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The final curtain
Slow Views

The final curtain

Thursday 11 November 2021

Did exposure to asbestos in the National Theatre contribute to an actor’s death? Paul Caruana Galizia investigates


John Harding was 21 years old when he finished his drama degree at Manchester University in 1969. His first job was as an assistant stage manager at the Bromley New Theatre in southeast London. He worked there for three months, making props and sets. “I recall it was a very dusty place in which to work and there was no ventilation”, he said. “I also recall being required to manually raise the asbestos safety curtain”.

Theatres at that time often fireproofed their drop-curtains with asbestos, a natural mineral whose fibrous properties gave it widespread applications in construction. Some curtains even had the word “asbestos” – from the Greek for “inextinguishable” – written across them in large block letters to reassure people of their safety. But asbestos has another important property.

Each one of its fibres is composed of fibrils, which are released into the air as microscopic dust if the asbestos is disturbed. From the 1950s onwards, the medical community had come to understand that inhaling this dust caused various lung diseases. By 1960, a link between asbestos and mesothelioma, a cancer that mainly affects the lining of the lungs, had been established. Despite these findings, the use of asbestos remained unregulated and continued widely for decades. 

Among the buildings in which it was used was the National Theatre on London’s South Bank, which was completed in 1976. Harding began working there as an actor two years later, across its Olivier, Lyttelton, and Cottesloe Theatres. “I acted in a huge number of performances at these theatres in five major productions and was based permanently at the National Theatre during this time,” he was to recall, “it was effectively my office. If I was not on stage, I would be in a rehearsal room with other actors, or learning my lines somewhere.”

After leaving the National Theatre in 1981, Harding continued working as an actor, but never again on a set or in a theatre where he recalled being exposed to asbestos. He was doing commercials and acting in a series filmed in Prague until he found working became “increasingly difficult”. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2014.

The cancer typically develops around 20 years after exposure to the deadly disturbed dust but it can be both shorter or longer. Victims suffer symptoms that may include chest pain, shortness of breath, fever, and fatigue. Then death can come swiftly though its cause usually lies between ten and 40 years in the past. 

John Harding died in March 2015. The cause of death was mesothelioma.

By 1974, 40 years before his death at the age of 66, Harding had already left the New Theatre in Bromley. By 1978 he was working at the National Theatre.

Still, soon after receiving his mesothelioma diagnosis in the first half of 2014, he instructed personal injury solicitors at Irwin Mitchell to pursue a claim for compensation against both the New Theatre and the National Theatre.

The New Theatre had been destroyed by – of all things – a fire in 1971. Harding’s lawyers could find no records of where in its structure asbestos had been used. In compensation cases of this sort, the plaintiff’s lawyers will try to establish that their client was placed next to disturbed asbestos. In this case, Harding’s lawyers advised him that pursuing the claim would be “very difficult”. 

They didn’t get far with the National Theatre either but for different reasons.

While Harding’s lawyers found that “large quantities of asbestos” had been removed from the National Theatre’s structure, they couldn’t establish precisely where the material had been found. They issued a Freedom of Information (FOI) request for the information, but had to tell Harding that “as the National Theatre is only partially publicly funded, it is not bound to disclose this information and has declined to do so.” 

The trail went cold. Harding died less than a year after receiving this news, which was then filed away with the rest of his legal correspondence and an affidavit he had prepared in anticipation of making a compensation claim. His remarks above are drawn from that affidavit.

Many institutions have been open about their asbestos problems, allowing victims and their families to seek compensation that is usually paid via the employer’s liability insurance. The National Theatre has not taken this course.

Formally the Royal National Theatre, it’s Britain’s most prominent performing arts venue. It has seen hundreds of actors and hundreds of thousands of visitors come and go. Yet it has never publicly disclosed its asbestos problem.

New documents seen by Tortoise reveal the National Theatre had 23.5 tonnes of asbestos removed from across its structures in 2013, a year before Harding’s lawyers had requested the information. It found more asbestos over the next two years, including dust around actors’ dressing rooms.

The National Theatre was built on a point along the Thames called King’s Reach. “It’s a magical position,” Sir Denys Lasdun, its architect, said shortly after the building’s completion. “Probably the most beautiful site in London.”

Lasdun’s brutalist, concrete masterpiece divided opinion from the start. Prince Charles called it “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting”. Sir John Betjeman, the poet laureate, “gasped with delight” when he saw it.

Its two main theatres – the Olivier and Lyttleton – are marked from the outside by two large blank fly-towers that contain the theatres’ rigging systems. Terraces surround the towers and step down to the river, connecting to Waterloo Bridge. Glass separates the terraces, behind which, Lasdun said, “you can see the whole life of the building”.

“Nothing in the theatre has been disguised”, he added, “it is what it is.”

When Lasdun was asked what the building would look like in 20 years, he replied: “Well, it’s going to weather.” 

Its first major refurbishment, costing £80 million, began in 2013. One of the first steps was to commission asbestos surveys of the building. It was these surveys that contained the information Harding’s lawyers had needed but failed to obtain, in order to make a claim for compensation against the National Theatre.

But though it was too late to help him, it turned out there was another way of discovering what those surveys had revealed.

