Odds and sods: February 2023

A late one again – apologies, but with Live Theatre’s press event being on invitation, I had to get that out of the way first.

Right, what happened in February?

Stuff that happened in February

Well, what do you know. I went through listing notable events that need raising, guess what? It’s one of the most depressing odds and sods I’ve seen. Here we are:

No end in sight for Edinburgh’s accommodation crisis

This news isn’t so much specific to February, but February is arguably the month when things started to come to a head.

Edinburgh Fringe has been criticised for pricing performers out for decades, but until this decade it was the venues coming under fire for their costs. This changed last year, not because the venue were getting any cheaper, but because accommodation costs were spiralling out of control. Without being able to mind-read each and every landlord in Edinburgh we can’t know the reason for certain, but the popular theory is that landlords who bought properties for the purpose of renting to fringers lost a lot of income they were counting on in 2020 and 2021 and are desperate to recoup it. I’m not sure if anyone did some proper statistical tracking of this, but what I can say is that I heard endless complaints about high accommodation costs up to and during Edinburgh Fringe. It never use to be like this.

Advert for extortionately-priced Edinburgh flatHowever, it appears most people grumbled but paid up. That, I think, was collectively a mistake, but it seems this gave landlord the message they can get away with anything, and are upping the rents from extortionate to piss-taking. I’ve seen one-month rental costs for flats higher than buying one in a normal city. Okay, these are probably being flagged because they’re the absolute worst examples, but it doesn’t bode well for typical offers. Also, I’m hearing of big-name comedians (who previously had no problem making a profit) questioning if it’s worth it.

The other side of the issue, though, is Edinburgh locals being priced out of living in their own city. Even the most avid fringe-lovers have their patience stretched when would-be homes are being snapped up for one month a year buy to let. So the Scottish Government is planning a ban on short-term lets; Edinburgh Fringe, in response, dropped a bit of a bombshell by forecasting that it will push registrations down by a third in 2024.

The immediate question, however, is what happens this year. Will fringe performers lump it again, or is this the year the bubble finally bursts. The first batch of registrations are now announced (190 as of Feb 16th), but without any easily comparable reference points from last year it’s hard to see where this is going. My forecast, however, is that things are going to get very messy and very nasty. The only question is when.

Latest from Brighton Fringe

Whilst it’s still up in the air what size Edinburgh Fringe will be this year, we have a pretty good idea with Brighton. At the time of writing, there’s 699 registrations. This would suggest it’s slightly down on last year, which wouldn’t be too surprising given the woes from cost-of-living jitters last year, and being down one major venue (Rialto). However, it’s difficult to make an exact comparison, because this year Brighton Fringe is doing without any sort of printed programme at all – as such, the registration deadline doesn’t really mean anything. So we may have more events registering at the last moment, now that missing the printed programme doesn’t apply.

What we can be sure about, however, is that there’s no prospect of getting back to the 900-1000 high water mark of the late 2010s this year. Maybe achievable in future years if new pop-up venue Caravanserai want to grow as big as The Warren did, but let’s face it, enthusiasm for another dominant megavenue is currently zero.

I was going to express concerns about the usability of Brighton Fringe’s new website, but Brighton Fringe has been quick and fixed the problems I flagged already. The only thing I’m still keeping an eye out for is whether this works as a substitute for the Daily Diary which has been discontinued. One way or the other, we need an easy way of seeing what’s on today and when – but if they carry on fixing problems at their current pace, we should be okay.

What is going on in Oldham?

I’ve not really been paying attention to who gained and who lost with the National Portfolio funding rounds outside of the north-east. Whilst I thought the cuts in London were unfortunate, I still prefer this to perpetual top-heavy funding of the capital at the expense of the rest of the country. However, it’s been impossible to ignore what’s happening with Oldham Coliseum. For a start, this doesn’t seem to make sense with what Arts Council England were supposed to be achieving; Oldham is nowhere near London, and is in an area of Greater Manchester that doesn’t have much else in the way of cultural organisations. That’s strangely at odds with the pattern elsewhere of making sure every local area gets something.

Then the bombshell announcements came: firstly that Oldham Coliseum was suspending its programming after March 31st (when the NPO period runs out); and then that they were closing completely. Ignoring the rights and wrongs of this for a moment, this was seriously weird. The NPO funding model is supposed to have bridging support precisely to manage the transition away from NPO status (if not, it would be Armageddon every time there was a new funding round). And then, the really strange development: Arts Council England said it was committed to a cultural venue is Oldham. But not Oldham Coliseum. The closest it gave to a reason was “Oldham Coliseum Ltd has been facing financial and governance challenges for some time”.

For what it’s worth, I think Arts Council England has to be more specific. They argue they don’t make reasons public because of commercial sensitivity, but it’s concerning that they can apparently pass a death sentence on a big arts organisation with no scrutiny of their decisions. However horrible it may be to air dirty laundry in public, if an NPO organisation really has screwed up so badly that they have to be shut down, we deserve to know what it is. And we also need a serious debate on how something this catastrophic has been allowed to fester and escalate out of the public eye. And, of course, Oldham Coliseum Ltd. might be in the right – they must be allowed to argue their case so that ACE can’t make bad funding decisions and get away with it.

