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For performance venues around England, it is the week they have been waiting for – being able to legally fill their auditoriums after 17 months.

But despite all legal limits being lifted, venues and theatres, while excited, are tentatively making changes to their policies – with some opting to keep some restrictions.

Ahead of Monday, Sky News has spoken to a number of people from the industry that have expressed their relief, anxieties and hopes for the next step in its social and financial recovery.

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‘Important’ for UK that theatres reopen – McKellen

Nica Burns, co-owner of Nimax Theatres in London

Six of London’s best known theatres, such as the Lyric and the Palace, are co-owned by Nica Burns – making her a major player in the city’s entertainment district.

Speaking to Sky News from her office on Zoom, she said that while restrictions across the UK are lifting, her theatres would not be immediately increasing capacity and relaxing mask rules.

A number of her venues opened in May at the initial lifting of restrictions, meaning she has already had a head start.

More on Covid-19

“A lot of tickets that were already sold, had been sold at 50%,” she said. “The advance ticket sales go back a couple of months when what they were promised were the capacity and robust mitigation measures – and we’re giving them 50%, and 60% and 70% capacity will go up to potentially go to 75%.”

Explaining her more cautious approach, she said: “I think it’s that I just thought that was the right thing to do.”

Ms Burns added that some of her theatres are old and narrow, meaning, for now, reduced capacity will help alleviate pinch points and keep people safe.

The approach taken by Ms Burns is different to that of counterpart Andrew Lloyd Webber, who is planning to pack his auditoriums as soon as possible and is hosting what he calls a “Freedom Day” performance of Cinderella – but his theatres will still require patrons to wear masks and present recent proof of a negative test, according to his website.

Delfont Mackintosh Theatres, home to shows such as Mary Poppins and Hamilton, also says online that it will be asking for proof of vaccination status and encouraging mask use from 21 July when auditoriums fully reopen.

Shows in the West End are booking now.

A man walks past the Palace Theatre in London, which is closed as the area has moved into the highest tier of coronavirus restrictions as a result of soaring case rates.
The Palace Theatre, co-owned by Ms Burns, has been dark since last March

Chris Stafford, chief executive of Curve Theatre in Leicester

The Curve Theatre in Leicester will open on Tuesday, without any social distancing, for the first time since the pandemic when the national tour of Magic Goes Wrong opens.

“We’re really pleased to say audiences feel confident returning to theatre,” Mr Stafford told Sky News over Zoom from the venue’s auditorium.

“We are seeing audiences booking tickets to come back and have a shared experience together.

“But also, one of the really important things for us is that we offer audiences as they build their confidence security, that the theatre coming back and returning to live events will be as safe as it possibly can be.”

Mr Stafford explained that while his venue received culture recovery grants from the government, and that his venue is partially subsidised by the Arts Council, audiences need to return to “pre-COVID levels”.

He added that 330,000 people a year were visiting his venue before the pandemic – making it a key part of Leicester’s economy

“It’s essential that they survive this pandemic,” he concluded.

Masks will still be required at the venue, Mr Stafford confirmed, while social distancing will be dropped.

Leicester Curve reopens on Tuesday 20 July, with a touring production of Magic Goes Wrong.

Mischief Theatre will reopen two of their shows over the coming months. Pic: Robert Day
Magic Goes Wrong will reopen Leicester’s Curve. Pic: Robert Day

Loki Mackay, manager of The Comedy Store in London

“There are so many things to do still,” Loki Mackay told Sky News ahead of The Comedy Store reopening, adding: “The short notice made it difficult to plan ahead.”

The iconic central London venue will open its doors again next week and invite punters back in to what is one of the world’s most famous comedy clubs.

Upon reopening, the club will go pretty much back to standard trading – masks will be optional, no social distancing will be in place, and visitors won’t need to prove their health status.

Mr Mackay told Sky News he was “doing okay with tickets” but added there will be no full houses for a while.

He says comics are “raring to go” after 18 months of podcasting and blogging to make ends meet.

On support over the last year, he said that it was “b***** all” and that everything they have heard has been through the newspapers. And while he has had some some Arts Council funding, it all went on rent.

