Last November thousands of youngsters came to London (many of them probably for the first time) to take part in the Music for Youth (MFY) Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. Thousands more came to the Ambassador’s Theatre for the Rep Season of the National Youth Theatre (NYT) and a Reception at Buckingham Palace to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the foundation of the NYT.
If you rely on the printed media (or most sections of TV and radio) for your news, you will be unaware of that invasion by youth. After all, they were not mentally sick teenagers knifing people or drug addicts seeking to satisfy their needs, nor were they footballers revealing the sexual assaults they suffered twenty or thirty years ago. They were youngsters demonstrating their enthusiasm and their achievements in the realms of music and theatre. It is a measure of the “values” of most of the media that they do nothing to report this enthusiasm and these achievements that have made the UK world leader in youth theatre and music.
One of the effects of the failure of the media to report this is the blank looks when I tell my friends I am going to the Music for Youth Proms. I guess it’s necessary to explain how they came about.
The staging of the Music for Youth Proms (previously called the Schools’ Prom) at the Royal Albert Hall is the culmination of a nationwide effort in which some 40,000 pupils and students have been involved. Music for Youth first organises 50 regional events in all parts of the United Kingdom, and at these events professional artists select the groups who will go forward to a National Festival which these days is held in Birmingham. There the judges select those groups that are to go forward to the Albert Hall.
In addition to 40,000 youngsters who have been involved in those events, a further 20,000 primary school children are involved in what has become known as the “Primary Proms”. These events, held in London, Birmingham and two other cities, take the form of specially presented educational concerts for primary school children where all of the performers are invited MFY performing groups drawn from other events in the MFY season.
There can be no doubting, therefore, that those nights at the Albert Hall truly reflect the excellence of so much that is being achieved by pupils and students from all over the country, and not only from schools and colleges but many other outlets for music-making, and that no other country can point to achievements on this scale.
There are, in addition to the great deal of work that goes in to the organisation of all these events, occasions when Music for Youth is able to provide groups for participation at events organised by other bodies.
And there was one mammoth event some years ago which shows great enterprise as well as organising skill. It was in 1998 when MFY assembled “the largest orchestra in the world” at the Birmingham Arena. Some 4000 young musicians came together to be conducted by Simon Rattle in a performance of Malcolm Arnold’s “Little Suite No. 2”. It was a fantastic event organised in aid of charity, and was never to be forgotten by all who participated. I took many pictures at the event and sometime later presented my pictures of Simon Rattle to Gustavo Dudamel, the rising star and conductor of Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar Orchestra. He was delighted to have the pictures, and when I presented them to him at the Festival Hall he gave me a huge hug and said “Simon was like a father to me”.
Another year I spent three nights at the Albert Hall photographing all the groups who participated in that year’s Proms. The pictures I took were later used in exhibitions (sponsored by Marks and Spencer), at the Festival Hall and St. John’s Church, Smith Square.
You might feel that my involvement with MFY make me biased in its favour. That is true, but if you buy the DVDs of the Proms you will appreciate that I’m not exaggerating the quality of the performance at these remarkable events.
Last year’s Proms showed the extent to which youngsters are now devising new forms of music-making, and also writing their own music. While the County Orchestras, Big Bands and Steel Bands and choirs still feature in the programme, the list of participants in the three nights at the Albert Hall shows just how adventurous and exciting our youngsters’ achievements are.
Among those, for me, some of the most exciting were: The Houghton Area Youth Brass, Aberdeen’s Iona Fife Band, the Wakefield Youth Percussion Ensemble, Newport’s Isca Linea Senior Strings, Oxford’s Top Sop Quartet, Croydon’s Coloma Trust Mass Ensemble – and there were many others to exhibit the great variety of what was on offer.
It could be that the cuts in local authority services that have been imposed by the Government’s austerity programme are having an adverse effect, since some local authority music and other advisory services have been badly hit and that will have had a serious effect on the development of youth orchestras and other form of music making that require cooperation on a wider basis than that of individual schools. And because so much depends on the efforts of music teachers in individual schools there will have been setbacks in that regard too. The Government has now announced a £300 million four-year programme to promote music in schools, but it remains to be seen whether that will be anything like enough to repair the damage that has already been done.
What matches the quality of all that is achieved at the Music for Youth Proms and the countless performances by schools, colleges, music centres and all the other groups that make up the youth music scene, is the belief and determination and willingness to give many hours to practice prior to performance, and the support many parents are prepared to give them together with the encouragement and belief in their potential that music teachers are prepared to give.
