Angela Richardson: Recovery cannot come a moment too soon for the performing arts

3 Jul

Angela Richardson is the Conservative MP for Guilford.

The performing arts has had the most profound impact on my life. Music dominated the landscape of my early years with a piano beautifully played by my mother, cornet and trumpet by my father and the sound of his lovely tenor voice.

We gathered, often with extended family around the piano to sing and I would have my afternoon nap as a toddler on a pile of cushions with classical music on the record player. My siblings would cringe as they heard me trying to learn how to sing harmony with the headphones on, the relevant melody silenced, but hours in childhood were devoted to learning how to express everything I could hear, even if it took time to make the mechanical side of producing it work.

There were many reasons to start attending my local Baptist Church in West Auckland, New Zealand as a twelve year old, including social ones. But in my most straightforward of ways, I went up to the pianist after the first service and started singing while he played, was given a microphone the following week and spent the rest of my teenage years up the front, with the band, as well as rehearsing several times a week. My dearest friendships were formed through music.

My parents were not devotees of the performing arts. It was an anathema to them and I had to audition for school plays without their permission, being cast at thirteen in productions that were the preserve of the senior students.

The frustration of being handed a choice between studying music and drama at fifteen was unbearable. My parents strongly lobbied for music and I acquiesced, though luckily enough for me, my state school offered Dance in sixth form and I countered with studying that for a year at sixteen. I’m sure many families have been through this tussle with their teenagers.

Through working life and early parenthood, opportunities to perform were few and far between. Life is about seasons and this period was particularly dry on the musical and theatre front until I moved with my husband and children to the small and lovely village of Ewhurst in Surrey, which is blessed to have the most astonishingly wonderful Ewhurst Players. Multiple NODA award-winning productions and a genuine centre of our village life.

It’s easy to lose your confidence when you have been at home looking after small children with a significant narrowing of horizons and I give huge credit to the Ewhurst Players with helping me rediscover mine and ultimately stand for public office.

In 2012, I plucked up the courage to audition for their Diamond Jubilee Review and they welcomed me with open arms. The bug hit hard and I auditioned and was successfully cast in almost every production over the next six years and turned my hand to directing a pantomime for five to nine year olds and a short adult play, having a go at ever including vocal coaching an adult pantomime and prompting from the wings.

This new family was full of the most wonderful characters, bringing joy, laughter and moments of profound understanding of the human condition to our audiences drawn from near and far.

It’s this most important facet of connection between us all that has been sorely missed over these many weeks of lockdown. While many innovative and dynamic production companies in Guildford have moved elements of performance online, the understandable frustration of being one of the last cultural gems to come out of lockdown is taking an enormous toll on the industry, professional and amateur.

So, too, is the genuine financial concern of these companies and their players. We have the brilliant Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford Shakespeare Company, The Guildford Fringe, The Electric Theatre and the renowned Guildford School of Acting to name but a few.

The heroic endeavours of the Treasury to mitigate the economic impact of Coronavirus have been rightly hailed as extraordinary. The DCMS Secretary of State, Oliver Dowden, has signalled a roadmap for the recovery of the performing arts and pockets of funding have been received through generous grant schemes.

But I fundamentally agree that solid detail which I know is being worked on a speed needs to come sooner rather than later. Recovery cannot come a moment too soon.

I try to take the personal out of the political and look at the overall cost/benefit analysis to society and the unintended consequences in all we do. I do have a personal stake in this, but I know and I am sure that many will agree with me, that their lives are richer for the Christmas pantomimes they have attended, their own chance to shine in their primary school nativity play or the musical festivals or rock concerts that mark a summer on the cusp of adulthood, never forgotten.

Nor will many forget the first time they ever saw ballet, opera, Shakespeare or attended a Proms Concert and sang Land of Hope and Glory at the top of their lungs while conducting the orchestra with a Union Jack in hand.

Our rich cultural heritage and ground-breaking performances are as much of the beating heart of this country as is our economic prosperity. It is part of our global soft power and the sooner we can have both running successfully in tandem, the sooner we will thrive once again.

Caroline Nokes: Spare a thought for women. Male ministers have forgotten we exist in their lockdown easing plans.

30 Jun

Caroline Nokes is Member of Parliament for Romsey and Southampton North. 

