Working life stories: Nigel Harvey

Nigel Harvey talks to about his journey from professional football to classical music to theatre production.

Kungliga Operan i Stockholm under Kulturnatten 2018.

Nigel Harvey has had to make big changes across his working life, twice for injury reasons and more recently due to a combination of Brexit, Covid and ageism.

Yet he has a huge amount of experience and a long and fulfilling career in the performing arts.

Nigel began his working life as a professional footballer, but after a road accident in which he smashed his knee, he turned to music. Having been brought up in the Salvation Army, he was used to playing musical instruments and spent the weeks after his accident with his leg in plaster practising the tuba.

He got so good at it that he won a scholarship to study abroad. He was initially planning to move to the US, but his mum was diagnosed with cancer and he wanted to stay nearer so he opted to go to Sweden instead. He didn’t get on with his teacher, however, so he changed tack again. He got into the Royal College of Music in Stockholm and began working as a professional musician in concert orchestras and at the opera.

But misfortune struck again in 1998 when he broke his hand, meaning he couldn’t play. He says it was really difficult to change career both as a footballer and a musician, although he was more mature the second time around. He pivoted to orchestra administration where he also worked on outreach and educational development.

Then he went back to college and studied theatre. He spent six months in London working as an apprentice for the innovative theatre group Complicité before returning to Sweden and setting up his own company. Through that he directed shows, did educational outreach in schools and ran motivational workshops for corporate companies, dubbed ‘info-tainment’ where he would create dramas around products to help make their product presentations look “more cool”. That developed into happenings at conferences, involving musicians who helped co-create events with the audience.

Back in the UK

Nigel moved back to the UK in 2016 because his girlfriend was starting a course here. Initially he got a contract to work on an EU project in schools and continued to do the co-creation conferences. He also had a six-month stint as a co-director and orchestral manager of an opera production in Sweden which was likely to be extended. But the Covid pandemic put paid to all of that work.

Nigel was caught in a Brexit-Covid nexus. Because of Brexit he couldn’t get his tax credits in Sweden transferred to the UK and he was ineligible for furlough. He had to rely on his girlfriend’s income and his savings for two years. Eventually he got a six-month contract to work on the Shaw Trust’s JETS programme to help the unemployed into work, but the government funding ended shortly afterwards.

Nigel has been unemployed since November and has spent that time trying to get back into the performing arts and writing. But it has been hard work. The industry has been hard hit funding wise by Covid and Brexit and feels “a bit hostile”, he says. “There is a lot of neglect and negligence.”

He has also pivoted again, doing a counselling course. “Counselling is not my first choice, but I do feel passionately about what is going on in the UK when it comes to mental health,” he says.

Other barriers he has faced include the culture in the UK, for instance, Nigel says schools won’t take him on because he doesn’t have a teaching qualification despite working in Swedish schools for 25 years and his experience of recruitment agencies is not generally positive. He complains that they are overly bureaucratic and don’t care about the individual’s experience. What’s more, he thinks government policy on retraining is not reaching the people who need it and that arts organisations are too defeatist and narrow-minded.

He has found himself being turned down for administrative jobs in the performing arts because of his experience on the artistic side. His age – 62 – is also a big factor. Part of it is to do with the lack of funding in the arts, he thinks.  “I am going for jobs below my experience where there is often a salary range and if they can get someone younger on a lesser salary I tend to be overlooked,” he says. “They are so concerned about the funding that they don’t have time to spend on recruiting and tend to go for people they know. Sometimes at interview you get the feeling the job has already been given to someone else.”

He adds:  “I can understand that financially it makes sense to get someone cheaper, but it is not the way to move forward.” He cites an experience of being turned down for a job and being approached six weeks later when the person given the job – a graduate – was found not to be able to do it.

Resourceful and creative

Nigel’s experience is certainly a sobering reminder of the problems facing many older workers, particularly in sectors that have been so badly affected by Brexit and Covid. Yet he has been hugely resourceful and creative throughout his career, reinventing himself again and again.

In the last few weeks, he has been offered a role as a learning mentor in a further education college and he has three other roles for which he is up for consideration, including a role as a lecturer in performing arts. It has taken a long time to get to that point when he has so much to offer. “It’s very sad,” he says.

*Picture credit: The Royal Opera in Stockholm during the Culture Night 2018 by Frankie Fouganthin courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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