Entertainment & Arts

Actress Gina McKee backs north-east talent plan

Christopher Eccleston, Gina McKee, Mark Strong and Daniel Craig in Our Friends in the North
Image caption McKee starred with Christopher Eccleston, Mark Strong and Daniel Craig in Our Friends in the North

Actress Gina McKee has backed a scheme to give all children in the north-east of England a taste of the arts to make sure young talent does not go untapped.

McKee said attending a youth drama group in her home town of Peterlee, County Durham, "changed my life".

"Particularly in today's climate of austerity, it deeply concerns me that this kind of work must continue to be funded," she said.

She was speaking at the launch of a 15-year cultural strategy for the region.

Titled The Case For Culture, it aims to get 500,000 more people - including 285,000 more children - involved in the arts in the north-east by 2030.

It also hopes to increase investment in the arts in the area from £100m to £300m over the next five years.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The Case For Culture hopes to double jobs in the arts and heritage in the north-east

The strategy has been co-ordinated by Ros Rigby, who now works at the Sage concert hall in Gateshead - but who organised the Peterlee Youth Drama Workshop when McKee was a member in the late 1970s.

McKee said: "I had no idea what a youth drama workshop was. But with nothing better to do, we went along to find out.

"Looking back, I can see that the decision to attend the workshop that night has proved to be deeply significant for me. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say it changed my life."

McKee started getting professional acting jobs within months, and went on to make her name in the Newcastle-set 1996 TV drama Our Friends in the North.

'Invaluable lessons in life'

"Back then I had no idea that I could make a living in a creative industry," she said. "Other people did that kind of thing.

"I'll always feel deeply grateful to Ros and the team. It may have been a youth drama workshop but what it offered us were invaluable lessons in life.

"Particularly in today's climate of austerity, it deeply concerns me that this kind of work must continue to be funded.

"At a time when drama schools and university courses have become an even more daunting prospect for the less well-off, I can't stress enough how truly valuable arts initiatives like Peterlee Youth Drama Workshop can be in getting the very best from our local communities.

"And there are amazing communities here in the north-east, filled with people with stories that need to be told and amazing talents that need to be discovered, developed and widely celebrated."

'More opportunities'

McKee's comments come after stars including Julie Walters, David Morrissey and McKee's Our Friends in the North co-star Christopher Eccleston warned about vanishing opportunities for actors from working class backgrounds.

Ros Rigby said opportunities for young people had increased as arts funding has gone up over the last 20 years.

"It's now [been] cut back quite a bit, but it grew and there are now a lot more [opportunities]," said Mrs Rigby, who is the Sage's performance programme director.

"But also we have one of the highest unemployment levels in the country in the north-east, and times are not easy.

"For young people it's not just about, do they want to go and join something. It's about, have they got a bus fare? There are still challenges."

Image caption North-east venues have given their backing to the plan

The Case For Culture strategy has been compiled by the north-east's 12 local authorities and five universities as well as its theatres, galleries and museums.

Artists Jane and Louise Wilson, writer Michael Chaplin, Arts Council England chief executive Darren Henley and Heritage Lottery Fund chief executive Carole Souter also spoke at Wednesday's launch.

By 2030, the Case For Culture's five targets are to:

  • Get 500,000 more people involved in culture and heritage in the north-east.
  • Give every young person regular access to culture through their schools - an extra 285,000 children and young people.
  • Nurture talent so artists and actors do not have to leave the region to further their careers.
  • Boost the area's economy, attract more tourists and double the current 70,000 jobs in the arts in the area.
  • Use arts and culture to make the north-east an "even more attractive and inspiring place to live and work".

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