The venue reopens later this week, with acts such as Marcus Brigstocke, Kiri Pritchard-Maclean and Tom Stade.

A view of The Comedy Store sign in central London
A view of The Comedy Store sign in central London

Sir Ian McKellen, theatre legend appearing in Hamlet at the Theatre Royal Windsor

Sir Ian McKellen, 82, who is starring in Hamlet at the Theatre Royal in Windsor, told Sky News he believes audiences will be nervous to come back into venues.

He said: “I am a little bit nervous about that. I daresay the audience will be nervous too.

“Do audiences really want to come back and sit next to people with a cough, who’s a bit fidgety?”

He said he didn’t know if “our patterns of behaviour” will have changed, or “will swing back to normality”.

Sir Ian added: “I suspect not for a little bit.”

Tickets for Hamlet, which has just extended its Windsor run, are available now.

Sir Ian McKellen who stars in Hamlet at the Theatre Royal in Windsor which runs until 25 September 2021. Picture date: Thursday July 15, 2021.
Sir Ian McKellen, who stars in Hamlet at the Theatre Royal in Windsor, which runs until 25 September 2021

Mazz Murray and Ben Forster, West End performers and appearing at the Royal Albert Hall

The Royal Albert Hall will be back with a bang this week, as it hosts its delayed 150th birthday celebrations.

On Monday it will host its very own 150th birthday party, then on Wednesday, stars of the West End will take to the stage in aid of charity Acting For Others.

Ben Forster, who has performed iconic roles such as Jesus, in Jesus Chris Superstar, and the Phantom, in Phantom Of The Opera, will be one of the stars on stage that night.

“The last 18 months has been terrible. We would never have expected coming into the pandemic that it would have lasted for so long,” he told Sky News from the Royal Albert Hall.

“I just want people to feel the love again, and it heightens people’s spirits. That’s why people go and watch musicals, because it lifts them and takes them on a journey for for a moment. And that’s what this show is going to do.”

Mazz Murray, who will be taking on the role of Donna in Mamma Mia in August, will also perform, and says it’s going to be a “real mix of emotions”.

Murray added that while performers have had little support over the past year-and-a-half, “there’s been no precedent and that unfortunately their professions were spent in dark, busy unventilated spaces”.

“So if anyone’s going to have to take the rough end, then I’m prepared to take it,” she said. “It was it was very, very difficult. I’m hoping that we’re at the end of it, but I love what I do – so on this occasion, we all got the short straw.”

Like other venues, the Royal Albert Hall is asking people to wear masks and take tests – but won’t enforce it as the hall feels it is unfair when the government permits taking masks off.

Tickets to The Best Of The West End on Wednesday 21 July are available now.

EDITORIAL USE ONLY Staff install and switch on a new sign at the Royal Albert Hall in London, as it prepares to celebrate its 150th anniversary.
Staff install and switch on a new sign at the Royal Albert Hall in London, as it prepares to celebrate its 150th anniversary

Jenna Boyd, West End performer in Come From Away

Jenna Boyd will be part of the cast of the Olivier-winning Come From Away when it reopens later this week.

It’s based on the true events in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when planes were rerouted to Gander in Newfoundland, Canada.

Speaking to Sky News during a rehearsal break at the Phoenix Theatre, Ms Boyd said the last 18 months had been “hideous”.

“This industry has felt abandoned,” she said. “There are a number of people who have been fortunate enough to be able to receive some sort of financial aid – but the huge majority of people have been literally hung out to dry.”

Speaking about getting back on stage, she said: “I think it’s going to be fairly overwhelming for all of us. There’s going to be a few tears as we walk out and there’s going to be a few tears as we finish, and it’s all because the love that the audience gives from their appreciation of what goes on on that stage and the story that’s been told is so, so mammoth.”

Come From Away opens on 22 July at London’s Phoenix Theatre.

Come From Away tells the true story of the flights that were diverted to Newfoundland after 9/11
Come From Away tells the true story of the flights that were diverted to Newfoundland after 9/11

Steve Cowley, local theatre performer, appearing in one man show Battle Cry

Steve Cowley from Chesterfield in Derbyshire says he is “really excited” to get back on to stages over the next few weeks. He’ll perform in one man show Battle Cry in Birmingham and Buxton – the first time he’ll have appeared on stage in the flesh since early 2020.

