‘This is a ticking time bomb’: why are so many entertainers forced to work past retirement age?

<span>Driven by artistic enjoyment as well as financial need … Helen Lederer, John Cleese and Alexei Sayle are still working.</span><span>Composite: Shutterstock/ Getty Images/ Murdo MacLeod</span>
Driven by artistic enjoyment as well as financial need … Helen Lederer, John Cleese and Alexei Sayle are still working.Composite: Shutterstock/ Getty Images/ Murdo MacLeod

‘The budgets were fantastic,” says Alexei Sayle, remembering making shows with the BBC in the 1980s and 90s. “We’d always go over budget and they’d just say, ‘Oh well.’ Since then, there’s been a rerouting of funds away from the talent. It doesn’t affect the superstars but it certainly affects the foot soldiers. It’s a lot harder to make a living now.”

At the age of 71, the comedian, writer and actor is still working. He feels “the drive” to create and perform, rather than financial pressure, but does notice major changes. “If you made your money in the 70s and 80s, you’ve got a better chance of being well off,” he says. Terms then were “much fairer”, with artists benefiting from residuals rather than just one-off payments.

A comedian should make about as much as a successful dentist – any more and you lose your connection with the audience

Alexei Sayle

Sayle is not the only performer working beyond the state pension age. The Monty Python stars Eric Idle and John Cleese have both claimed this year that, even after years of stage and screen success, they are skint. Idle, 81, posted on X that, although people assume he and his fellow Pythons are loaded, it’s not true: “I have to work for my living. Not easy at this age.” In an interview with Saga Magazine, Cleese, 84, described himself as “surprisingly poor” – perhaps revealing the motivation behind his new stage adaptation of Fawlty Towers.

But are they exceptions or is everyone in entertainment finding retirement out of reach? Equity, the actors’ union, certainly seems to think so. “There’s been a generational shift,” says Paul Fleming, general secretary. “Our members are being forced to do more work, for longer.”

As Idle highlighted, there is an assumption that people in entertainment must be rich. “The actual money you put in the bank from any given job sounds juicy,” says Helen Lederer, whose career in comedy and TV began in the 1980s, taking in everything from The Young Ones and Bottom to Absolutely Fabulous. “But being freelance, it comes and then it doesn’t. You are always chasing the next job, not just because of a creative urge but because it’s necessary.”

Lederer, 69, also has fond memories of the 80s. “That was when there was money,” she says. “You’d have some shit idea, then you’d do a TV pilot about it no questions asked. The paradox is: there was lots of money, but one spent it because you didn’t know it was going to stop.”

Karen Swan, 68, is still working too. She has been performing since she was 15 as a jobbing actor and a folk singer-songwriter. When people spot her in something, she says, “They assume I’m rolling in it. And that’s just not the case.” She knows others in their 60s and 70s who feel they can’t retire. “You go to a nice theatre, watch a film, see a well-produced Netflix series, and you assume the people are well paid,” says Fleming. “The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.” A 2023 study by Equity and the University of Warwick found that 94% of people in cultural and creative industries earn less than the UK median salary. Average annual earnings were just over £15,000.

Entertainment has always offered a precarious existence, with most people working from contract to contract. Over the course of a successful career, they may miss out on the things that would bring security in retirement: pensions, savings, housing. “You’ve constantly got this anxiety: what’s going to happen next?” Swan says. She has cleaned toilets and worked in department stores between creative work, struggling to accumulate savings.

Our members don’t stop being artists at the age of 65 – but royalties would allow them to work less

There is one further problem, says Giles Cooper, chairman of the Royal Variety charity – namely, the fact that most people in entertainment aren’t typically motivated by money. “Passion is more of a driving force,” he says, “than looking after your long-term security.” The charity gives hardship grants and runs Brinsworth House, a retirement home for those who have worked on stage, screen and behind the scenes, funding places for those who can’t afford them. “Some have literally nothing,” says Cooper. “They’ve spent what they have to keep themselves going between jobs.”

The charity was set up a century ago to support people working in music halls when injury, illness or old age stopped them working. “It’s curious that, after 100 years, nothing is very different,” Cooper says – although Brinsworth House’s retirees are now older than in past decades.

There are other causes for concern among workers considering retirement right now. Some don’t have a private pension and, while union pension schemes exist, Equity’s was only established in 1997, quite late into the careers of some of its older members. This used to be less of an issue, says Fleming, because many artists “had built up a de facto industry pension” in the form of “very generous royalty provisions”. Artists would be paid whenever their work was repeated on TV or sold to another network. “Our members don’t stop being artists at the age of 65,” he explains. “But royalties would allow them to do less work.”

