Pantomime dames protest at Westminster over Covid theatre restrictions

Lanre Bakare Arts and culture correspondent
·3-min read

Hundreds of protesters– including about half-a-dozen pantomime dames – gathered in Westminster to protest against the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and draw attention to the lack of a pantomime season this year.

A procession of creative industry workers made its way on Wednesday past a shuttered West End and through Whitehall, where they demanded the government creates sector-specific support to help theatre workers through the crisis.

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Protesters holding placards such as “RIP Theatre” and “Are you behind us?” called for a subsidised theatre ticket scheme while social distancing restrictions remain and government-backed insurance for live events and theatre performances.

The Panto Parade was organised by the creative industries union Bectu and the campaign group ExcludedUK, and is part of a day of action arranged with the #WeMakeEvents campaign, which is calling on the government to offer a “lifeline” to the entertainment industry.

Matthew Baldwin, who plays Mother Goose in the Above the Stag LGBTQ panto in Vauxhall, south London, said: “The young people in our industry have nothing. We need proper support and clarity for the government. The industry is on its knees.”

The annual pantomime season is vital for theatres because it makes theatres sustainable throughout the year. The Liverpool Everyman’s Rock’n’Roll Panto, for example, generates more than a quarter of its annual box office takings.

The protesters also called for extensions to the furlough scheme and the self-employment income support scheme until 2021, plus the government’s assurance that those not covered – including many arts freelancers – received support.

Helen, a stage manager at Magic Goes Wrong in the West End of London, said she had started working in a supermarket since lockdown restrictions came in this March.

Holding a placard that read “22 years a stage manager. It’s not just a viable job – it’s my life”, she said many working in the theatre sector felt as if the government were treating their livelihoods as if they were “hobbies” rather than careers.

The head of Bectu, Philippa Childs, said the government had failed to deliver “meaningful support or the certainty that is needed” and called for the economic contribution of the theatre industry to be recognised.

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She said: “We have lost the magic of panto for this year and we hope our calls and this collective action will allow theatre to return well before the panto season in 2021.”

In July, the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, warned that the Christmas season could be called off, saying he did not want to set people’s expectations too high. “The challenge is that we have lots of people close together, we have different generations – it’s granny through to baby,” he said.

Last week, the West End producer Sonia Friedman criticised the chancellor’s winter economy plan, dismissing it as insulting and a continuation the government’s position of refusing to see “what [theatres] are worth”.

Some Christmas events are going ahead, including the Royal Albert Hall’s annual festive celebrations, which were confirmed on Tuesday with socially distanced performances taking place during December.