Someone has screwed up very badly here, it’s just not clear who. We will do no favours to the people of Oldham by hiding whatever the truth is.

Vault Festival crisis

And just when you think things can’t get any worse, shit is hitting the fan at the Vault Festival. All the festival fringes took a hit with Covid, but the Vault Festival took it the worst. They made a calculated decision to skip 2021 and aim for a relaunch in 2022, only for that to fall foul of Omicron. Cancellation just before a festival starts is the worst possible news financially, so I was wondering if there would be a Vault 2023. But there was, it’s underway – and now, out of the blue, their landlord wants them out.

IMG_4036At this point, it’s worth clarifying the difference between “The Vaults” and “Vault Festival”. The former is the actual physical space underneath Waterloo station. One space is permanently set up as a theatre; the rest, however, are pop-up spaces set up by Vault Festival who rent the space from The Vaults for eight weeks. Very little happens the rest of the year, so the two things were considered synonymous – but not any more. The reason, so we are led to believe, is that The Vaults wants to use the space for longer-term commercial projects.

At first, I’d put this news down to the usual Landlords are Cocks™, with someone valuing short-term profits over long-term cultural investment. But, like Oldham Coliseum, the more I think about it, the more I think there’s more to this than meets the eye. I can easily see selling a building lease to a chain pub or turning a function room into a dining room being a better money-earner if you’re that shallow, but what else is going to make you money underneath a station? If I was seeking to open yet another chain pub in Lambeth, that’s the last place I’d want to put it. Compared to the Vault Lates (effective a club night on Fridays and Saturdays), which sell out easily, I don’t understand where you’ll find a better offer.

The only thing I can see being workable is these immersive theatre experiences that seem to be getting popular in London – but one would that thought that if this was viable, that would already be doing decent business in April to December. No, I’m convinced somebody knows something we don’t. As for what the real reason is, that’s anyone’s guess. Maybe the landlords got greedy and the Vault Festival put their foot down. Or maybe Vault Festival weren’t good tenants and kept trashing the place. Or maybe it was a pointlessly stupid outcome of another pointless culture war. I’ll talk about Vault’s plans for the future when I do my roundup – but this is very odd.

1950s Beamish

Okay, now you’re all feeling depressed, let’s end with something positive. For a change, a bit of local cultural news that isn’t performing arts, which is Beamish. For my London readers, Beamish is an open-air museum that has numerous buildings made to look like buildings from the 1830s to 1940s – quite often real buildings that would otherwise have been demolished, moved and rebuilt brick by brick. For the last few years, however, they’ve been working on a big project of the 1950s – a period of history that’s always fascinated me where the hopes of a nation emerging victorious from a world war still mixed in quite conservative ideas of how to live your life.

IMG_8458Well, the thing I hadn’t realise is just how big this project is. At the time of my visit, there is a 1950s village hall, shopping street, and a 1950s farm, but that’s only about half of it. We still have a 1950s council estate, cinema and bowling alley to go. And these aren’t just museum pieces either. Beamish has always had cafes and bars themed to their respective time period, but this goes further. The village hall was doing a traditional village panto, and I believe the cinema and bowling alley will be available for real cinema and bowling. This project isn’t just an extension of the time period covered by Beamish, it’s also an extension of what the open air museum does.

The thing that struck me the most, however, is that sometimes things look different today – and sometimes it feels exactly the same. The 1950s council houses currently being built now look very much the same as the modern houses being built today. The insides of houses don’t look too different from ours, except that there’s no modern appliances. The traditional panto I caught a glimpse of looks like any village hall panto today. Probably the most interesting one, however, is the 1950s farm from the Durham Dales. It looks reasonably similar to a modern home except … no electricity.

County Durham and Tyne & Wear folk: highly recommend this. Should be complete in a few months’ time. A favourite attraction of County Durham has just taken on a new dimension.

Stuff I wrote in February

Apart from that, here’s what else I’ve been covering:

What’s worth watching: winter/spring 2023: A shorter list of recommendations that usual, because a lot of the picks that grabbed my eye aren’t happening until spring/summer.

We need to talk about Roald Dahl and sensitivity readers: TLDR: it wasn’t censorship, but it was incredibly petty moralising. What this business did reveal, however, was the flaws in the sensitivity reading process, and just how much power publishers have to abuse.

16 films and plays I find objectionable (that no-one else seems to have a problem with): Intended to be mostly a light-hearted piece, but intended to answer a long-running question on whether there are limits to me easy-going attitude. Prepare to have your favourite nostalgia ruined. (The last two entries on the list, however, I really do have problems with).

Love It When We Beat Them: back to the future: I have finally been invited to Live Theatre’s press events. I give my verdict on a pleasing opening to the 50th anniversary season, and give my highlights of what’s coming up over the rest of the year.

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