Will the arts celebrate Christmas? The latest guidelines for theatres, cinemas and museums

As the second lockdown lifts, both indoors and outdoor live performances can resume in most tiers – but will they have the money?

When the UK emerges from lockdown on December 2, it will end national lockdown and go back into a regional tiered system of Covid-19 restrictions. Today, the government published its guidelines for the coming winter. For the arts sector, this means a return to socially-distanced cinema showings, gallery visits and live performances, both indoor and outdoor, for Tiers 1 and 2. That's the theory at least. 

Theatre

English theatres will be allowed to re-open when lockdown ends, so long as they are in areas under Tier 1 or 2 restrictions. In Tier 1, they will be limited to 50 per cent capacity, or 4000 outdoors/1000 indoors (whichever is lower). In Tier 2, the maximum is 2000/1000. No live performances are allowed in Tier 3; only drive-ins. 

However, simply being legally allowed to reopen remains uneconomically viable for many theatres, after a devastating year. The good news is that for most venues, pantomimes can go ahead. The bad news is that capacity restrictions will mean they will be unlikely to fulfil their usual function as money machines, which is of course needed this year more than ever. 

The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester has announced significant job losses, while the Nuffield Theatres in Southampton will close for good. In America, Broadway will remain closed for the rest of the year.

Cameron Mackintosh, the producer of Les Misérables and owner of eight West End venues, has suggested that many theatres will be unable to open until 2021. Most Christmas pantomimes, which need to be planned in detail by mid-summer, will not happen this year.

Furthermore, Mackintosh and other industry figures have consistently warned that the idea of social distancing in the auditorium makes no financial sense. Theatres typically need at least 70 per cent of seats to be filled in order to break even, and under "one metre plus", they could come nowhere near that figure.

Some major theatres have been streaming videos of their past productions during the pandemic. To continue doing this with new work, however, would be a financial strain that few venues could bear.

Will Wonder Woman 1984 open in cinemas? Credit: Clay Enos

Cinema

Cinemas will be allowed to re-open in Tiers 1 and 2. But with empty release schedules and box office takings slow to recover over the summer, it seems unlikely that many will. Wonder Woman 1984 is the only big title that could feasibly draw big audiences this year, but the jury's still out on when and whether it will have a cinema release. 

For those venues that do re-open, cinemagoers will have similar experiences to pre-lockdown 2.0. Most chains are maintaining social-distancing measures across all areas within the cinema, and offering hand sanitiser to all ticket holders and employees, while toilets are stocked with anti-bacterial hand soap and staff have been given stringent hand-washing guidelines.

The booking system has been updated to allow friends and family to sit together while ensuring a safe distance between customers from different households in the auditoria. Start and end times for films are being staggered to regulate crowding, and one-way systems operate throughout the buildings. Face coverings are mandatory.

The range of films on offer is vanishingly slim. After Wonder Woman, the next major studio production slated for release is, unbelievably, Bond 25, in April 2021. And the usual winter glut of awards contenders is mostly being held back for Oscar season, which has been postponed until…April 2021 again. 

As for the various arthouse and foreign-language gems that sustained smaller distributors between July and October, those cupboards are now bare, and can’t be restocked until the festival circuit resumes operations.

Smaller operators and independent cinemas may not be in such a fortunate position. Andrew Simpson of Newcastle's Tyneside Cinema warned in June that if the furlough scheme were withdrawn before audiences returned, his cinema would be doomed.

The nightmare scenario, he said, is "being allowed to open, the furlough ending at the same time, and audiences not showing up. We’re open, it’s dead, and there’s no government support."

From July 4, a small number of drive-in cinemas began to tour the UK, hoping to capitalise on a combination of loosened guidelines and public preference for open-air events.

Read more: Thinking of seeing a film this weekend? What the Covid cinema experience is actually like

Galleries and museums.

British galleries can re-open from the end of lockdown in Tiers 1 and 2. Social distancing will remain enforced, with measures including one-way systems and timed tickets, while face coverings are mandatory.

The National Gallery was the first major institution to re-open, unbolting its doors on July 8. The Barbican followed on July 13, the Royal Academy (to the public) on July 16 and the Tate galleries on July 27.

The national museums in south London re-opened later, including the National History Museum (August 5) and V&A Museum (August 6). 

On the other hand, many will remain closed for longer. Elaine Bedell, CEO at the Southbank Centre, told this newspaper in late May that the earliest many of her spaces could plausibly re-open would be the spring of 2021. Her organisation has since announced some of the largest cuts to hit the arts sector during the pandemic.

Smaller commercial galleries and auction houses are classified as "non-essential retail", and have been permitted to re-open since June 15. Most operate booking systems and severely limit the number of people inside.

Throughout the pandemic, museum directors have emphasised that they needed to be able to re-open "in a financially sustainable manner". The head of the museum directors' council, Sir Ian Blatchford, warned in The Telegraph that "reopening too soon could be financially perverse".

Read more: Which UK art galleries are re-opening, and which shows can I see?

Concert halls and gig venues

The classical music industry is facing widespread collapse. Many orchestras employ freelance musicians, who are not always supported by the Government's furlough scheme. In addition, their venues are necessarily large and expensive to run.

Vasily Petrenko, chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, told The Telegraph in May that while innovative plans were being invented around the country, the post-Covid-19 reality would be simple: "Many institutions will simply not survive."

Many classical-music institutions have streamed existing performances during the lockdown, with the aim of reaching a wider online audience, but it would be difficult for many venues or orchestras to survive without a regular live audience.

Among the few exceptions is Wigmore Hall. The venue is broadcasting live concerts on BBC Radio 3 every weekday, with musicians including Mitsuko Uchida, Mark Padmore and Iestyn Davies. The concerts began on June 1, are observing strict social distancing on stage and without a live audience.

The Temple Live venue in Fort Smith, Arkansas, successfully fought to host a socially-distanced gig Credit: AP/Charlie Kaiko

Rock, pop and jazz music venues, meanwhile, face a worse predicament. Until international travel resumes, it will be nigh-impossible to plan a series of lucrative gigs. Furthermore, given that these venues, by design, pack large numbers of people into small, atmospheric spaces, it is unclear how they will ever be able to adapt to the guidelines as they currently stand. Many grassroots venues now face extinction. 

The Association of Independent Festivals said in mid-May that 98.5 per cent of its members lack insurance coverage for coronavirus-related cancellations, and 92 per cent expect to face potentially ruinous costs.

Television

Production on all major TV series was halted by the pandemic, leaving broadcasters with a dwindling supply of new releases. In the second half of the year, however, bubble systems and regular testing have enabled many to resume, albeit in altered formats. The Great British Bake Off, Strictly Come Dancing and I'm A Celebrity have all returned, in styles varying from triumphant (Bake Off) to distinctly wobbly (Strictly)

On May 18, however, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sky and other British broadcasters agreed a set of guidelines for the safe operation of sets, with a view to resuming TV production across the summer. 

In a joint statement, the broadcasters said: “The expectation is that the guidance will evolve over the coming months as the lockdown is eased, as government advice evolves and as TV productions adapt to the new challenges posed by the Covid-19 risk.”

Top Gear and EastEnders, for example, were among the first to resume filming, with appropriate social-distancing measures in place. As the year progressed, more sets have followed suit.

Netflix is introducing practices that it already employs on its sets in south-east Asia, such as temperature checks and packed lunches for casts and crew.