Actors' Benevolent Fund

Stage Spy: The Actors’ Benevolent Fund in crisis – was it all Zoom’s fault?

The Actors’ Benevolent Fund is one of the world’s oldest charities for theatre people, having helped care for elderly actors since legendary actor manager Sir Henry Irving founded the fund in 1882.

However, the £30+ million charity is currently in crisis, with the Charity Commission launching a formal investigation, assessing concerns reported to them about the charity’s governance.

Much-loved British actress Dame Penelope Keith (The Good Life) has been President since 1990 but was ousted on 24 February in a messy coup. She had taken over from Sir Laurence Olivier in 1990 following his death in 1989. Also culled from the ruling council were actors James Bolam (The Likely Lads), Brian Murphy (George & Mildred) and Dame Siân Phillips (I, Claudius).  The credits we’ve listed – all for their famous TV appearances, do no justice to the huge amount of stage work they have all carried out during their careers.

At the centre of the crisis is a dispute around a formal complaint made by the charity’s former general secretary Jonathan Ellicott about bullying by some members of the council. An investigation by an outside human resources expert cleared the trustees, and Ellicott left last month. The interim general secretary is currently David Harvey.

Private Eye speculates in its current, 15-28 April 2022 issue about the details of Ellicott’s original bullying complaint, the 24 February meeting of the executive council, and previous episodes leading up to the bullying claim, including a 31 January 2021 meeting where some of the trustees proposed ousting Ellicott, but which failed.

The Times reported this weekend that Dame Penelope is blaming the Zoom meetings they had to have during Covid lockdowns for the mess. She said that, “The dreaded Zoom was a great problem. I loathed it… With Zoom meetings, the people who talk and talk and talk will talk and talk and talk. The people you really want to hear won’t have their say. You can’t catch their eye and raise a finger and say what do you think. That was the time the divisions started in the council. It just got worse and worse. I put a lot of this down to Zoom.”

Prior to board meetings, the trustees would usually hold private chats before formal proceedings began. “If we had any concerns we could have a chat and say by the way, I think this has happened. If there was nothing, we would have a chat about the latest play. It’s actors getting together. One of our council members said he felt the atmosphere was like going into a green room.”

The charity’s royal patron is the Prince of Wales, who took over from The Queen in 2000, and Keith is said to have alerted him of the problems.

We are yet to hear from Jackie Weaver on the crisis, and what she makes of all this. If it is crisis by Zoom, it wouldn’t be the first.

📷 Main photo: Dame Penelope Keith with the ABF’s Patron, The Prince of Wales, hosting a reception at Clarence House for the charity, 17 May 2018. Source: ABF website

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