It is because the talent is there that more must be done to discover it and develop it, and to ensure that opportunities can be given to youngsters from families that can’t help them with the provision of instruments.
The National Youth Theatre (NYT) has come a long way since it began life based on the work of Michael Croft with his students at Alleyn’s School in Dulwich giving their first performance of Henry V at Toynbee Hall sixty years ago. From its early concentration on the plays of Shakespeare it has greatly broadened its repertoire to include not only modern theatre classics but also the work of young writers, and the participation of new young directors. In the jargon of the Olympic Games it might be considered by some as an “elite sport” by comparison with those that get involved in the sphere of youth music, but there are various forms of music-making and understandably the numbers catered for by MFY are bound to be much higher.
Even so, the number of youngsters applying for auditions by NYT increase year by year. In 2016 there were more than 5000 applicants and that is likely to increase to 6000 this year.
The auditions for applicants are held in many parts of the United Kingdom and held at some 32 centres. The NYT caters not only for those who seek to become actors, but also to those who are interested in the various aspects of theatre production and its workshops cater for all these interests.
The culmination of the auditions is the staging of a programme of three plays with separate casts chosen for each one. In the autumn there is a programme of three productions presented by the NYT Rep. The participants in the productions are involved at the Ambassador’s Theatre in London’s West End and a growing number of them go on to start their employment in the theatre rather than proceed to one of the established academic institutions such as R.A.D.A.
A look at the list of outstanding actors and actresses who began their involvement in theatre at the NYT shows how rich has been the contribution of the NYT to British Theatre. That list includes Helen Mirren, Daniel Craig, Daniel Day-Lewis, Colin Firth, Timothy Spall and Diana Quick, while there are many others enjoying success in the theatre and on TV. Many others have benefitted from the experience the NYT offers through its workshops and courses, or have benefitted from the NYT’s Bursary Fund without the aid of which they might never have been able to pursue their ambitions. There are others like Polly Toynbee, Kate Adie, Krishnan Guru-Murthy and Chris Bryant who have succeeded in the media or politics.
And some of the NYT’s alumni have done pioneering work in theatre in this country. For example, Barrie Rutter has successfully launched a company, “Northern Broadsides”, based in Yorkshire. And of course a number of the NYT’s alumni have achieved great success in TV, one of the most notable being Matt Smith who starred in “Doctor Who”.
The work and performances of the NYT have not been confined to this country and as a result it has become internationally renowned. It was chosen to provide the cultural programme at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and at the 2012 Olympics in London it provided the Welcome programme. After the Beijing Games, the NYT did work in China for a further four years and it is now planning a joint venture with the Hong Kong Youth Theatre in 2018. Work has also been done in Saudi Arabia, and possibilities are being explored for work in France and Italy. Understandably our NYT has been regarded as the leading National Youth Theatre in the world.
The road from Dulwich to today’s successful National Youth Theatre has been long, and full of challenges. They have not been due to the lack of youngsters seeking to participate in the NYT, but to the constant pressure to secure funds to maintain the whole operation.
As with MFY, the amount of public funding available from the Arts Council is only a small proportion of what is needed, and so fund-raising is always a major concern. On the whole it is less precarious than it was, and fortunately there has not been a repeat of the truly disastrous situation we faced one year while I was a member of the NYT Council. It was a year when we had been promised that a new sponsor would be taking over from the existing one, but they withdrew at the last minute leaving us with no other sponsorship and thoughts of having to close the whole operation down. Very fortunately, Bryan Forbes, the actor and writer and Chair of the NYT Council met, entirely by chance at a Hollywood party, the financier and industrialist Lord Hanson. Bryan’s advocacy of the value of the NYT’s work must have been very convincing, for the outcome of this meeting was that Lord Hanson made a donation of £2.5 million spread over five years which saved the day. There have been other crises over the years and while the Arts Council has been very supportive, Paul Roseby, the NYT’s Artistic Director and Chief Executive, told me that much more could be done both in increasing participation and in the provision of workshops and training courses if resources were available.
I have written at some length about the origins, development, achievements and activities of Music for Youth and the National Youth Theatre because I believe that they both, in their respective spheres, play an important part in the life of our country. Primarily they discover, or help discover, the talents of the rising generation and provide a variety of ways in which those talents can be developed, with youngsters learning to work with and learn from others, truly enhancing their own performance and expectations. Both bodies also play a part in trying to bring forward the talents of youngsters who, because of family circumstances, are not able to enjoy the same chance as others who are more fortunate to obtain the use of musical instruments or the training and experience of working beyond that which they might attain in school and college. Of course, it has to be recognised that the discovery of talent begins with teachers or leaders of music centres, and that a great deal also depends on the willingness and ability of parents to donate the many hours that the development of talent requires – and absolutely first, the willingness of the talented youngster to sacrifice much time to all that is required to develop their talents.
