‘Pop-eyed illiterates gaping at the Garbo’: campaigns for arts subsidy in 1930s Britain


Dr Howard Webber, independent scholar

You can learn a lot about the strength of a movement by looking at its opponents. It became clear that the wonderfully named League of Audiences was worth a deeper look when I discovered that T S Eliot had devoted an essay to dissing it.

The League of Audiences was active in the 1930s. Its cause was government funding of the arts. And its underlying belief was that the ‘mechanised arts’ of film, recording and broadcasting were creating a population ‘condemned to death by being canned alive’, that live theatre and music were crucial to the fightback, and that this needed to be bolstered by state subsidy.

But every historian (there have been a fair few) of the relationship between the state and the arts at this period has at best ignored the subject and at worst explicitly denied that there was even a subject to ignore. This is mystifying. Why would you turn away from a story that involves so many interesting characters, from a campaign whose supporters described film and the gramophone as producing ‘a sensation of impotence and dumb acquiescence’ and equated Hollywood with Hitler?

In my book Before the Arts Council, I discuss the League of Audiences alongside other high profile and influential 1930s campaigns for government support of the arts.

The League was founded in 1934 by Alfred Wareing, a pioneer of the British repertory movement – the first to produce a Chekhov play in Britain. By the 1930s he was retired, but ready to embark on his great crusade.

Wareing inspired love and exasperation in his supporters. He was described to the Archbishop of Canterbury as ‘a simple and loveable man, so possessed by his dream of re-awakening England to love music and drama that one hears him stray from the point, or approach the wrong point, without impatience’. A friend recalled his persistence: “I remember a time when I groaned at every ring of the telephone. Wareing again!… He was after one like the Hound of Heaven, husky, smiling, anxious, indomitable.”

What Wareing sought with such energy was state arts funding allocated via an ‘arm’s length’ body of commissioners – the model adopted for CEMA, predecessor of the Arts Council, in 1940 and the Arts Council itself in 1945. It was an idea which quickly became much discussed and highly popular. The Daily Telegraph, the even more right wing Morning Post, the right wing populist Daily Sketch, and the left-leaning Manchester Guardian and Daily Herald were all early and strong League supporters. Wareing’s speeches often received coverage in regional, national and imperial press.

And among the League’s members, paying their 10/6 annual subscription, were the actors Peggy Ashcroft, Gracie Fields, Sybil Thorndike and John Gielgud and the musicians Adrian Boult, Myra Hess and Henry Wood. J B Priestley, the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of Worcester spoke and wrote often on its behalf. Neville Chamberlain was privately supportive.

The fear and loathing of film, broadcasting and the gramophone underlying the League’s work took forms which ranged from wishing to counter the trend of ‘simple people in the shires of England addressing each other in the patois of the middle States of America’ to campaigning for the soul of humanity. (The Archbishop of York, William Temple, wrote of the League of Audiences’ battle against ‘a peril to our whole spiritual life’.) And some saw film, in particular, as a route to zombie apocalypse. The playwright and critic St John Ervine, quoted in this post’s title, wrote in The Observer in 1935 that:

We are in grave danger of rearing up a machine-maddened people who have lost their sight and their hearing and the use of their hands… [This] is the problem which Mr. Alfred Wareing, this man whose faith moves mountains, is setting out to solve”.

The League of Audiences argued that without a healthy tradition of live artistic performance, supported by subsidy, the public would be reduced to dumb acquiescence. But an argument with equally extreme imagery reached the opposite conclusion: that subsidy itself would lead artists to respond with dumb acquiescence to an all-powerful government. Surprisingly, perhaps, given the examples of state-run culture in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Soviet Russia, this view was not widely expressed; its undoubted star proponent was T S Eliot.

In his 1938 diatribe against the League, Eliot argued that state funding inevitably meant state control – that the government would use subsidy ‘to guide music and drama into the right channels’. Alfred Wareing himself was alive to the danger. An archive note by him reads: ‘A Ministry of Fine Arts would establish a Dictatorship, would become a hot-bed of intrigue, and a dangerous instrument of propaganda’ – hence his favouring subsidy being distributed by commissioners at one remove from the government.

The movement against the mechanised arts reached a high point in 1938, with press coverage fuller and more positive than ever and a League meeting at Toynbee Hall in May chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury. But by the end of the year it was a busted flush. What happened? Several things.

First, the League’s finances, never strong, hit rock bottom. Second, Wareing himself: the flip side of his persistence was that he could not compromise and had (alongside his ability to inspire love) a knack of alienating important interests. Third, while theatre actors and writers were enthusiasts for the League, theatre managers cared more about ending the tax on live performance than about subsidy. When Wareing took the opposite view, the managers united against him. And the final, decisive factor was that from spring 1938, as fear of war grew, the view gained ground that ‘this was not the time’.

Public funding of the arts was introduced soon after the outbreak of war. But the untold story is that fear of war, and preparations for war, impeded and for a time destroyed the chances of subsidy.

The Arts Council itself has consistently ignored Wareing’s existence, let alone his significance, despite many senior Arts Council members and bureaucrats having been active members of the League of Audiences. Others were far more generous. The playwright (and Arts Council member) James Bridie wrote in the early 1950s: ‘There is no doubt that the Arts Council rests on Wareing’s dreams, on his hard work, and on his martyrdom’. He was not alone in using such language – that was the effect Wareing had on people.

And, what of the arguments which swirled around the League of Audiences? Well, the ‘state funding equals state control’ argument had little relevance for more than 70 years, neutralised partly by Wareing’s idea of keeping arts subsidy at one remove from government. But it seems to have come alive again, with a government determined to wade into cultural and historical debates from a starting-point of dogmatic ignorance.

As for the dangers of the ‘mechanised arts’, the battleground has shifted to social media in ways well beyond the scope of this post. But live performance and the mechanised arts have not only co-existed but have depended on each other in ways few would have predicted in the 1930s.

Artists including Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Michaela Coel and James Graham, responsible for much of the best television of recent years, started their careers in small fringe theatre venues. Publicly subsidised live theatre provided the training and experience necessary before their talents were taken up by television. There is equal dependence the other way. Many actors earn their keep with parts in television soaps, comedy and drama, working at basic Equity rates when employed in the theatre. And there would be few musicals in the West End if theatre producers didn’t have films like Back to the Future and  and TV shows like Only Fools and Horses to cannibalise and set to music.

It’s a fair bet that none of them knows the debt they owe to Alfred Wareing and the League of Audiences. It has been a pleasant duty to return these forgotten pioneers to the light of day.


About the author: Howard Webber turned to history after a career spent mainly in and around Whitehall. He has degrees from Birmingham and Harvard Universities, as well as an MA and PhD in modern British history from King’s College London.

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