The show is about a veteran suffering with PTSD, which opened to acclaim when it debuted a couple of years ago.

Mr Cowley teaches acting as well as treading the boards for a living, but last year left him at a loss when his only work suddenly dried up.

“Even my agent had to get another job,” he told Sky News from his local theatre, adding: “It’s scary to see the industry on its knees.

“We were probably overlooked, and I thought I might quit at one point.

“I used the government’s job retraining tool, and it gave me things like market trader, funeral director and beauty consultant – none of them were me.”

You can watch Battle Cry at the Buxton Fringe on 23 and 24 July.

View of Buxton town centre, Derbyshire, UK.  Shops can be seen on the far side of the road and people can be seen waking on the pavements.
Buxton will host an arts festival later this week

Cinemas and gig venues

It’s a busy time for large parts of the industry right now, understandably, so many of the people Sky News contacted were unable to chat.

However, cinemas such as Vue and Curzon said in statements that masks would still be encouraged at their screenings with safety protocols – like enhanced cleaning – largely unchanged. The UK’s biggest chain, Cineworld, says masks remain mandatory in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as per the government guidance there, but won’t be in England anymore (they will be encouraged for staff, though).

At gig venues – the Academy Group, which looks after the local O2 venues across the country, says while masks are no longer mandatory, their use is encouraged. Its venues will also be asking for proof of a negative test or that both vaccinations have been had.

It is important to note that each venue, company and operator will have different rules, and it is advised to check with them before making any decisions to book events.

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Gail Porter opens up about being homeless: ‘Don’t be proud – keep asking for help’




Gail Porter opens up about being homeless: 'Don't be proud - keep asking for help'

Gail Porter was someone you would see regularly on big TV shows such as Top Of The Pops and Live & Kicking in the 1990s and 2000s, as well as on the cover of lads mags – famously the FHM cover that saw her naked image projected, without her prior knowledge, on to the Houses of Parliament.

But when she was diagnosed with alopecia in the mid-2000s, after already suffering with mental health problems, her TV work dried up.

“My hair fell out, nobody wanted to touch me with a barge pole,” she tells Sky News. “I didn’t want to wear a wig because I find them uncomfortable. And then suddenly the only jobs you’re getting offered are to go on and talk about being bald.”

Gail Porter arrives for the start of Celebrity Big Brother in 2015
Gail Porter appeared on Celebrity Big Brother in 2015

After bouts of depression, self-harm, anorexia and a breakdown – and at one point being sectioned – the star found herself with nowhere to go about eight years ago. She had no work, and an unexpected tax bill “completely scuppered me. I was done”.

Porter, 52, says she spent time moving between friends’ spare bedrooms and sofas. “And there were a couple of nights on Hampstead Heath, just sitting, thinking: ‘I’ve got no idea where to go’. It was a very long six months, but I managed to get back on my feet again.”

Porter entered the Celebrity Big Brother house in August 2015, appearing alongside stars including Janice Dickinson, Bobby Davro and Natasha Hamilton, and was able to rent the flat in London she is living in today. “I’m happy to have a roof over my head,” she says.

In recent years, the star has campaigned to raise awareness of those facing homelessness and is now working with the Good Things Foundation, a digital charity, and Virgin Media O2 to highlight The National Databank – described as similar to a foodbank, but for free mobile data, texts, and calls.

Gail Porter sits in an installation by Single Homeless Project under Camden Lock bridge, designed to raise awareness of Londoners facing homelessness over the festive period
The star worked with the Single Homeless Project before Christmas

‘I never thought in a million years it would get this bad’

The charity says demand for the National Databank is increasing, with its website already receiving almost double the number of visits in 2023 compared to the same period in 2022, as the cost of living crisis continues.

Virgin Media O2 surveyed 2,000 adults in the UK, and say more than a third (35%) believe they are only one pay slip away from finding themselves in extremely difficult financial hardship.

“That is such a frightening statistic,” says Porter. “I never thought in a million years it would get to this bad with me. And then it was just spiralling out of control.

