Culture is worth the cost to enrich theatre of our lives

Stoke-on-Trent has paid a high price for its culture. Or rather, the taxpayers of this city have.
They still are.
When the grand vision of a Cultural Quarter was first revealed in the mid-90s (by my Sentinel colleague John Abberley), there were many sceptics.
After all, at the time we were observing the death by a thousand cuts of the Theatre Royal in Hanley.
That being the case, how could anyone honestly support throwing money at the concept of two spruced-up live entertainment venues in the city centre?
But they did. And it cost the people of the Potteries dear.
Various city council officers misplaced their calculators and saddled us with an eye-watering £15 million overspend for the project to refurbish The Regent Theatre and Victoria Hall.
Then – surprise, surprise – the three blokes who got their sums so badly wrong retired early with pensions intact.
Indeed, who can forget choking on their tea when they read that two of those found guilty of misconduct – Mark Winstanley and Paul Brindley – had negotiated for themselves golden handshakes amounting to around £450,000?
You thought Fred the Shred and the banking halfwits patented payouts for failure? Think again.
And so it was, that 10 years ago this very month Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi welcomed the first audience through the doors of the newly-refurbished Regent Theatre.
What kind of shows could we expect? Was there really the market to justify two large live performance venues up ’Anley? Was it really worth the cost?
Only time would tell.
A decade later and the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) – which runs both city centre venues – has just reported losses of more than £200,000 in 2007/8.
It sounds grim, doesn’t it? Particularly when you factor in that the city council is still subsidising Stoke-on-Trent theatres to the tune of £500,000 a year.
Crucially, though, any loss is absorbed by ATG – not passed on to local taxpayers.
But still a number of councillors aren’t happy. They would rather see that half a million quid spent on other things.
Maybe they fancy nice pink bins to go with those popular new blue ones.
Some people (certainly those who have never ventured into The Regent or Victoria Hall) simply can’t get their heads around the idea of funding culture.
Newflash: Other cities do it too. We are not alone!
The fact is, if we want to be more than a cultural desert, then it is going to cost us – just as it costs us to stock our library with new children’s books or the latest DVDs.
If we want our young people to be exposed to the performing arts – such as the 13,000 who have taken part in dance shows run by ATG’s creative learning staff since 2002 – then we are going to have to continue to cough up.
If we want top class performers and West End shows then we are going to have to pay a premium.
People travel from far and wide to see performances at The Regent and Victoria Hall.
And no, that doesn’t simply mean the stalls are full of middle-class Cheshire types who like a bit of Glyndebourne.
It means we have more in our city centre than the usual collection of high street stores.
Yes, going to the theatre can be expensive. But so is supporting your football team. The difference is, you’re unlikely to leave the venue feeling deflated half the time.
And if you become a ‘friend’ – the theatre equivalent of buying a season ticket – you will save money. Just ask the 6,000-plus people who currently benefit from discounted admission.
The truth is we will never have a consensus about the Cultural Quarter.
And you can forget trying to justify its existence with footfall figures and dubious statistics attempting to estimate its impact on our local economy.
Let’s just accept that having one of the finest theatres in the land on our doorstep is important.
Accept that it does make a difference. Acknowledge that it does ‘put us on the map’, as they say.
Trust me, it’s a darn sight better that sitting in front of the goggle box every evening.
If you don’t believe me, go and watch the heats of Stoke’s Top Talent next week and see how your local theatre (and this newspaper) is championing North Staffordshire.
It’s no wonder other cities are copying us.


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