Actors, thought Samuel Johnson, were “no better than creatures set upon tables and joint-stools to make faces and produce laughter, like dancing dogs”.
The dyspeptic doctor liked to say things for effect but, on this occasion, he was drawing on a lengthy classical tradition that saw acting as a form of professionalised deceit or moral prostitution. Plato argued that “one should no more act a mean part than do a mean deed”, both tending to corrode character. Rousseau, similarly, wanted to ban theatrical performances in Geneva, believing that formalised pretence would destroy the city’s morals.
I wonder what Plato, Rousseau or Dr Johnson would say if they could somehow be transported to our present age. They might stifle their surprise at the change in the status of players who, even in Johnson’s time, were often legally classed as vagabonds. But they would surely be incredulous to see that we regularly solicit the views of actors on subjects other than acting.
Nearly 300 actors and other celebrities, from Billy Nighy to Keira Knightley, have signed a letter urging us to vote for EU membership. “From the Bard to Bowie, British creativity inspires and influences the rest of the world,” they write.
Hmmm. I wrote on CapX recently about how idiotic it is to claim the Bard as a Europhile. As for David Bowie, his views were pretty unequivocal: “The people should be fighting the Common Market, but they won’t until it’s too late.”
Then again, why expect people who excel in one field to be expert in others? The letter is signed by some very brilliant performers – and, indeed, by some very brilliant writers. In my book, Tom Stoppard has a pretty good claim to be considered the finest playwright since Shakespeare. But, on the subject of the EU, the signatories are simply citizens, like everyone else. Benedict Cumberbatch and Helena Bonham Carter are voting to stay; Edward Fox and Michael Caine are voting to leave. As we Old Brussels Hands say: Et alors?
The one concrete argument contained in the letter, as with almost all these pro-EU letters, has to do with money: “Many of us have worked on projects that would never have happened without vital EU funding.” As usual, the signatories omit to mention that this “EU funding” is actually British funding, a tiny rebate on the billions we pay every year. In 2014, the last year for which we have full figures, Brussels spent €11.1 million in the UK on “Creative Europe” – equivalent to 0.06 per cent of what we handed over. By way of contrast, Belgium got €32.1 million, Germany €20.4 million and France €44.2 million.
I write in no carping spirit. I love the work of many of these performers. One of my chief pleasures, when I can get away from work, is to see them on stage. There has never been a better time to watch plays, and there is no better place to do it than Britain. Ours is the golden age of theatre. But does anyone really think that the creative genius of this country depends on our membership of the EU? Seriously?
I’m happy to listen to the views of lots of people in the Brexit debate: farmers, fishermen, industrialists, financiers, students, pensioners, Commonwealth migrants, art dealers, cheesemakers, locksmiths. But it seems perverse to prioritise the opinions of people who make their living by saying things that they don’t really mean.
Seems, Madam? Nay, it is. I know not seems.