Two public bodies had funded a quarter of the cost of the National Theatre’s refurbishment. Arts Council England made a grant of £17.5 million; the Heritage Lottery Fund contributed another £2.5 million. 

When Tortoise submitted FOI requests to them for any records of asbestos removal they had received as funders, the results showed that Lasdun’s building was veined with the poisonous mineral.

According to the documents produced, asbestos was found in the National Theatre’s basement, paint shop and workshop, carpentry and brick stores, scene docks and dock door ramps, stage doors, rehearsal spaces, and a cavity wall; it was also discovered in smoke vents above rehearsal rooms and the veneered wenge in the original foyer; on its lighting support frames and its roof.

Not long into the refurbishment, on 22 April 2013, a Construction Advisor Monitoring report warned: “It continues to remain apparent there’s increasing cost pressure specifically in the following areas: Asbestos removal.”

By October 2013, asbestos dust – rather than just undisturbed material – was found in the ceiling voids of dressing rooms, and in the ceilings of corridors separating them, across four of the building’s floors. 

The “identification of asbestos dust in corridors and dressing rooms” during the refurbishment’s Phase A, a budget document noted, caused further “cost increases”.

An initial £256,500 was budgeted for asbestos removal during this phase, but that figure rose to £802,000 by completion. Just £5,000 had been budgeted for asbestos air monitoring but that number rose too, reaching £103,495.

As yet more asbestos was identified during later phases of the refurbishment, the costs kept increasing. In all, by the end of the refurbishment in 2015, around £1 million had been spent on monitoring and removing asbestos.

“I would certainly support an inquiry into these findings at the National Theatre,” Ian Lavery MP, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on occupational safety and health, said. “Any occasion where the presence of asbestos is found requires serious and immediate action and those affected must receive the justice they deserve.”

Asked by Tortoise to respond, the National Theatre said that the refurbishment had allowed it to safely remove asbestos from areas that “included corridors where asbestos insulation board and debris was found sealed within the ceiling void”.

Asbestos “debris” presents an elevated health risk, as it could be inhaled unlike, say, a cohesive asbestos board. It usually requires licensed contractors for removal.

The National Theatre said that only two dressing rooms have ever had ceiling voids, that they’re no longer dressing rooms, and that they now pose a “low” health and safety risk.

“We are very sad to hear of John Harding’s illness,” the National Theatre statement read. “We were contacted by a legal firm in 2014 who did not name John as their client or raise a claim for compensation. That contact was in the form of an FOI request for information rather than a pre-action disclosure request. As the NT is not a public authority it is not subject to the FOI Act so we made contact with the solicitors to inform them of this. The solicitors confirmed the identity of their client and we notified our insurers of a potential claim but no claim was subsequently brought.”

Harding’s solicitors did not push any further for the information without which a claim was impossible. It’s now too late for his surviving family. His widow Betsan Morris Evans, one of Britain’s foremost television directors whose work has won a Bafta and been nominated for an Emmy among other awards, could have only brought a claim up until 2018 – three years after his death.

By then the National Theatre had known the location of asbestos in its structure for at least five years. While most of the material was removed from backstage areas, there is no suggestion that audience members were affected.

But it may not be too late for others.

The UK fully banned the use and import of asbestos in 1999. By then, six million tonnes had been imported. Around half of private homes, three-quarters of schools, and hundreds of thousands of other non-domestic premises are estimated to still contain asbestos.

It is to be found in the lagging on pipes and boilers, roofing, cladding, guttering, water tanks and corrugated sheets, textured wall coatings, boarding and tiling. Asbestos is often hidden or has been identified as another material. People can be exposed to it without even knowing. 

Nicola Maier, a lawyer at Irwin Mitchell who worked on Harding’s case, said: “Worryingly, given the long latency period of asbestos-related diseases, it may be many more years before we know just how lethal this secondary exposure may prove to be in terms of human suffering.”

Annual asbestos-related deaths in Britain have gone from a few hundred in the early-1980s to more than 5,000 in 2019. The Health and Safety Executive, a government agency, projected a gradual decline in deaths from this point onwards, assuming low population exposure after the first regulations on asbestos came into force in the 1980s.

“The risk to the public is now a lot lower,” Dr Rachel Orritt, Health Information Manager at Cancer Research UK, said. “We’re lucky that in the UK we have strict regulations on asbestos.”

“But we cannot be complacent”, Stephen Timms MP, who’s chairing a parliamentary inquiry into the Health and Safety Executive’s management of asbestos in public buildings, said. “The UK evidence we have received so far has called for more resources to be put into enforcing the asbestos regulations. Some have also said we need a proper UK register of asbestos and better measurement.”

Institutions like the National Theatre, especially given it said it does annual asbestos reinspections, can disclose the extent of asbestos in their buildings, making people aware of any risks and allowing victims and their families to claim support. John Harding had to spend the last months of his life trying to get hold of that information while fighting a terminal illness.

“A diagnosis of mesothelioma has a devastating impact on all aspects of a patient’s life, not only clinically but also financially,” Liz Darlison, chief executive of the charity Mesothelioma UK, said. “So, we need to support mesothelioma patients all that we can with their financial claims.”

If you believe you may have been exposed to asbestos at a theatre, please email Paul at paul@tortoisemedia.com.