Christmas pantomime was cancelled to avoid potential death blow – theatre boss

The chief executive of a major regional theatre has said its decision to cancel its Christmas pantomime was made to avoid a potential “death blow” to its finances.

Fiona Allan, who has run the Birmingham Hippodrome for four years, said it would have been “incredibly risky” to go ahead with plans to stage this year’s production, Goldilocks And The Three Bears, until they knew they could fill every seat without social distancing.

A number of other pantomimes in London and regional theatres have been cancelled or postponed due to uncertainty around the easing of lockdown restrictions.

Fiona Allan (Birmingham Hippodrome/PA)
Fiona Allan (Birmingham Hippodrome/PA)

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden recently confirmed a timeframe for the reopening of theatres without social distancing is unlikely to arrive until November.

Birmingham Hippodrome usually sells 115,000 seats and makes between 20% and 25% of its annual income during the six or seven-week pantomime period.

Ms Allan told the PA news agency: “It’s a massive production and to gear up for it means employing a lot of people and committing funding for sets and costumes and all the rest.

“We are at the point in time when we would have to start laying money down.

“To lay down money is incredibly risky when we know we can’t operate panto unless social distancing measures have been relaxed and we can sell every seat, otherwise it is financially not possible.

“But also the Government has been clear that they are not going to assess that for theatres until November, so we would be making a bet only to be told in November that it is not possible.”

Coronavirus – Thu Jul 9, 2020
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden (Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street/Crown Copyright/PA)

Ms Allan said the theatre had reserves but could not “risk diminishing them more”.

She added: “Our position is better than many. It is not as robust as we would like it to be, but what we couldn’t do was risk accelerating our reserves.

“That would have been a death blow.”

Ms Allan said many theatres across the country would soon follow suit in cancelling or postponing their festive productions.

“This really is a make or break time for theatres,” she said.

“I think the decision the Hippodrome has made is now going to be mirrored across the country.

“We are going to see that not all theatres can survive this.”

The King’s Theatre in Edinburgh’s pantomime usually plays to audiences of 90,000 each year and festive shows provide some 30% of its operator Capital Theatres’ annual income.

The postponement will result in an expected loss of £2.3 million.

Fiona Gibson, chief executive of Capital Theatres, said the decision to cancel this year’s pantomime was “very significant” and recouping the losses was going to be “very difficult”.

She added: “It’s a real scale challenge for any organisation in performing arts to lose their festive shows because it is your mainstay for the rest of the year, that allows you to do all the other things you want to do.”

Addressing the challenge of filling the funding gap, she said: “It’s going to be very difficult.

“We are assuming the earliest we are able to go back without socially distanced theatre is probably March time next year, and so you have literally lost a whole year of trading.

“There is no opportunity at all to make up that difference in this financial year.”

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport recently announced further details of how organisations can access funds from the previously announced £1.57 billion support package for the arts.

Earlier this week, entertainment and media union Bectu said there had been 5,000 coronavirus-related job losses in the theatre industry.