Culture and Identity

There is no Harmony in the First Minister’s Song

It’s that time of year.  Oh yes, it is!

Across Wales many of us would usually be planning to see pantos and Christmas concerts, but never did I realise when rushing from the first day of Welsh Conservative conference in Llangollen to Pontio Arts and Innovation Centre in Bangor on the evening of 6 March 2020 that I was set to watch my last theatre performance this year, writes Mostyn Jones.

I crossed North Wales to see the stage adaptation of a 2018 best seller: Llyfr Glas Nebo, which won the Prose Medal at the National Eisteddfod in 2018 and triumphed at the 2019 Wales Book of the Year awards. 

It tells the story of a mother and two children struggling to survive in a post-nuclear apocalypse Wales. Whilst I will not delve into the debate about nuclear here, so powerful and emotional was the production that it has succeeded to have a lasting impact on me: its dramatic ending with a sudden flash fostering a sense of unease for the future.

In hindsight, that moment marked the end of an epoch for Welsh arts and culture. Just over two weeks later the United Kingdom went into lockdown.

Eight months on, the arts still have not recovered.

I know singers who have had no choice but to turn to other professions.

All live performances remain suspended in theatres such as Pontio, Colwyn, and the Wales Millennium Centre.

The National Eisteddfod and National Cerdd Dant Festival have had to be cancelled.

Communal hymn signing seems impossible. 

And I am still waiting for the pleasure of practicing and performing with the choirs I love.

The pandemic has hit livelihoods in the arts sector hard: the UK Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme was supporting 218,400 individuals in the arts and entertainment sector on 31 August. 

At 33% take-up, the sector is the highest to use furlough, so the UK Government has done the right thing in extending the scheme until the end of March. 

The UK Government also announced in July that it was making £59million available to the Welsh Government as part of a £1.57bn support package for the arts.

However, only £53milliom was allocated by the Welsh Government to the Cultural Recovery Fund. How is it acceptable that they shortchanged the sector and held out until this month before making further money available?

Mark Drakeford hit a duff note by providing less money than he received, and seems insistent on keeping performance in a minor key by pursuing contradictory regulations which allow four households to sit together and enjoy a meal but not sit beside each other in theatres nor concert halls. They remain closed despite venues such as cinemas, casinos and amusement arcades being authorised to open.

You could say that there is no harmony in the First Minister’s song.  

I would advise him to quickly get going on the next movement and allow theatres and concert halls to re-open, especially where they can easily increase the supply of fresh air, have singers performing side-to-side or back‑to‑back rather than face-to-face, and reduce venue capacity to a volume which ensures two-meter physical distancing can be maintained between households.

This would go some way to stopping the trend of performers seeing 100% of their work cancelled.

Alongside the economic cost, there is a harm that cannot be quantified: the hurt to the culture and communities of Wales from us being unable to attend the greatest celebrations of Welsh language and culture; annoy choir conductors by socialising in practices when we should be singing; or seeing some of our most promising performers turn – hopefully only for a short while – towards other futures.

There is hope for the arts in Wales, primarily because of you.

During the last eight months, we have seen a burst of creativity.

The Urdd Eisteddfod – annual Welsh language youth festival – and many choirs have gone virtual.

Hundreds of us have shared solos, duets, and family performances via the CÔR-ONA group on social media.

Pantomime season will even be going ahead in some places – oh yes, it will! The Firefly Cinema Club will be showing Peter Pan for drive in audiences in Porthcawl, Cardiff, Merthyr Tydfil, and Carmarthen.

The creativity shown by individuals, companies, and communities to overcome hurdles gives me confidence that the arts in Wales will prevail for as long as we value and continue to champion them. 

What we need to see is that grassroot passion and creativity reflected in the policies pursued by the Welsh Government.  We might then be able to watch a live panto in theatre, attend a Christmas concert, and see performers revive their creative careers.

Mostyn Jones is a councillor on Llanrwst Town Council, and an employee of Janet Finch-Saunders MS. This column should be understood as reflecting his personal views.