27 September 2022

An open letter to our new culture secretary from a lighting designer


culture secretary michelle donelan

Dear Ms Donelan,

Please allow me, through these pages, to welcome you to your new job of secretary of state for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. 

Many people have filled your role; you’re the 14th since 2007. In that period there have been just seven chancellors, five prime ministers and, until the other sad day, one monarch. The average time in your job is just over a year. There are individual shows that take longer than that to get on to the stage; it doesn’t feel long enough to figure out what everyone’s doing, let alone start making meaningful decisions. 

Ask it, and your own civil service will tell you that the sectors you oversee account for 13% of the UK economy, with the creative industries among the fastest growing. Despite what your government often seems to believe, this is a massively important area.

Narrow down the focus a bit to my world, the production side – the work of delivering live shows, events, television productions and films – and you’ll find a highly skilled, talented and serious workforce delivering big, complex projects bang on schedule. When was the last time you went to see a show and it wasn’t there ready for you? While you were there, did you wonder about the complexity of the scenery, costumes, props, lighting and sound in front of you – to say nothing of the tonnes of equipment hanging safely above you?

This is no longer the clichéd world of roadies pushing boxes. This is a world of high-level design, engineering and technology, often advancing the limits of what technology allows. Practitioners and suppliers from this country are in demand everywhere, their work acclaimed around the world. Just one example: four of the five nominees for best sound design for a musical in this year’s Tony Awards were British.

All these talents deserve the fullest support and encouragement from government, not to be ignored, dismissed and, in the worst case, told they should retrain. They need practical help with today’s challenges, including the ongoing recovery from the pandemic, the complications from Brexit and the looming catastrophe of energy prices and inflation. In that perfect storm, a number of long-established British suppliers in this field have been taken over by foreign companies. Has anyone in your department noticed that? Do you even know how many of these skilled individuals work in this field you now oversee?

It feels like you should.

Without culture, the UK would be an entirely different country, and a much less appealing one. But culture is not really a thing in itself, it’s the result of the people and organisations who make it.

Please, be bold on our behalf. Long-term bold, not just the sound-bites of electioneering. We need commitment. We need support. We need, as we used to have back in times when those leading the arts loved the arts and stuck around, an ally.

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