Various changes have chipped away at these ongoing payments. In the late 90s, those who do commercial work such as voiceovers and appearing in TV adverts were dealt a devastating blow when strike action failed to prevent a scalping of pay. It was, says Fleming, “the equivalent of our miners’ strike”. More recently, the explosion in streaming services has seen audiences for individual shows shrink, thereby hitting payments dictated by viewing figures.

Then there is the streamers’ business model. “Amazon, Disney and Apple,” explains Fleming, “are producing high-quality work – but not to make money. The shows are loss leaders to encourage you to purchase Apple products or an Amazon delivery. It’s never designed to recoup.” Some pay agreements, however, depend on recoupment.

Ellen Peers, general secretary of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, says that without union clout, workers can be taken advantage of. “Emerging writers keen to get their first break are vulnerable to exploitation,” she explains. “It is imperative that they don’t sign away rights for free, and that they benefit from future sources of income such as royalties, residuals or extract fees. Our union agreements have been negotiated for writers over many years, with employers such as the BBC or theatre bodies, and more recently with global streamers like Netflix. Not only do they protect writers’ future income streams, they also mandate employers to pay pension contributions.”

Modernised deals are needed across the board, says Fleming, but they may still come too late for those retiring now. And performers with money worries often speak of having to make artistic compromises. Swan “decided a long time ago I would do the stuff people see as selling out, just to pay the bills”. This meant taking acting jobs in, say, murder mystery productions, which she says some people look down on.

“Integrity is a luxury sometimes in this business,” says Lederer. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to keep a roof over your head. Creating your own work, if you have that urge, is incredibly satisfying. Whether it makes you money is secondary.” But with age and experience, artists can also make more informed decisions about what jobs it might be best to avoid. “You can recognise a red flag,” says Lederer. “We ought to champion the perks of maturity – and that is one of them.”

Sayle echoes this point. “No one ever talks about how making money can affect your artistic output,” he says. “You can end up doing stuff just for the money. I’ve been careful never to be in that position because that means you make bad artistic choices.” He has a rule of thumb for how comedians can stay grounded: “You want to make about as much as a successful dentist. Any more and you start to lose that connection with your audience.”

He is more philosophical about the ups and downs. “I don’t want to big up exploitation,” he says. “But those cycles, when you’re in favour then you’re out, are a necessary experience for the artist. I’m lucky that a comedian can have a long career.”

I had to work while recovering from a collapsed lung – and ended up having a stroke on stage

Swan’s health means that the physical theatre she once did is impossible. Having to keep working, even through illness, had extreme consequences in 2017, when she took a theatre role while recovering from a collapsed lung. “I ended up having a stroke on stage,” she says. “It’s still really cut-throat where your health is concerned. The show must go on.”

On top of that, many older creatives find their housing situation worrying. Some took out interest-only mortgages in the 90s and 00s, says Fleming, expecting one big job would pay the loan off. “I know successful actors, now approaching their 60s, who are thinking, ‘I’m going to lose my home.’ That’s a ticking time bomb that’s about to hit. Performer-pensioner poverty is going to get worse and worse.”

State intervention is needed, says Fleming: “The government has to look at what the basic state pension and housing security look like for older people.” Swan agrees: “I’ve got a council flat I’m so grateful for. I know people who’ve lost their homes. If you’re ill and you need help, you shouldn’t have to be begging. As you get older, you need more support.” While she is unable to do many of the acting jobs that once paid the bills, she is finally in receipt of the state pension and able to focus on her music: “I’m hoping I can carry on singing and playing guitar until my last breath.”

Last month Lederer published Not That I’m Bitter, a memoir reflecting on her career in entertainment, and she continues to set herself new challenges such as establishing the Comedy Women in Print prize in 2018. “I don’t think it’s realistic to think one will be in favour throughout one’s life,” she says. “But why shouldn’t one seek meaning until you drop?”

Sayle feels similarly moved. “There’s a compulsion to carry on communicating your vision,” says the star, who is making shows for Radio 4 and has branched out into YouTube and podcasting. They’re definitely satisfying his artistic rather than his financial needs. “It’s a difficult economic model,” he says. “The first time I talked about doing podcasts, I was like, ‘How much do you pay me?’ And they said, ‘No, you pay us!’”