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G7 partners’ trip to theatre backfires after minister’s gaffe

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Russell Hart/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Russell Hart/Alamy

A visit to a beautiful open-air clifftop theatre in Cornwall by partners of the G7 leaders ended in embarrassment for the UK government after the culture secretary wrongly claimed it had received emergency funding during the Covid crisis.

Following the hugely successful visit to the Minack theatre, perched dizzyingly above the Atlantic, the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, tweeted that he was delighted that Jill Biden and Carrie Johnson had visited the “stunning” theatre.

But he added: “This unique venue was one of more than 650 theatres helped through Covid with support from the £2bn culture recovery fund, ensuring that it can entertain visitors for years to come.”

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The theatre was taken aback and pointed out that it had not received any such funding, tweeting: “Sorry @OliverDowden but this is not true. We did not benefit from any CRF money as we were not eligible to apply. It turned out having a good level of cash reserves meant we had to fend for ourselves and utilise our own reserves.”

Zoe Curnow, the Minack’s executive director, said on Sunday she was surprised to see Dowden’s tweet. “To try to score a political point is unfortunate, to be completely honest. Obviously the DCMS [Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport] didn’t think to check we were on the list.

“We’re a charity but operate in such a way that we generate a surplus most years. We’re very proud we exist without external funding and don’t go cap in hand to anyone.

“We weren’t on the list because we didn’t qualify, and we didn’t qualify because we run ourselves in such a way that we had enough reserves to see us through.”

Watch: What UK government COVID-19 support is available?

The theatre reopened after lockdown as soon as it could last year and ran a hugely successful programme of about 180 shows, including productions of Educating Rita and Stones in His Pockets, plus performances by the likes of the West Country folk singer Seth Lakeman and the Fisherman’s Friends group.

Curnow said: “It was so important for us to reopen to help our freelancers and our staff. We knew we’d have an audience. We weren’t bitter that we didn’t get the funding. We weren’t eligible because we had money in the bank. We were trading at a lower level but in a financially sustainable way.”

However, the theatre did face challenges. Its capacity has been reduced from 710 to 270 because of social distancing requirements. It lost £300,000 last year and was forced to make 15 staff redundant. “We cut our cloth to get through winter,” Curnow said. “Losing staff in a remote area like this is soul destroying.”

Curnow is hoping good will come out of Dowden’s blunder. “I hope it will remind the government about the open-air theatre sector,” she said.

She argues that the outdoor sector should not be “lumped in” with the indoor one and should be allowed to open fully sooner. “An outdoor theatre on a clifftop in Cornwall is very different, when you’re thinking about Covid risk.”

Shows the Minack is staging this year include a version of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

The musical the G7 leaders’ partners saw was Ocean World, which follows a humpback whale and her young calf as they make the perilous journey from the southern seas to their feeding grounds in the north Atlantic. It is being performed by children from schools in west Cornwall.

A DCMS spokesperson said: “Over 650 theatres have benefited from over £250m of support through our cultural recovery fund to date. A tweet was briefly issued in error that the Minack was one of them and we have now spoken directly to the theatre, who have accepted our apology. The Minack looked stunning yesterday as part of the G7 summit and we congratulate all at the theatre involved.

“The fund has made awards to more than 700 culture and heritage organisations across the south west worth up to £135m, with funding decisions being taken by the Arts Council England, the British Film Institute, Historic England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund.”

Watch: G7 leaders meet Boris and Carrie Johnson at Carbis Bay

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