Government failure to provide guidance on Pantomime is concerning

About a month ago Michael Harrison, the producer of QDOS pantomimes set a deadline for the government to give pantomime producers and venues an answer about this year’s panto season to enable planning. The response wasn’t encouraging…

Pantomime
QDOS are producers of the London Palladium Panto

It’s something uniquely British, dating back hundreds of years and it’s an established part of a family Christmas and for most their first experience of live theatre. Many are aware that there are hundreds of professional and amateur pantomimes produced all over the UK each festive period.

You may have seen this posted across social media over the past few days by Pantomime producer Michael Harrison of QDOS Pantomimes:-

QDOS Panto response 2020

“We had been very clear that we required clarity from the Government regarding the re-opening of theatres by today, Monday 3 August, in order for our pantomime season as we know it to take place.

“Based on the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s reiteration last week that the Government won’t be providing further guidance on theatres operating without social distancing until November at the earliest we are left with no choice but to begin the consultation process with our partner theatres about the viability of each show. This is a complex process and will take several weeks to complete.

“We are not immediately announcing the postponement of all shows, however, plans will be announced by individual theatres and communicated to ticket holders in due course.”

Trouble has been brewing in Pantoland for several months now.  Each year Michael Harrison of QDOS Pantomimes brings some of the nation’s biggest pantomime productions to life. For Harrison, the Christmas panto season is like raising an army and it takes time and a lot of care and attention.

Harrison set a time limit and given the government’s last-minute bombshells and u-turns, it wasn’t unreasonable to get clarification before committing to huge financial outlay. So for the last few weeks, we’ve all held our collective breath, hoping against hope that there would be good news but fearing the equivalent for many of cancelling Christmas.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden realising the importance of this decision and the crucial time needed to mount panto deferred a possible decision to November (maybe)!

The loss of panto would quash hope, drive venues into further financial despair, leave hundreds having to rely on support funds and unemployment. It would also leave the government needing to consider another huge financial input to the arts, without which some may barely survive until a possible April start date but with no money to actually re-open or mount productions and we haven’t even started to talk about the thousands who are being made redundant now. Not to mention the support industry of costumiers, fabric suppliers, set builder, lighting and sound hire companies, printers who rely on the business this amazing British entertainment generates.

Pantomime not only serves to bring the community together to entertain, but for venues, and the army of creatives, actors and crew it is a stable job that keeps many afloat at Christmas. For venues, profit from pantomime more often than not keeps venues across the country running and funds programming of less commercial shows. Whoever coined the phrase No Panto, No Pinter wasn’t far off the mark.

It had inconceivable but now near-certain that Panto will be the latest victim of the virus. We expected a “new normal” post lockdown and understand the safety aspects involved. As an industry, we are also aware that it is not in our best interests to stuff this up. Andrew Lloyd Webber has shown that we are even prepared to invest time and money to solve problems. It is though getting increasingly obvious that the government is out of its depth.

The COVID-19 crisis has lumbered ever onwards. Government don’t seem to be delivering on the crucial elements that are required to keep things under control, the missing Track and Trace app we were told was essential, confusing and contradictory messaging on policy, lead officials publicly ignoring rules, an economic over health push for re-opening that seems to have most now not wanting to work in offices or go out. Meanwhile, industries like the arts worth billions to our economy are on the verge of disappearing because guidelines are being ignored by large sections of the populus without enforcement. Without enforcement, nothing will improve and this crisis will lurch on killing an industry worth billions leaving thousands in ruin.

The West End without the 30,000 + nightly theatre crowd is a ghost town. London isn’t a beach resort and without heritage and culture out on show there is no enticement to visit and spend your money here and I’m not just talking about international guests but it affects domestic visitors as well. We must work as a team to keep the virus at bay and build trust. Relying on a vaccine could be folly. We will keep you informed as news comes to hand.

To give you an idea QDOS alone produce pantos in Aberdeen, Belfast, Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Bromley, Cardiff, Crewe, Darlington, Dartford, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hastings, Hayes, High Wycombe, Hull, Llandudno, London Palladium, Manchester, Milton Keynes, Newcastle, Northampton, Nottingham, Plymouth, Richmond, Southampton, Southend, Stoke, Swansea, Swindon, Wimbledon, Woking and York.

In coming days we’ll be talking to other producers to build a picture of what is at stake here as these mostly family-run production houses lose their ability to earn income this Christmas.

Unfortunately, this isn’t funny and no amount of double entendres will bring a smile to the industry folk and venues facing the bleakest of times this Christmas.

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