Last November thousands of youngsters came to London (many of them probably for the first time) to take part in the Music for Youth (MFY) Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. Thousands more came to the Ambassador’s Theatre for the rep season of the National Youth Theatre (NYT) and a reception at Buckingham Palace to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of its foundation.
If you rely on the printed media (or most sections of TV and radio) for your news, you will be unaware of these youthful invasions. It is a measure of the “values” of most of the media that they do nothing to report this enthusiasm and these achievements that have made the UK world leader in youth theatre and music.
One of the effects of the failure of the media to report this is the blank looks when I tell my friends I am going to the Music for Youth Proms.
The staging of the Music for Youth Proms (previously called the Schools’ Prom) at the Royal Albert Hall is the culmination of a nationwide effort in which some 40,000 pupils and students have been involved.
Truly, those nights at the Albert Hall truly reflect the excellence of so much that is being achieved by pupils and students from all over the country, and not only from schools and colleges but many other outlets for music-making, and that no other country can point to achievements on this scale.
Sphere of youth music
Similarly, the National Youth Theatre (NYT) has come a long way since it began life based on the work of Michael Croft with his students at Alleyn’s School in Dulwich giving their first performance of Henry V at Toynbee Hall sixty years ago. In the jargon of the Olympic Games it might be considered by some as an “elite sport” by comparison with those that get involved in the sphere of youth music, but there are various forms of music-making and understandably the numbers catered for by MFY are bound to be much higher.
A look at the list of outstanding actors and actresses who began their involvement in theatre at the NYT shows how rich has been the contribution of the NYT to British Theatre. That list includes Helen Mirren, Daniel Craig, Daniel Day-Lewis, Colin Firth, Timothy Spall and Diana Quick, while there are many others enjoying success in the theatre and on TV. Many others have benefitted from the experience the NYT offers through its workshops and courses, or have benefitted from the NYT’s Bursary Fund without the aid of which they might never have been able to pursue their ambitions. There are others like Polly Toynbee, Kate Adie, Krishnan Guru-Murthy and Chris Bryant who have succeeded in the media or politics.
As with MFY, the amount of public funding available from the Arts Council is only a small proportion of what is needed, and so fund-raising is always a major concern.
The work of MFY with its various regional and national activities, and the NYT at its nationwide auditions, outreach programmes and its workshops and courses, are based on the foundations that have been set up before children and youngsters get involved beyond the schools, colleges, or other local bodies from which they come. But as I hope I have shown, both MFY and the NYT could do even more than they are already doing to widen opportunities for the rising generation. We are already world leaders in youth music-making and youth theatre, but we could do even better given more support and encouragement.
Both organisations are voluntary bodies that receive only a small proportion of their expenditure costs from public funds. For both, fund-raising is a constant source of pressure, taking up energies that could otherwise be devoted to creative developments. Moreover, fundraising is now much more difficult given the number of voluntary bodies who are desperately seeking donors to support their work.
I would hope that a wise government would recognise the important role that the creative arts already play, and the greater role they can play, in the country’s economic future. Such recognition might have some influence with ministers who all too often do not appreciate the intrinsic value of the creative arts for their own sakes, but only if they contribute to our economic success and “social mobility”. But that is almost certainly too much to hope for from a Chancellor of the Exchequer whose Autumn Statement spoke only of austerity.
Against that stark future I would suggest that there is a good argument for proposing that the National Lottery should now invest more of its funds in the development of youth music and theatre. It has been widely acknowledged that the remarkable success of Team GB at last year’s Rio Olympics (and in London four years earlier) owed a great deal to the Lottery Fund’s readiness to make a major investment in training and other facilities necessary to develop the talents of our athletes right across the board. As a result, success has been achieved even in some fields where we had not previously achieved in earlier years.
While I recognise that our music-making and theatre do not attract the passions aroused by the Olympic Games they do add to the nation’s reputation and potential for economic success.
They can do a great deal for the spirit and cultural well-being of the nation. They are unquestionably ways in which much more could be done to raise the sights and spirits of our country as it faces the very difficult times that lie ahead.
Youngsters deserve recognition
In addition to the help that I hope might be given by the Lottery Fund, there is another body which, in my view could do more to support and encourage the wealth of talent that is possessed by our rising generation when music and theatre are concerned. That body is the BBC. I say this because the Corporation already has a tremendous record of achievement in respect of the creative arts and especially of music and drama.
The annual season of the Proms at the Albert Hall is a magnificent feast of music of all kinds performed by a host of musicians from around the world as well as the UK. No other country can possibly match the richness, the variety and the quality of what is offered by the Proms. In addition, the BBC relays to us much of the content of the great Edinburgh Festival, the exciting Young Musician of the Year competition, and such bold ventures as Gareth Malone’s choir-building.
It is precisely because I believe the BBC’s record is so outstanding that I find it all the more regrettable, not to say deplorable, that to my knowledge it does nothing to put before its public the outstanding achievements on show at the Music for Youth Proms. I simply do not understand how the Corporation can possibly justify its failure in this respect. I cannot believe they could say they cannot find time to show some, if not all, of the three nights of the Music for Youth Proms.
Neither the MFY nor NYT have asked me to raise this issue. It’s what I feel as a devoted listener to much of the BBC’s output, a strong admirer of much of what it does who believes that the youngsters who are rising to such heights in music making and theatre nowadays deserve recognition by the BBC. It would be a source of great encouragement to these youngsters if the BBC’s offerings were to show some awareness of what is happening in their world. That’s why I have written to the Director General inviting him to give an explanation – and an assurance that things will only get better.