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Running the cash-strapped Southbank Centre: ‘We feared Cate Blanchett would get stuck in a lift!’ | Elaine Bedell


When an array of Hollywood royalty, from Cillian Murphy to Margot Robbie, arrived at the Royal Festival Hall for this year’s Bafta film awards, they were unaware that it was not just that evening’s nominees who were feeling nervous.

“Our great fear was that Cate Blanchett would be stuck in a lift,” says Elaine Bedell, chief executive of the Southbank Centre, who is responsible for the complex of cultural venues by the Thames in London. “We employed an engineer to be on site all weekend so that, no matter what happened, emergency supplies could be on hand. That is emergency patching and it’s very costly.”

Bedell believes that example underlines the difficulty she has in managing the 4.5-hectare site. She is lobbying government to pay half of the £50m required for urgent repairs, including to its dodgy lifts, leaking roofs and cracked paving.

The Royal Festival Hall. Photograph: Anne-Marie Palmer/Alamy

She is willing to bring out the begging bowl for donors too, if Westminster plays its part. However, to her dismay, no such funding was forthcoming in Jeremy Hunt’s budget last month (the National Theatre, next door, snared £26m).

“Most of our philanthropists like the idea of maximising the public pound – they don’t like the idea of substituting it,” Bedell says. “They’re not prepared to cover for where they think there should be a government contribution.” She says she is already dipping into cash reserves to ensure public safety.

The Royal Festival Hall is at the centre of the government-owned site that also includes the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Hayward Gallery. In 1949, the then prime minister, Clement Attlee, laid the first brick, with the venue opening just two years later as the Festival of Britain marked London’s postwar recovery.

The site has been continually updated in the intervening years, including a major, lottery-funded refurbishment. Its brutalist architecture – flanked by concrete stairways now painted bright yellow and with the nearby London Eye towering above – make the site instantly recognisable. It was the UK’s fifth-busiest attraction last year, with 20 million visitors.

Its venues have hosted every type of music – notably pushing boundaries in classical and electronic genres and bringing non-western musical pioneers to large audiences. More than 3,000 events take place each year, with 40% of them free. This summer the singer Chaka Khan will curate its Meltdown festival and the Hayward will host an exhibition of work by Bahamian artist Tavares Strachan.

The organisation is a registered charity, funded by donations, trading activities and government grants. In 2023, state support made up £19.7m of its £53.3m income and Bedell says it must be spent on programming – not maintenance. She argues that the government can justify the building upgrades in the name of green research. “If we can find some solutions to retrofitting historic heritage buildings, that’s going to be a solution for the sector as a whole and a valuable use of that funding.”

She is under no illusion that a leftwing government would necessarily bring more funding, despite flautist Keir Starmer’s recent declaration of affection for the arts (he has even played on the Festival Hall stage). She says Labour “were completely clear that they are expecting the cupboard to be bare” if they win power at the next election, as polls suggest.

The centre’s Arts Council funding has been cut by 41% in real terms over the past decade, while costs such as energy bills have surged. In 2022, it was the biggest victim of deep cuts to London arts institutions in the name of levelling up, losing nearly £1.9m in funding.

New bars and restaurants have been created, both within the venues and leased around the site, to make its business model more “robust” and help to meet the maintenance costs. Bedell says she is willing to be commercial, even mooting offering naming rights to the site. “It’s provocative, isn’t it? Those are conversations I’m perfectly prepared to have.” (Don’t expect the Sports Direct Festival Hall any time soon, however.)

Christine and the Queens performing at the Royal Festival Hall as part of the Meltdown festival last year. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Bedell, who last week picked up an OBE for services to business and the arts that she was awarded in the latest new year’s honours list, is seven years into her tenure. At first glance, she seemed a left-field choice: she’s a former TV producer, with some of Britain’s biggest entertainment shows on her CV, including The X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing and Saturday Night Takeaway. But, she says: “I have always been in the business of reaching maximum amounts of people through the lens of entertainment. I enjoy the idea of popular arts and culture – the sense of congregation.”

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A Londoner growing up in the East End, she got her passion for the arts from her father, an engineer and enthusiastic pianist. She took her first steps in the broadcast industry while study­ing in Leeds, trained at the BBC, and radio and TV work followed. She directed a documentary on Bill Clinton’s campaign for the presidency, and later Jeffrey Archer stormed off the set of a daytime chatshow she produced, taking umbrage at questions. “His words were, ‘You will never work in television again.’”

She founded her own production company, Watchmaker, later sold to Chrysalis Group, and went on to set up the commercial arm of the Royal Shakespeare Company. She became BBC controller of entertainment commissioning before switching lanes to spend seven years as director of entertainment at ITV. In June, she will be among the nominees for the Veuve Clicquot Bold Woman Award, which champions female entrepreneurs and leaders.

Does she have any qualms about her role in the reality show explosion, which has been blamed for affecting participants’ mental health? “It’s like the music industry: we have gone through a revolution, rightly so,” she says.

“It was a different era, things were done in different ways, and it is immeasurably improved. There were highs and lows: I was there for One Direction, Susan Boyle – but it was definitely a mixed bag.”

Bedell says the pandemic was “hard and relentless” for the centre, as the organisation was forced to shut its bars and venues. “I remember thinking, I’m the first female chief executive. It’s bloody well not going to go down on my watch.” A painful process of redundancies and emergency measures followed, getting “under the bonnet” of the site and reworking its model for after Covid restrictions eased.

“If you look at the legacy of the Southbank Centre, it’s everyone from Stravinsky to Stormzy – it’s such a familiar place to so many different kinds of people,” she says. “You can think about the society through music and art, and everyone has a role to play in that.”

CV

Age 63
Family A son, Joe, and a daughter, Flo.
Education Read English at Leeds University.
Pay £186,000 in 2023.
Last holiday Easter in Cádiz.
Best advice she’s been given “Actually from my nan and a motto for life: ‘Buying cheap vegetables is a false economy.’”
Biggest career mistake She once took a job solely because she wanted to leave the one she was doing: “It’s not a good reason to take a job. I should’ve been braver, left my job and taken a breath before flinging myself into something else.”
Phrase she overuses “What’s the worst that can happen?”
How she relaxes “Swimming 16 lengths of the Hackney lido – 12 if I’m feeling lazy; 10 if it’s raining; six and a chat at each end if all else fails.”

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