In his role as president of the Royal Theatrical Fund, actor Robert Lindsay has seen first-hand just how many people in the industry are in desperate need of help
It must be 20 years ago; I was working at Pinewood Studios and Leslie Phillips came over to me while I was having lunch and said: ‘Have you ever heard of the Royal Theatrical Fund? I think they would love your support.’ The secretary of the fund then rang me and said: ‘Would you be interested in becoming a board member?’ I said: ‘I would love to help.’
At my first board meeting, I was overwhelmed by the number of requests from people in the industry for financial aid. I was really shocked about the level of fame of some of the people appealing for help. There were people – my heroes – appearing on the list. And this is the crazy thing about our industry – people assume because you’re in film, television, the theatre, that you’re rich.
That’s quite the reverse. You only earn what you do in a particular year and if those jobs suddenly dry up… And it’s been exacerbated by Covid with the closure of theatres.
There are many theatrical charities; ours is probably the oldest. Charles Dickens started it in 1856. The lovely thing is we sit at his very table at our meetings – the Charles Dickens table in the Garrick Club. The charity was started purely for performers because Dickens was a frustrated actor, but we now cover box office, front-of-house staff, stage-door men and women, lighting designers – everyone who’s worked in the industry for a certain length of time.
It’s close to my heart because there but for the grace of God go I. When I first came out of Rada in 1970 there were times when I was really struggling. I was fortunate – I got a grant for Rada from my local council. Now they’ve been stopped. I don’t know how people manage to survive in this industry. Of course, when you make the best of it, it’s fantastic. Dickens wrote a lovely thing which I quote when I give speeches at Royal Theatrical Fund events, when he says: ‘Actors live in the spotlight but never let the spotlight dim.’
During lockdown I approached a company called Lockdown Theatre – friends of mine, Paul Jackson and Rob Grant, who are producers and writers of Red Dwarf. I said: ‘Guys, would you be prepared to join us at the Royal Theatrical Fund to raise funds for the profession?’
They said: ‘Fantastic.’ So I rang Michael Palin and Joanna Lumley and said: ‘Do you fancy helping me do Waiting for Godot?’ It turned out to be a huge success, and on one evening we raised £35,000.
So I said: ‘Let’s do something else,’ and I rang my mate Emma Thompson, Emilia Clarke, who was in Game of Thrones, and Sanjeev Bhaskar, a wonderful friend and actor. And we got Noël Coward’s estate to allow us to do a portion of Private Lives.
We streamed it, and that raised another £35,000, which was snatched up by people wanting to pay their mortgages, electric bills – and just put some food on the table.
The government does not seem to want to support the creative arts as much as we would like, by cutting the arts in schools, which I find shocking because that’s the roots. If I had not had a drama class I would not be where I am now.
The other problem is they have not given the support that’s needed to the theatre during the Covid crisis. A lot of that is people assume that the industry’s fine, that we’re all earning a lot of money.
I feel like that’s why the Royal Theatrical Fund feels that it has to make a living, as opposed to just asking people to put money in a bin. We have to give something and then get a return from it.