On Tyneside Cinema (part 1)

This article is one I hoped I would never have to write. It was almost three years ago that the scandals surrounding Harvey Weinstein broke, but that event – and even subsequent news in closer places such as the Old Vic – felt like something happening far away. Now we face the real possibility of an abuse scandal on our doorstep. The north-east arts community is up in arms about this, and things could get uglier still. As a result, it was very tempting for me to steer clear of this subject. But I have often enough criticised arts media doing too much cheerleading for major cultural venues and not enough asking on questions, so I cannot in all conscience stay silent now. The reason this has taken so long to write is because I have had to keep fact-checking a constantly-updating story and run this past people whose advice I trust – not to mention the knowledge of how sensitive this subject is – but I am now ready to speak.

If you are based in the north-east and involved in the arts, you should know what’s happened by now. For everyone else: this all began in late June when an allegation was posted on Twitter from a woman who said she’d been raped by a member of staff at the venue – and this has escalated swiftly. Now large numbers of Tyneside Cinema staff and staff have come forward with other complaints, and it is this, combined with an arguably poor response from the management, that has prompted the BFI to take action. I am reserving final judgement on the Tyneside Cinema until I see what comes out of the various investigations, but as it stands, it doesn’t look good.

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Interview with Richard Stamp on fringe ethics

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I’ve been covering a lot of thorny issue on this blog recently, particularly regarding how fair festival fringes are. But I’ve been giving my own views quite enough. I’m keen to get other perspective on the issues I’ve been covering. So last weekend, I took the opportunity to get the views of the editor of FringeGuru.

This interview is a near-verbatim transcript of what we discussed. But I genuinely had no idea where this would go. And was an interesting discussion it was:

The expansion of Brighton Fringe is the most dramatic change to the fringe scene in the last few years. It’s now said by some that Brighton Fringe now is comparable to the Edinburgh Fringe thirty years ago. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Well, I wasn’t at the Edinburgh Fringe thirty years ago so it’s hard to draw a comparison, but I do think Brighton Fringe as it has expanded has lost a bit of its individual character. It used to be a place where local performances and local performers were very much at the fore, with some invited guests. Now the balance has shifted and it’s about shows visiting the city, with local companies forming just a small part of the programme.

I think that is a shame, but on the other hand, I do think there’s a need for a counterbalance to Edinburgh. It really makes very little sense for the Edinburgh Fringe to carry on growing any further – I think everybody recognises that – and Brighton has its own place on the festival circuit that it occupies well.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether I think it’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s going to happen, and the question we should be asking ourselves is how we try to nudge it gently in a more fair and ethical direction, rather than trying to stop an unstoppable force. Continue reading

What should be done about a Fair Fringe

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COMMENT: Bad employers on the Edinburgh Fringe must be brought to book – but it must be done out in the open if this is not to be abused.

This is a comment article I’ve mean meaning to do since August, ever since the news broke of allegations that some Edinburgh fringe venues offered unacceptably poor conditions for their workers. I wanted to get it done in good time for this year’s fringe – but it turns out things are moving faster than anyone imagined. Whilst I was thinking over some general principles the Edinburgh Fringe should work towards, Edinburgh University has gone ahead and booted C Venues – believed by many to be the worst offender – out of its main home on Chambers Street, with Gilded Balloon taking the building over.

If you’re unfamiliar with how the Edinburgh Fringe works, almost all the main venues are temporary and rent their space from a landlord who uses the estate for something else the rest of the year. The biggest landlord of all is Edinburgh University, and most of the major venues and all of the supervenues have at least part of their operations on university-owned property. So to be chucked out of your main building by the University is a very damaging blow, because there’s few options open to you as an alternative. Now, you can recover from losing your main building – most famously, Gilded Balloon survived after its main building on South Street burned down. But they had a lot of support and sympathy as they refocused on Teviot Row House. It’s harder to imagine C Venues getting this kind of good will.

For reasons I’ll go into shortly, I have little sympathy with C Venues. I am naturally protective of anyone on the receiving end of employers who think basic dignity and decency is optional (reason here) . At best, C Venues handled the situation incompetently; at worst, they got their just desserts. Even so, when anybody is the subject of a media pile-on I take extra care to give them a fair hearing. My view remains unchanged though: naming, shaming and retribution is not a long-term solution – we need an open debate on what’s fair and what’s achievable. And whilst it’s great to know that justice can be dispensed, the way this was done behind closed doors raises some serious questions that aren’t being asked. Continue reading

Goodbye panto, hello farce

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UPDATE: Most of you looking for this article will know this already: but there is one small but important clarification to make. This story, along with everything else written at the time, said Denise Welch quit the show. We now know this is disputed: Denise Welch has since said she was sacked after threatening to speak out. Doesn’t change what I wrote, but something to bear in mind. Will update on all the shennagins soon.

Sorry to burden you with another Pantogate article. I wrote one, and thought that would be enough. But that was before the shit really hit the fan. Oh boy. Just when everyone thought things had settled down at Times Square Panto after the celebrity walkout, it came to a head on the last day with another walkout, only this time, it was enough to get the last two performances cancelled. It would be extremely tempting at this stage for me to say “I told you this would happen,” but that wouldn’t be truthful. In all honesty, I never for a moment imagined things would get this bad.

