For a few months now the summer sun – punctuated with episodes of deluging rain – has provided the backdrop for the continued gradual reopening of our social, sporting and cultural venues. In turn, these developments have presented us with the opportunity to begin returning to social and spaces as audience members, engaging with events in closer proximity with others than has been possible for quite a while.
Navigating the return to a state of near normality has been – and for some continues to be –challenging. If the preceding months have taught us anything, it has perhaps been to ‘expect the unexpected’. Yet, it is also clear that festivals and events of all stripes do not thrive on uncertainty.
However, in spite of the difficulties and doubts, it is evident that – with caveats – the summer of 2021 can claim some notable waymarks on the road back towards ‘normality’. This is particularly evident in the sporting arena where (somewhat confusingly for those of us currently struggling to keep up with days of the week) the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo and the 2020 European Football Championships were successfully staged. These are notable achievements, particularly given the anxiety and misgivings that marked the period that preceded them. Fears regarding the wisdom of proceeding with the Tokyo Games were particularly pronounced, with large sectors of Japanese society expressing a preference for cancellation alongside some on the Japanese Olympic Committee. Nervousness was – of course – justified as positive tests from within both the Games and the European Championships could well have derailed Herculean organisational undertakings. While links were made between football related activity and a spiking in COVID cases brining significant risk, the return of more stringent anti-COVID measures has not been deemed necessary. For Japan, the consequences are still playing out. Post-Games, case numbers in the country increased rapidly and confirmation that, largely, the Paralympic Games would be closed to spectators was soon followed by news of the cancellation of October’s Japanese Grand Prix and the Prime Minister’s resignation amid anger over the government’s COVID response.
Other challenges do lie ahead. Though cycling’s blue ribband tours were rode in 2021, the Tour de Yorkshire’s 2022 edition has already announced cancellation signalling that – for smaller events at least – major difficulties remain. While vaccination rules and testing regimes for athletes are debated, the potential for disagreements between sports people, their governing bodies and hosting venues is clear. The example of the World Tennis Tour is a case in point.
The return of capacity audiences to large events has formed part of the government’s Event Research Programme – with all the potential, attendant risks. And, while even Lewis Hamilton voiced concern at the prospect of 140,000 fans converging on Silverstone for the British Grand Prix, the venue (alongside many others) has had to balance concerns about audience health and wellbeing with its own future financial viability. Initial data from the Events Research Programme has been promising as COVID transmission among attendees appeared low, however, there were caveats regarding the low uptake of PCR testing.
From the viewpoint of festivals, music and theatre the picture has been even more mixed. With the spotlight on British bands deriving from the difficulties arising due to travel restrictions, Latitude Festival was able to go ahead (as part of the ERP scheme) and the Edinburgh Festival – cancelled in 2020 for the first time since 1947 – has found a way forward, utilising outdoor spaces and a slimmed down programme. Other colossuses of the cultural scene have found themselves less able to counter prevailing circumstances. WOMAD, Glastonbury and the Notting Hill Carnival have all cancelled for another year; Notting Hill organisers cited uncertainty as a deciding factor and, launched a fund for bands and artists in recognition of the ongoing perilousness of their position. Further, there have been calls for funding to be made available to ensure that the Carnival is able to return in 2022. While Boardmasters Festival of music and surfing went ahead, it has subsequnetly been linked with approximately 5000 new COVID infections. Theatre too has suffered slings and arrows of outrageous (mis)fortune, with positive tests among cast and crew scuppering shows at the last minute. Andrew Lloyd Webber was forced to cancel the opening night of his production of Cinderella (with all the related financial implications the decision entailed). Among others, Kenneth Branagh’s revival of the Browning Version was unable to progress past the rehearsal phase, such was the impact of COVID on the preparatory process. The implications arrising from the likely introduction of vaccine passports for theatre and other events are as yet unknown.
Thus far, it appears that the return of live audiences at events has progressed with some success. While in some cases, sporting events have been cancelled due to renewed outbreaks of COVID infection, the worst case scenarios for the Olympic Games and Euro 2020 did not come to pass (though whether or not Japan’s post-Games experience bears this out reamins to be seen) and, for those who wish to venture out, it has been possible to find live music and theatre events to attend and enjoy. On the other hand, it is clear that many such events have not been able to balance health risks, financial viability and policy alignment concerns to a sufficient degree to be able to proceed as they would wish. As new football seasons gather momentum, it’s clear that clubs, players and fans might take little for granted – indeed, this will be the case for many sports and competing athletes. As has so often been the case over the last 18 months or so, uncertainty has been the only sure thing.