Talent spotting

AngelaSmith.jpgAngela Smith on a commitment to the Arts connecting Jennie Lee to ‘The Production Exchange’ 

50 years ago this week, in February 1964, Jennie Lee, Labour MP and new Arts Minister in Harold Wilson’s Government, published the first ever White Paper on the Arts. Entitled ‘A Policy for the Arts – First Steps’, it was ground breaking and no doubt challenged some of the assumptions and traditional thinking about ‘the Arts’ at that time.

Lee’s lifetime belief in the value of education led her to the conclusion that culture should be embedded in education – and indeed in life. She had a broad understanding of what could be regarded as ‘Arts’ or ‘culture’. Our cultural life is an important part of who and what we are. In the same way as Tony Crosland would later write about socialism creating an attractive and enjoyable environment and lifestyle, Jennie Lee believed the Arts should be available to all, and that new ventures and talent should be supported as well as the more traditional cultural entertainment.

So often nowadays however, the Arts, especially fresh and innovative productions, find it harder to attract funding and feel under greater pressure. It can be more challenging to develop new talent. I also recall Billy Connolly’s story on speaking at the funeral of Jimmy Reid about those children who grew up never having had the opportunity to expand their horizons:

"I remember Jimmy saying that if you look at these housing estates and high-rise flats – look at all the windows… Behind every one of these windows is somebody who might be a horse-jumping champion, a formula one racing champion, a yachtsman of great degree, but he'll never know because he'll never step on a yacht or formula one car – he'll never get the chance."

You could equally say that of a writer, an actor or a dancer.

Last night in the House of Lords, I hosted the parliamentary launch of a new charity that I chair called ‘The Production Exchange’. We seek to bring together those with emerging talent at the start of their careers with those with experience, contacts and, crucially, access to funding.  We’ve already hosted a performance of the highly successful one woman play ‘Emily – the making of a militant suffragette’ at Parliament following its tour.  New talent James Swanton’s amazing readings of Dickens’ Sykes and Nancy gained reviews that even experienced actors would die for. We know there’s more out there that we can build partnerships to support.

Producer and Oscar Winner – and a Labour Lords colleague – David Puttnam supports our aims and recorded this wonderful short film exclusively for our launch, in which he observes how creativity is a muscle that needs developing to make people better at what they do.

Jennie Lee believed that ‘The Arts’ should be as valued and supported as any other industry. I suspect if she were to look around today she would be disappointed. Yet, I hope Jennie would also be encouraged by those of us who are still making the case. At The Production Exchange we will bring together those new partnerships to ensure we don’t waste talent, and play our part in seeking to deliver that legacy she wrote about 50 years ago today.

Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is a member of Labour’s Shadow Team in the House of Lords, and Chair of The Production Exchange. She tweets @LadyBasildon

Published 26th February 2015

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