Covid-19 has taught us many things about the importance of physical and mental wellbeing. We discovered (if we actually needed to be told) that your chances of recovery were greatly improved by being physically fit and in the normal weight range for your height.

We found out that mental resilience was important to cope with long periods of relative isolation, and social contact carried out mainly by Zoom. We were told very firmly that an hour of exercise should be part of our daily routine, and pretty much the only way to escape the house legitimately.

But for women in particular the importance of wellbeing seems to have gone well and truly out of the window as lockdown is relaxed.

Why oh why have we seen the urge to get football back, support for golf and fishing, but a lack of recognition that individual pilates studios can operate in a safe socially-distanced way, rigorously cleaned between clients?

Barbers have been allowed to return from July 4 because guess what – men with hair need it cut. They tend not to think of a pedicure before they brave a pair of sandals, although perhaps the world would be a better place if they did. Dare I say the great gender divide is writ large through all this?

Before anyone gets excited that women enjoy football and men do pilates can we please just look at the stats? Football audiences are (according to 2016 statistics) 67 per cent male and don’t even get me started on the failure of the leading proponents of restarting football to mention the women’s game.

Pilates and yoga (yes I know they are not the same thing) have a client base that is predominantly women and in the region of 80 per cent of yoga instructors are women. These are female-led businesses, employing women, supporting the physical and mental wellbeing of women, and still they are given no clue as to when the end of lockdown will be in sight.

Could it be that the decisions are still being driven by men, for men, ignoring the voices of women round the Cabinet table, precious few of them though there are? I have hassled ministers on this subject, and they tell me they have been pressing the point that relaxation has looked more pro-men than women, but it looks like the message isn’t getting through.

I will declare an interest. Since I first adopted Grapefruit Sparkle as a suitably inoffensive nail colour for an election campaign in 2015, I have been a Shellac addict. The three weekly trip to Unique Nails is one of life’s little pleasures, an hour out, sitting with constituents, chatting, laughing, drinking tea.

It is good for the soul, a chance to recharge and chill out. And for many of the customers it is their chance to not have to bend to get their toenails trimmed, it is a boost to their mood, that can last for a full three weeks until it is time for a change.

And it is a fairly harmless change to go from Waterpark to Tartan Punk in an hour. Natural nails have done very little for my mood since a nice chap from Goldman Sachs told me: “you could go far if only you opted for a neutral nail, perhaps a nice peach.”

At school I was described as a “non-participant” in sport – I hated it, and it has taken decades to find the activities I can tolerate to keep my weight partially under control. Walking the dog is a great way, but nothing is as effective as the individual work-out rooms in a personal training studio – where it is perfectly possible for those of us who do not like to be seen in lycra to exercise in isolation and then have the place cleaned for the next victim.

I am not suggesting it is only women who do not like to exercise in vast gyms, there are men with similar phobias, but what I cannot get over is the lack of recognition that a one-to-one session in a studio is not the same as toddling off to your local treadmill factory.

The Pilates studio owners of Romsey and Southampton North are deeply frustrated at the apparent inability to draw the distinction between their carefully controlled environments and much larger facilities where, to be blunt, there is a lot of sweat in the atmosphere.

I know I get criticised for being obsessed about women – it goes hand in hand with the job description – but I cannot help but feel this relaxation has forgotten we exist. Or just assumed that women will be happy to stay home and do the childcare and home schooling, because the sectors they work in are last to be let out of lockdown, while their husbands go back to work, resume their lives and celebrate by having a pint with their mates.

(And yes I do know women drink beer too, but there is a gender pint gap, with only one in six women drinking beer each week compared to half of men.)

Crucially, women want their careers back and they want their children in school or nursery. Of course home working has been great for some, but much harder if you are also juggling childcare and impossible if your work requires you to be physically present, like in retail, hairdressing, hospitality.

These are sectors where employees are largely women, and which are now opening up while childcare providers are still struggling to open fully – with reduced numbers due to social distancing requirements. It is a massive problem, which I worry has still not been fully recognised or addressed.

Perhaps if the PM needed to sort the childcare, get his nails done and his legs waxed it might be different. But it does seem that the Health Secretary, the Chancellor, the Business Secretary and the Secretary of State for Sport and Culture, who all have a very obvious thing in common, have overlooked the need to help their female constituents get out of lockdown on a par with their male ones.

Am I going to have to turn up to work with hairy legs to persuade them that women’s wellbeing matters?