“I was trying to apply for jobs, but without my phone or a laptop… I was walking round with a black bin liner with my clothes. ‘Excuse me! You got any jobs going in the bookshop? Or you got any jobs going in the library?’ I just want to work anywhere, I don’t care. It was very difficult for me, traipsing around everywhere with a bag, just trying to get myself back on my feet.”

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Porter found herself struggling to access some of the everyday services most take for granted. “I did have a little bit of data on my phone… then when that ran out, suddenly I thought, my gosh, can someone help me get somewhere to stay? Can I go to the doctor’s to talk to somebody about how I’m feeling mentally? Can I contact a friend?”

Because of her fame, the assumption by those around her was that she would be okay.

“All those magazines I did, I never got a penny… not everything is as lucrative as it seems.”

Porter says she appeared on shows for minimum pay and even without payment. “So you’d see me doing lots and lots of things… that kind of went on for quite a long time. You can’t really work for free all the time.”

Moving to stand-up comedy

Life is great now, she says, and there’s a new challenge on the cards – Porter, who is Scottish, is due to launch her stand-up comedy career at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival later this year.

“I have good days and bad days,” she says when I ask if she’s feeling nervous. “Sometimes I think, this is going to be great, what could possibly go wrong? And then sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with the sweats. What was I thinking of? And it’s my hometown so my friends have said they’ll come.”

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Grocery inflation hits new record high – and worse is to come

Porter says she doesn’t want to give too much away, but the show will draw on her personal experiences of mental health struggles and her homelessness.

“Now that I’m on my feet again, I can laugh about certain things,” she says. “So, lots of little stories about losing my hair, being sectioned, all sorts of little funny things. Hopefully people will enjoy it.”

Before she goes, Porter offers advice to anyone who is going through similar experiences to hers – and urges people in need to find their local databank.

“You’re not on your own,” she says. “Don’t be proud. You just have to swallow that and say, you know what? It’s happened. The best thing I can do is go onwards and upwards – and keep asking for help.”

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‘Split-screening’ and other phone habits reveal how children are watching even more videos




'Split-screening' and other phone habits reveal how children are watching even more videos

Increasing numbers of children are “split-screening” so that they can watch multiple social media videos at a time, new research suggests.

Not content with their endless feeds of single attention-sapping clips on apps like TikTok and Instagram, many youngsters are now dividing their smartphone screens to see two or more simultaneously.

Some even stack videos on top of one another, according to Ofcom‘s report into children’s relationship with media.

In some cases, the clips they watch simultaneously do not even have an obvious connection.

The regulator said the habit appears to be an evolution of “multi-screening” behaviour seen in its previous research, where children reported difficulties in focusing on one screen-based activity at a time.

Ofcom’s report found that 96% of children aged three to 17 watch online videos.

More than half (58%) watch livestreamed content, rising to 80% among 16 and 17-year-olds.

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Short-form videos growing in popularity

While nine in 10 children watch YouTube, increasing numbers are now turning to platforms dedicated to short-form videos like TikTok (53%) and Snapchat (46%).

Both apps have introduced features to restrict how much children use the apps in the face of concerns about the impact excessive social media can have, with Snapchat giving parents access to their accounts.

TikTok has also been keen to promote its safety features, such as screen time limits, as it faces growing scrutiny across the Western world over data and privacy fears.

Ofcom said the most popular videos with children are engineered to grab attention with minimal effort, such as those which promise “commentary” or “reaction” to other content.

Less than a third of children post their own videos online, though, according to the report.

As social media content becomes increasingly well produced, with influencers kitting out their home studios with expensive equipment and software, youngsters are becoming more self-conscious about their online image.

Previous research has warned that children were over-dependent on “likes” to boost self-esteem.

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These were the UK’s favourite TikTok videos of 2022

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Why is TikTok getting banned?

Older teens taking notice of screen time

But older teenagers and young adults are starting to take more notice of how much time they spend online.

Just over half of users aged 16 to 24 thought they spent too much time on social media, up from 42% in 2021.

They were also more likely to take deliberate breaks from certain apps or delete them altogether, Ofcom said.

The report comes as the government’s divisive Online Safety Bill makes its way through Westminster.

The wide-ranging legislation would give Ofcom the power to regulate internet content to keep people safe, including making companies liable for the content on their platforms.

