Friday, 9 December 2011

Showing the Money.

There's some funny business going on with the Olympics. The budget for the opening and closing ceremonies has, overnight, leapt from an outrageously high £40 million to a potentially culture changing, if it wasn't all going on a couple of media friendly spectacles, £80 million. How the British Theatre could do with that kind of handout. What incredible investments it would be able to make for the future? How many local underfunded community initiatives could seed themselves on a fraction of this?

Earlier this year 154 arts organisations had their funding stopped as part of the Arts Council settlement which saw a real-term cut of 29.6% in the budget over the next five years. Many of the companies had track records dating back years if not decades and, although the new funding structure optimistically set about to freshen up the arts through the promotion of innovation, it strikes me as incredible that a two hour meeting in Whitehall can sign off this amount of money - which would fund the National Theatre for five years or the keep Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in business for 40. The Riverside Studios in Hammersmith had all of their £500,000 annual grant withdrawn this year. That's 1/160th of the money now going on the ceremonies.

In the main, with a few grumbles, British theatre accepted the cuts, perhaps recognising the need to contribute to the belt tightening exercises going on across government departments. How offensive is it just eight seven months later to have to bear witness to such a frivolous waste of money?

The rationale, of course, is very simple. The ceremonies are the showcase moments when the world watches us and the money spent is a drop in the ocean compared to the billions of pounds of investment coming into the UK from the games. How much of this money finds its way back into the creative industries is never mentioned.

If it is really true that we need to sell an impression of Britain at the start of the games then why not do what innovative British industries have always done take a more eccentric less orthodox approach. Celebrate the legacy Britain has given to the world of sport which has been to make up the rules. Sure Sydney, Athens and Beijing threw millions of pounds on unrepeatable vacuous displays but I'm not sure monolithic grandeur and grandstanding is really a Great British characteristic. Even at our most imperial our Victorian ancestors scorned the building of huge monuments and instead invested in infrastructure and administration. It's no coincidence that Big Ben the most recognisable British landmark is a clock.

So this is my plan for an opening ceremony. Families across the UK are invited to apply for £10 grants with which they then host one of the 12,000 or so athletes, inviting them round for a cup of tea and a biscuit. How they entertain their guests will be up to each family. The athletes wouldn't have any choice where they were sent, but BBC and Sky outside broadcast teams could report back from all over the country, promoting all of Britain in the process. It'd certainly be a way of both making the games less London centric and wouldn't it be great to see Usain Bolt settle down to a brew and a custard cream in Rochdale or Dorking or Mertyr Tydfil?

In these professed days of austerity and localism I wish the organising committees of the games had the courage to save money, humanise the games and find a creative British solution. Sadly, however, energy, dynamism, kick arse youth and lots of firework glitz will no doubt flood our eyeballs when it all kicks off next summer.

I can't help but feel it's like burning money outside a soup kitchen.


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