October 15, 2011 12:07 am

The Diary: Tony Hall

The chief executive of the Royal Opera House visits with the British Council in Lagos and witnesses both sides of the Nigerian coin

For me, the most unexpectedly moving round of applause at the Royal Opera House recently was for Ruairi Watson and his colleagues. I love being in the wings to watch performers take their curtain calls. Of late I’ve heard roars of approval for the Royal Ballet’s performance of Balanchine’s Jewels; for one of its principals Edward Watson and his fellow dancers at the end of an adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis , where Ed became an insect with every fibre of his body and, post-transformation, ended up covered in treacle. These curtain calls are intensely emotional. At the end of Suor Angelica, the second opera of Puccini’s Il trittico, Ermonela Jaho, the soprano in the title role, was so moved and overwhelmed she had to be helped off stage in tears.

For Ruairi from Carshalton, the applause was for something that could be life-changing. “I didn’t know what was going to happen to me,” he told the audience. “I was struggling to find paid work. I didn’t have a job and was going nowhere.” He was speaking not at the end of a performance but at a ceremony to mark the end of a six-month work placement with us at the Royal Opera House. He was here as part of the Culture Quarter Programme. Over the past 18 months it has seen nine organisations, including the V&A and Somerset House, come together to offer work placements for young people who have left full-time education and been out of work for more than six months.

Ruairi, like others on the scheme, worked alongside professionals. The youngsters had masterclasses in everything from conservation and restoration to fundraising and marketing. The results have been surprising and thrilling – 73 per cent of the young people who’ve been with us now have either full-time jobs (the majority) or are in full-time training. I’m pleased to say Ruairi is one of those with a job. “You gave us all confidence – and networks of people to help us,” said one of Ruairi’s colleagues. “It’s been my lifeline.”

I’m sorry to say, however, that this is the end of the scheme. The programme was funded from the previous government’s Future Jobs Fund, which has been scrapped. But with such a high success rate – and unemployment for 16- to 25-year-olds heading towards the million mark – we have to find a way to revive it.

. . .

On a more positive note, at our production workshops in Thurrock in Essex we are training apprentices in skills like scenic carpentry, as well as working with hundreds of local schoolchildren. Recently these workshops were flung open to the public by Mal Barton, our costume workroom manager, and her team so we could sell surplus costumes to 1,300 visitors. The interest was enormous, from all ages, and the place was buzzing with people trying on everything from ballgowns to suits of armour and having fancy dress picnics in the grounds. All these skills, crucial to the making of the magic that appears on our stages, are of enormous interest to people. They also represent incredibly important, rewarding jobs.

. . .

A continent away, in Nigeria, the issues are eerily similar – it’s all about skills for young people. I’m visiting with the British Council in Lagos. Friends had warned: “You don’t want to go there, you’ll never get out in one piece.” And, indeed, travelling from the airport I was in the back of a bullet-proof vehicle. In the front seat was a riot policeman with a sub-machine gun, wearing a pullover with the word “agility” woven into the back. But – and it’s a very big but – there was in Lagos an extraordinary optimism and energy in all the creative leaders we met.

Within a kilometre of each other, I witness both sides of the Nigerian coin. The National Theatre is a “grand project” dating from the 1990s. It’s hardly ever open because the theatre’s extraordinarily resilient boss not only has to think about programming with next to no money but also about the lack of power (Nigeria’s electricity grid is so unreliable, the country is the world’s biggest market for generators). He also has to contend with water shortages and getting rid of sewage. I can’t think of a single arts manager in the UK with such an extensive job description.

Yet within sight of this behemoth is an artists’ village, a series of old huts surrounded by a wall; it is, in reality, a professional commune. By contrast with the theatre, this is positively bubbling – with dancers, musicians, actors and painters full of energy and enterprise. “But”, according to Tope Babayemi, the head of the village, “we need help and skills to make our art a business so we can sustain ourselves. We want to be entrepreneurs as well as artists.”

That evening, in the cooler atmosphere of the British Council office, I meet a few of the hundreds of Nigerian creative entrepreneurs the council has been training. Among them is a poet, novelist and advertising executive who clearly exists with little sleep; a playwright and director who’s bringing his version of The Winter’s Tale to the World Shakespeare Festival as part of the London 2012 Festival; a photographer; a multimedia journalist; an artist; a fashion designer and many, many more. All have been trained in making a business in the creative economy. “This programme has given me the skills I didn’t have but needed,” says one.

Building creative skills is an area where the arts in Britain have a really strong track record and the British Council is rightly capitalising on this. The impact on perceptions of Britain is enormous. Long may it last.

. . .

The trip ends in a bookshop-cum-CD-store that at night turns into a live music venue called the Jazz Hole. Playing was a group described as a Nigerian Buena Vista Social Club. No one could keep still in their chairs. The applause was warm and long, especially for a song with the George Osborne-delighting title of “You Think You’re So Beautiful, I Should Pay You in Pounds.”

Tony Hall is chief executive of the Royal Opera House

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