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Gary Lineker wins £4.9m tax appeal against HMRC




Gary Lineker wins £4.9m tax appeal against HMRC

Gary Lineker has won his £4.9m tax appeal against HMRC.

The Match Of The Day host was pursued for the cash by tax authorities, who said it should have been paid on income received between 2013 and 2018.

HMRC said Lineker, 62, should have been classed as an employee of the BBC and BT Sport for his presenting duties, rather than as a freelancer.

The bill came as part of legislation known as IR35, designed to crack down on tax avoidance by so-called disguised employees, who charge for their services via limited companies. The aim is for contractors or freelancers to pay broadly the same income tax and national insurance as an employee.

Lineker had maintained that all taxes were paid on his income via a partnership, Gary Lineker Media (GLM), set up with his ex-wife Danielle Bux in 2012.

His lawyer James Rivett KC told a preliminary hearing in London in February that the star had been “dragged through the papers accused of not paying income tax which has been paid”, and claimed there was a political element to the investigations.

Tribunal judge John Brooks has now found that while GLM was a partnership to which IR35 legislation applies, the appeal should be granted because contracts existed between the presenter and both the BBC and BT Sport.

More on Gary Lineker

The judge said: “As a matter of law, when Mr Lineker signed the 2013 BBC contract, the 2015 BBC contract and the BT Sport contract for the provision of his services, he did so as principal thereby contracting directly with the BBC and BT Sport.

“As such, the intermediaries legislation cannot apply – it is only applicable ‘where services are provided not under a contract directly between client and the worker’.

“In this case Mr Lineker’s services were provided under direct contracts with the BBC and BT Sport.

“Although such a conclusion might appear inconsistent with my conclusions that the intermediaries legislation can apply to partnerships… that is not the case.”

He added that he could “dispose of the entire appeal in the appellants’ favour and the appeal is therefore allowed”.

Following the decision, Lineker tweeted: “Thanks for all the congratulatory messages. I am pleased that the Tribunal has endorsed my contention that I have not failed to pay any taxes or National Insurance by reason of the IR35 rules.”

HMRC is considering appealing.

“The tribunal has confirmed the off-payroll rules apply to partnerships, as we have always said,” a spokesperson said. “However, we do not agree with its decision that the rules cannot apply in this case and we’re considering an appeal.”

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The HMRC spokesperson added: “It is our duty to ensure everyone pays the right tax under the law, regardless of wealth or status.”

The Lineker-BBC row

Lineker is Match Of The Day’s longest-serving presenter and has been on the football show since the 1990s following a successful football career for clubs including Leicester City, Tottenham and Barcelona, as well as for England.

Earlier in March, the star was forced off air in a row over a tweet criticising the government’s migration policy, with his co-presenters standing down from the show in solidarity.

He returned the following week following talks with the BBC, which has announced a review, led by an independent expert, on its social media guidance – with a focus on how it applies to freelancers outside news and current affairs.

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What are the BBC impartiality rules?

The football pundit topped the BBC’s highest paid star list in 2022, earning between £1,350,000 and £1,354,999 for his work on Match Of The Day, Sports Personality Of The Year, and other programmes.

Lineker’s tax case follows similar attempts by HMRC to target other broadcasters including Lorraine Kelly and Kaye Adams.

As the decision on the presenter’s appeal was announced, former BBC director-general Lord Birt appeared before the digital, culture, media and sport committee (DCMS) as part of a session in the wake of his three-day Match Of The Day suspension.

He told the hearing that presenters such as Lineker who are “inextricably bound up with an important BBC programme” should have to abide by impartiality rules.

Asked whether he thought viewers appreciated the difference between news staff and freelancers, Lord Birt said: “I am sure the public doesn’t even think about it.

“What it knows is that this (Match Of The Day) is one of the most important BBC programmes and this is a well established presenter.

“And yes, he was one of England’s great centre-forwards but let’s not kid ourselves. His status, his standing and his power arises above all else from presenting this extremely important programme.”

Acknowledging public opinion over Lineker’s tweet was split, Lord Birt added: “I don’t ever think the damage in respect to the BBC is terminal because it has got too much credit in the bank.”

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