I have a rule on this blog (indeed with life in general) that I don’t kick public figures when they’re down. For reason I’ll come on to in a moment, I think the game is up for Times Square Panto, so there’s little point dogpiling any further. All it’s fair to do now is sum up what happened and ask what lessons can be learned. However, some questions need asking over how this was allowed to get to this point. Had there been some more vigilance, I have doubts it would ever have had to come to this.

What happened

Okay, let’s start at the beginning. Oh boy.

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(Updated) Pantodrome owes us an explanation

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UPDATE 18/12/07: I’m putting an update at the top of an article because I confess I missed one important detail. It doesn’t make anything I said below wrong as such, but it does change the emphasis quite a bit, and arguably answers the questions, at least the important ones. My partial excuse for missing this is that when I’m dealing with unreliable sensationalist publications, I skim though the opening paragraphs until I reach the quotes to find out exactly who said what. On this occasion, by doing that, I missed an important detail in the heading. I said that there was an claim (unverified) that cast weren’t being paid. However, the opener to the article is more specific. That says Denise Welch herself wasn’t paid.

An important difference here is that this claim is not quoted as an anonymous source: The Sun has stated it as fact. In this turns out to be a lie, it’s unlikely The Sun can weasel out by saying they were only reporting what an unnamed source said. My reading of the article is that it’s reporting as fact that Welch wasn’t paid, and an anonymous source alleges (unverified) that other people weren’t paid too. However, there is a possibility that when they say “cast were paid late or not at all”, by “cast” they mean Denise Welch only. It would be incredibly dishonest if they were misleading readers by passing off a personal pay dispute between Welch and Pantodrome as something wider, beyond the pale by any journalistic standards. There again, this is The Sun, so who knows?

However, this does give Times Square Panto a legit reason to avoid addressing allegations over pay. As it now looks that a pay dispute would be a major factor in any upcoming legal scuffles, you probably don’t want to undermine your own case by talking about the alleged disputes with the rest of the cast. It doesn’t get them off the hook on the issue of payment itself, but it does at least explain why this has been left off the public statements so far.

I’m done asking questions, I’m not going to ask any more. My advice for Times Square Panto would be as follows: in order, settle up any pay grievances with the rest of the cast ASAP, then resolve matters with Denise Welch, then come clean over what went wrong. Doesn’t have to be a comprehensive list of faults, but it’s in their interests to convince us that lessons are learnt and it won’t happen again. Because whatever the truth is about the pay allegations, it’s going to come out anyway – if not in the press or in court, it surely will on the actors’ grapevine. It won’t pay to ignore this indefinitely.

UPDATE #2 (30/12/07): Oh dear. Not looking good. According to the Evening Chronicle, the last two performances were cancelled due to a walkout over pay. And there was me starting to think I’d been too harsh on Times Square Panto.

Original article follows; please read it in context of this above …

COMMENT: We don’t know who is at fault for the fiasco surrounding Denise Welch’s departure from Times Square Panto. But staying silent over the allegations is not an acceptable response.

Panto is the last thing I’d expect to cover here. In general, I avoid them like the plague, because – with a few honorable exceptions – I find most of them to be predictable and formulaic. If anything, my favourite memories of panto are the ones I used to watch in Saltburn. They were sometimes great, sometimes abominable, but they were always different. Certainly not like the big-budget professional ones where, I have to say, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

Another thing that’s a big turn-off for me is celebrity names. I look at all these big names on posters and usually go “Who? … Who? …  Who?” Theatre outside of London is largely spared the marking based on who’s been in which soap and who’s appearing in I’m a Celebrity Strictly Come Dancing on Ice Factor, but I don’t see why a show is going to be any better just because the principals are famous for things other than theatre. At least when the leads are played by unknowns you’re giving someone a chance for their big break instead someone who’s already got theirs.

However, I accept that panto-haters like me are the minority, and I accept that pantomimes make a lot of money so that theatres can afford to run the rest of the year. And if casting soap stars and reality stars means they make even more money, so be it. As such, it’s not really my business to comment on how pantomimes should be run, and if what happened at Times Square Panto was just another celebrity strop, I would take no notice.

But this goes deeper than whether Denise Welch plays Mother Nature in Jack and the Beanstalk. This is a potentially a matter of employment rights of actors. So I’m going to stick in my oar whether I’m welcome or not. I want some answers, and at the moment we’re not getting any. Continue reading

What can we do about the Weinstein scandal?

COMMENT: There are a lot of things we can do to try to stop sexual predators in film and theatre. We should not let it turn into weirdo-bashing.

So, it looks like we a Jimmy Savile Mark II on our hands. One news story on reports of sexual assault by a powerful public figure have snowballed into a vast number of stories, both of the original person and other people in similar professions. Before we go any further, it is important to do this properly: as it stands, all of these reports are at allegation stage. Harvey Weinstein denies them, and we have yet to see what emerges in the legal process. However, based on the evidence that’s emerged so far (and also his own flimsy response) it’s not looking good. And even if it does somehow turn out that Weinstein is telling the truth and all these sexual acts were consensual, that is still a massive abuse of a position of power.

Naturally there has been a lot of reaction to this. And, of course, the conversation has spread to theatre. Some responses inside and outside theatre, sadly, are opportunistic rhetoric to use the scandals to push pre-existing agendas. However, on the whole, the discussion in UK theatre has been pretty good, and an event held at The Royal Court appears to have handled the matter well. Continue reading