously prestigious offers from the RSC and the West End from Thelma Holt, both of which got snagged and scuppered by the petty-fogging bureaucracy and iniquitous inequity of Equity, which, in those days, restricted membership to two new-comers per theatre per annum, with a total prohibition on beginning your career in Stratford-upon-Avon or major London venues. Margaret Thatcher finally dealt with all that nonsense in 1988. They’ve obviously never forgiven her, and seem to hold every Tory actor vicariously and perpetually culpable.
Sinclair urges his members to vote in the General Election because ‘we need the right people in charge!’, leaving us in no doubt that they aren’t and haven’t been – at least for the past five years. You’d think, reading all this, that no Conservatives care about poverty or injustice, and that Miliband’s pre-distribution is the new creed of artistic statism.
But before Sam West’s or David Morrissey’s fans, mates and acolytes heap scorn on my moral deficiency and artistic philistinism, I’d just like to point out that we agree on so very, very much. My advocacy for generous state-funding the Arts is a matter of record. So is my criticism of Conservative culture ministers. The Arts, as I have said on this site, give life, and I remain participant and enthused.
Conservatives can talk as much about artistic freedom, social justice, creation, inspiration and cultural consciousness as they do fiscal rectitude and economic competence. I’m just left to wonder why Equity doesn’t devote a technicolor double-page splash to a Tory-minded thesp. Surely they have a few among their 40,000?