During the 11 years of Margaret Thatcher’s government, the arts and broadcasting in Britain suffered mightily under reduced subsidies and thinly disguised hostility from 10 Downing Street.
But now that John Major has replaced Thatcher as prime minister, there is cautious optimism in nationalized British arts institutions and broadcasting circles that relations with the government will improve during the 1990s.
The British Broadcasting Corp., the Royal Opera House and the Royal Shakespeare Company--which all suffered in various ways during the Thatcher era--are among the organizations expected to benefit from a softer approach by the Major government.
British Treasury sources noted that last month, the Arts Council received an 11% increase for its 1991-1992 grants. David Mellor, named first secretary of the Treasury by Major, oversaw the hike in one of his last decisions as arts minister under Thatcher. The move was seen by some as an indication that attitudes toward the arts were already beginning to soften in the waning of days of the Thatcher government.
On a personal level, Major seems more favorably disposed to the arts than his predecessor. He is an opera enthusiast, and his wife, Norma, is an opera expert, having written a well-received biography of diva Joan Sutherland. Norma Major declined a commission to write another biography, of singer Jessye Norman, because of her husband’s increasing political commitments.
The Majors have frequently attended opera at Covent Garden with Mellor, Norman Lamont, now chancellor of the Exchequer, and their wives. Lamont and Mellor will be influential in setting levels of public expenditure.
Another indication that Major takes the arts seriously is his appointment of lawmaker Tim Renton as his new arts minister. Renton is a political heavyweight, having served as government chief whip in the Commons under Thatcher.
Still, Mellor, 41, may be the figure to watch. A sympathetic arts minister in the Thatcher era, besides increasing grants to the Arts Council, he set up an enhancement fund to help subsidize arts companies that had overspent because of previously inadequate subsidies.
His promotion under Major is also welcomed by the BBC, which seemed under almost constant attack from the Thatcher regime. Threatened with a loss of TV viewers’ license in favor of alternative funding sources, the BBC was also under fire for its political documentaries, which were accused of left-wing bias. The Thatcher government also criticized the BBC’s coverage of the Ulster conflict.
Mellor has proved a staunch ally of the BBC. “David Mellor made a brave speech to the Conservative Party conference this year defending the BBC,” said Simon Albury, former director of the pressure group Campaign for Quality Television. “He believes the current form of funding, the license fee, is probably the best. I think much of the BBC’s financial instability has been reduced with Mrs. Thatcher’s departure.”
Mellor also won praise from TV-industry insiders for shepherding through Parliament the government’s broadcasting bill. In its original form it seemed hostile to Britain’s television Establishment and appeared ready to dump quality programming in favor of companies ready to make generous donations to the Treasury for the right to broadcast. Mellor agreed to concessions in the bill, while standing firm on principles in which he believed.
Albury deemed the accession of Major as “extremely good news for the BBC. Mrs. Thatcher and some of the people close to her in the government had a hostility toward the BBC which will not be as widespread in the new cabinet.
“There is a streak of culture and decency in some of the new younger Cabinet members Mr. Major has appointed, which was not always true of the people they replaced.”
At the Royal Shakespeare Company, spokeswoman Caro Newling noted, “David Mellor made a considerable contribution toward getting more money from the government for the arts.”
But she said it was too early to guess how the Major government would deal with nationalized arts companies.
“We hope Tim Renton will be committed to the role of arts minister,” she added. “We must wait and see.”
The Royal Shakespeare Company has closed its London theaters at the Barbican center for four months this winter in an attempt to save 1.3 million ($2.55 million). Artistic director Terry Hands blamed inadequate government funding for the closure.
Ewen Balfour, a spokesman for the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, seemed upbeat about the new government. “We do know Mr. Major, who is a frequent visitor, and of course his wife is well-known in operatic circles,” he said. “Mr. Mellor is also a music man. Mr. Renton lists ‘arguing about operatic tenors’ as one of his recreations. These are good signs.”
Balfour agreed that the relationship between Covent Garden and the Thatcher government had been checkered. Jeremy Isaacs, director of the opera house, announced in May that despite cuts, it was budgeting for a deficit amounting to 5.5 million ($11 million), a move that the government’s Arts Council condemned as reckless.
“It’s hard to feel they’re wonderful people when there’s a diminishing arts budget,” Balfour said. “But it makes us all the more determined to fight our fight, for us and others in the arts world. We’re hoping for a visit from Mr. Renton, and we hope the Royal Opera House will get its due.”