The work of MFY with its various regional and national activities, and the NYT at its nationwide auditions, outreach programmes and its workshops and courses, are based on the foundations that have been set up before children and youngsters get involved beyond the schools, colleges, or other local bodies from which they come. But as I hope I have shown, both MFY and the NYT could do even more than they are already doing to widen opportunities for the rising generation. We are already world leaders in youth music-making and youth theatre, but we could do even better given more support and encouragement.
Both organisations are voluntary bodies that receive only a small proportion of their expenditure costs from public funds. For both, fund-raising is a constant source of pressure, taking up energies that could otherwise be devoted to creative developments. Moreover, fund-raising is now much more difficult given the number of voluntary bodies who are desperately seeking donors to support their work.
I would hope that a wise government would recognise the important role that the creative arts already play, and the greater role they can play, in the country’s economic future. Such recognition might have some influence with ministers who all too often do not appreciate the intrinsic value of the creative arts for their own sakes, but only if they contribute to our economic success and “social mobility”. But that is almost certainly too much to hope for from a Chancellor of the Exchequer whose Autumn Statement spoke only of austerity and further public expenditure cuts to come (and did not even mention the mounting, and unavoidable, cost of social care).
Against that stark future I would suggest that there is a good argument for proposing that the National Lottery Fund should now invest in the development of youth music and theatre. It has been widely acknowledged that the remarkable success of Team GB at the Rio Olympic Games (and the 2012 London Games) owed a great deal to the Lottery Fund’s readiness to make a major investment in training and other facilities necessary to develop the talents of our athletes right across the board. As a result, success has been achieved even in some fields where we had not previously achieved in earlier years.
Whilst I recognise that our music-making and theatre do not attract the passions aroused by the Olympic Games – after all most are not competitive sports – they do add to the nation’s reputation and potential for economic success. Thus they can do a great deal for the spirit and cultural well-being of the nation.
I would certainly hope that, in spite of the many good causes that may seek help from the Lottery Fund, and that there may be some restrictions on the financial help it might be able to give, that serious consideration can be given to funding and developing the undoubted wealth of talent in music making and theatre of our rising generation. They are unquestionably ways in which much more could be done to raise the sights and spirits of our country as it faces the very difficult times that lie ahead.
In addition to the help that I hope might be given by the Lottery Fund, there is another body which, in my view could do more to support and encourage the wealth of talent that is possessed by our rising generation when music and theatre are concerned. That body is the BBC. I say this because the Corporation already has a tremendous record of achievement in respect of the creative arts and especially of music and drama.
The annual season of the Proms at the Albert Hall is a magnificent feast of music of all kinds performed by a host of musicians from around the world as well as the UK. No other country can possibly match the richness, the variety and the quality of what is offered by the Proms. In addition, the BBC relays to us much of the content of the great Edinburgh Festival, the exciting Young Musician of the Year competition, and such bold ventures as Gareth Malone’s choir-building.
It is precisely because I believe the BBC’s record is so outstanding that I find it all the more regrettable, not to say deplorable, that to my knowledge it does nothing to put before its public the outstanding achievements on show at the Music for Youth Proms. I simply do not understand how the Corporation can possibly justify its failure in this respect. I cannot believe they could say they cannot find time to show some, if not all, of the three nights of the Music for Youth Proms. After all, they devote many hours to the Glastonbury and other Festivals with their collection of has-beens, yet-to-be’s and established stars, and umpteen hours for repeats of Top of the Pops programmes from decades past. Would it not be good if they could show something of the musical achievements of today’s youngsters instead of hankering after what pleased youngsters of generations past.
If the relevant producers and programme makers are unsure of the quality and variety to be seen and heard at the Music for Youth Proms, let them get hold of the CDs of the performances. If they have not seen any recent NYT productions, let them meet today’s writers, directors and actors and those who attend NYT courses and workshops, or let them speak to the country’s outstanding actors who began their careers at the NYT and hear what they gained from those experiences.
Neither the MFY nor NYT have asked me to raise this issue. It’s what I feel as a devoted listener to much of the BBC’s output, a strong admirer of much of what it does who believes that the youngsters who are rising to such heights in music making and theatre nowadays deserve recognition by the BBC. It would be a source of great encouragement to these youngsters if the BBC’s offerings were to show some awareness of what is happening in their world. That’s why I have written to the Director General inviting him to give an explanation – and an assurance that things will only get better.