Festive fun - the Mercury’s annual pantomime

* Writer, performer and arts promoter Dorian Kelly has mixed news about Government help.

ON the face of it, it is wonderful news that the Government are going to support a limited number of pantomimes this year, by buying up all the empty seats that theatres are not able to sell because of the necessary social distancing.

But before you get your hopes up that the Mercury will be able to come up with their usual spectacular fun-fest, let me let you down gently - all ten pantomimes being supported are all off-the-shelf productions from one commercial company.

There are no subsidised venues being helped at all.

Not only that but it's come too late.

Making theatre of this quality is a long, complex, highly-skilled and capital-intensive business.

In the usual course of things, the scenery and costumes will have been long since built and the sought-after actors with decades of panto experience will have been long booked.

The highly-skilled freelance technical specialists need time to create their digital and mechanical miracles and there just isn’t any.

The loss of its expected panto income is a killer blow.

Normally the Mercury expects to make enough from seats, ice creams and merchandise to see it through much of the year. That's gone. Currently it is short of about £2 million.

Places like the Mercury are our grass roots, where the industry of the arts begins, is nurtured, flowers and, if not tended, withers on the vine.

If they are lost, where will the next generation of people who bring you the worlds best television, theatre, film and digital games come from?

But just as the outlook was beginning to turn bleaker, there was some wonderful news that the Mercury had been awarded a lifeline of £250,000 from the Government Culture Recovery Fund.

Braintree and Witham Times:

Columnist - Dorian Kelly

This is enough to stave off the imminent laying off of most of its permanent staff for another few months.

They have not exactly been lounging around in the meantime.

Apart from overseeing the complex £9 million rebuild, rapidly nearing completion, they have recently launched an exciting pilot youth and community programme, for five to 25-year-olds, and expanded their online drama, professional development and grant advice sessions.

And the moment that theatre is cleared for re-opening, they have some amazing things they have been quietly developing to keep Colchester as a national leader on the artistic and cultural map.

But at least the Chancellor has given something to keep this crucial aspect of the spirit of Christmas alive and for that we, the people of Colchester, are grateful.

Yet we read that the Government does not particularly regard the creative industries as economically significant enough to worth supporting on a macro scale despite the fact they contribute £111.7 billion to the economy - more than the automotive, aerospace, life sciences and oil and gas industries combined.

Worse, the people who work in it are thought of dismissively as low priority for support and suitable cases for retraining.

What saddens me particularly is that this seems to be not an uncommon belief - creative artists are often seen locally as at best, hobbyists, at worst, tree-hugging spongers on our hard-earned taxes.

But the arts and culture in Colchester as so much more than that.

When you count in all the categories the Government designates as the creative sector, and then add in all the full time self-employed earning their living in the arts, cultural and tourism sector, working locally or like me, nationally, one in 14 of us - and that's about 9,000 local people - are in this industry in one way or another.

That makes the creative sector Colchester's biggest employer and largest industry by far.

The Mercury, Arts Centre and Firstsite together contribute £4.3m to the local economy and the Mercury spent £9m of outside money locally on the rebuild last year.

And that's not counting tourism and the heritage industries, which with the right investment could be absolutely massive.

So our creative industries are our future.

And unless someone builds an Amazon depot or an airport here, it will remain so.

By the way, I just calculated that the subsidy given to the Palladium alone is £9m.

That might have let 50 theatres the size of the Mercury do a panto.