"I do not believe it is yet realised what an important thing has happened," said John Maynard Keynes, presenting his last inspiration in July 1945. War-weary and mortally ill, the great economist had just told Churchill's outgoing Cabinet that Britain was facing "a financial Dunkirk". It had no foreign reserves, no industry, no shipping, a lack of raw materials and a debt to America that would take 70 years to pay off. Bread rationing, averted during the war, was now imperative. And, said Keynes, I want half a million pounds to set up an Arts Council and splash out on fun. He got almost half of what he asked for — £235,000.
The case that Keynes made for the arts was that the looming threat of national insolvency called for nothing less than "the greatest enterprise, ruthlessness and tact". Britain must tap into its dormant creativity and revive public morale with a flourish of invention and entertainment. Merrie England was to be the cure for post-war blues. On June 12, 1945, as his Arts Council of Great Britain was introduced to Parliament, Keynes at a press conference talked of "restoring to the nation something it should never have lost". Speaking on the BBC, he explained:
State patronage of the arts has crept in. It has happened in a very English, informal, unostentatious way — half-baked, if you like. A semi-independent body is provided with modest funds to stimulate, comfort and support any societies and bodies...which are striving with serious purpose and a reasonable prospect of success to present for public enjoyment the arts of drama, music and painting.
Dead inside a year, Keynes cannot have imagined how swiftly his vision would be fulfilled. A nation lampooned across Europe as das Land ohne Musik, a culture of shopkeepers, was about to be transformed from scratch. The Royal Opera House, with a £25,000 grant, held open auditions in town halls up and down the country to cast its early productions. Many of the singers in Fairy Queen and Carmen had never seen an opera in their lives, let alone sung in one. Yet six years later, the house produced a commanding performance of one of the most difficult modern masterpieces, Alban Berg's Wozzeck; and, within a decade, its home-baked singers were appearing at Bayreuth and its dancers were the toast of New York.
Small cash injections yielded astonishing returns. London orchestras, poor before the war, now earned the respect of Toscanini and Furtwängler. Edinburgh emerged as the Salzburg of the North. The Royal Court nurtured Angry Young Men — John Osborne, Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker. A National Theatre was suddenly on the cards. In less than 15 years from the initiation of small-scale state funding, Britain was a world power in the performing arts.
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