Interviews Archive

Ambassador Theatre Group Changes Course

With the news that the bosses of Ambassador Theatre Group, the world’s largest live theatre company, are stepping down from the business they founded after 25 years has sent mixed messages out across the industry. Anyone that has experience of the cutthroat world of investment knows that there are only two criteria for success, a bottom line (profit) that is sufficient to significantly drive the valuation of the company up (what it can be sold for) and the valuation of the assets on the company’s books (the theatres). None of which has anything to do with artistic merit, just a paying public and bricks and mortar.

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With Ambassador Theatre Group co-founders, Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire, being replaced as joint chief executives by a corporate business leader, Mark Cornell, the die is cast. The BBC’s former director-general Greg Dyke will stay on as chairman. The industry sees some positives from this move with the expectation that the company may focus less on the production of shows, giving the independents more of an opportunity. But this I doubt – remember profit is the driver and if you produce your own shows you retain a larger share of the wallet and ATG has its own production company and significant investments in others.

ATG first engaged with the world of investment in the early days, when there were many opportunities to acquire prime theatres. In 2000 investment from UK companies AREA Property Partners and Carlton Television facilitated the purchase of a number of West End houses, a more significant investment partner came on board in 2009, British company Exponent provided funds for expansion including the £90m acquisition of the UK property portfolio of Live Nation.

Exponent sold a significant portion of their holding in ATG, when In October 2013 a record-breaking deal for a UK theatre when the company was valued at £350m, by American private equity firm, Rhode Island’s Providence Equity who became the majority stakeholder in the company while leaving Exponent with an 18% stake.

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So what about Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire? Well there are a number of messages that can be read into the statements issued by the various parties – they will remain a part of ATG – yes, as non-executive directors, they will attend board meetings, but with their limited  number of shares and no executive roles will have little impact: a corporate attempt at ensuring continuity and convincing all that there is total harmony. They have also been given the opportunity to buy the worst performing asset on ATG’s books, the Trafalgar Studios in London’s Whitehall and run it independently.

In their place, corporate itinerant Mark Cornell has taken over as chief executive, while theatre marketer Adam Kenwright has been appointed as executive vice president, having been CEO of AKA acquired by Providence in December 2015.

Since the initial involvement of Exponent there has been a switch of focus from the UK to the international market, something that is likely to accelerate under the new corporate ownership and management. This is probably another reason that the money people decided it was time for a change in the management of the company. Both Providence Equity and their ATG CEO have experience in the Asia/Pacific region where they both believe there is a huge untapped market for their brand, experience and productions.

So who are these people that have taken control of Britain’s most significant theatre company? What is it that they have bought? What happens should it go wrong?

Let’s look at the money; Providence Equity are a US investment company founded in Rhode Island by billionaire media mogul, Jonathan M. Nelson. In 2000, Providence oversaw just $3.6 billion. A single fund raised in 2005 amassed $4.26 billion. Two years later, it raised $12 billion more — in just three months. By 2007, the firm had nearly $21 billion in private equity assets under management. It also started a credit arm, which quickly attracted billions to invest in fixed-income securities.

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The money catapulted Providence from a boutique into a megafund, allowing it to compete for deals with larger firms. Providence charged into the fray, investing half of the $12 billion fund in just two years. Providence delved into areas like health care, Internet retailing and child care, often paying hefty sums for companies in sectors in which it had scant experience.

“The risk during this time wasn’t just style drift, it was quality drift,” said Peter Keehn, the head of private equity at Allstate Investments, who wasn’t speaking specifically about Providence. “After raising these big funds, if you couldn’t find assets that were exactly what you were dying to own, then you started to look at assets that were close to what you’d like to own.”

As Providence grew, Mr. Nelson looked to expand the firm’s Manhattan offices where they are based. The firm was outgrowing its space in the Lever House, a glass-box skyscraper on Park Avenue. (It’s nicknamed “the leverage house” for the numerous private equity and hedge funds housed there.).

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Mr. Nelson moved the firm to the swooping tower at 9 West 57th Street, among the world’s most prestigious business addresses. The firm leased the entire 47th floor, placing it several floors above its rival. In the summer of 2007, Providence struck what would have been the largest buyout deal in history, the $51 billion takeover of BCE, parent of the phone giant Bell Canada. Not long afterward, Mr. Nelson appeared on the cover of Fortune magazine alongside the headline “The Biggest Deal Ever.”

That Fortune issue became a collector’s item — because the deal never happened. The BCE buyout fell apart in the ensuing credit crisis. Still, during the height of the frothy markets, Providence completed a number of deals, and none was worse than Altegrity

In 2007, Providence paid $1.5 billion for U.S. Investigations Services, a former branch of the federal government. Privatized in the 1990s, it provided background checks for government employees requiring security clearances. Providence began adding related businesses onto USIS to create a bigger, more diverse entity it renamed Altegrity. First came the commercial background-checking firm HireRight. Next, in 2010, it bought the investigative firm Kroll for $1.1 billion. The three business entities coexisted, albeit not always peacefully. Several Altegrity managers have said they butted heads with Providence partners over everything from strategy, to acquisitions, to sales of business lines.

Altegrity took a major public relations hit after revelations that it had performed the background checks on Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked documents to journalists, and Aaron Alexis, the Washington Navy Yard shooter who killed 12 people in 2013. USIS said the background checks were conducted in strict accordance with a government-dictated contract. The final straw was a hacking attack on USIS, which led the government to withdraw its contracts. With the loss of that business, and buckling under $1.8 billion in debt, Altegrity filed for bankruptcy protecti

Providence executives blame events largely outside their control for Altegrity’s failure. But they also all agree the firm shouldn’t have made the deal in the first place. “We didn’t have a particular expertise in that area,” Mr. Nelson acknowledged. Providence and its investors are still paying for the firm’s overreaching into areas outside media and technology. The performance of the 2005 fund is abysmal. With an annual return of 3.5 percent after fees, it sits near the bottom of its peer group.

The 2007 $12 billion vehicle is also struggling, returning about 6 percent annually. For now, those two funds rank in the bottom quartile of other similarly sized global funds from the same year, according to an analysis by the research firm PitchBook. But some investors expect that performance to improve on potential gains on several investments including Asurion, a cellphone insurer; ZeniMax Media, a video gaming company; and wireless tower companies in India and Latin America.

For a lesser private equity player, back-to-back bottom-quartile funds would have spelled a firm’s demise. Providence survived, though raising a new fund was a slog. Several past investors declined, including the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, which had a total of $1 billion invested in the 2005 and 2007 funds, according to the online fund-raising firm Palico.

But others, including pension funds in Washington, Florida and Illinois, increased their investments in the new fund. A handful of others, including Florida and the State Teachers Retirement System of Ohio, went a step further, taking an ownership stake in Providence itself. Mr. Nelson sounds energized when discussing the future of media. The firm has been betting on demand for premium sports content, leading to investments in Major League Soccer, the company that runs the Ironman triathlon races, and Learfield Sports, which owns rights to college sports programming. While still in its early days, Providence’s 2013 fund has posted annual returns of 20 percent on paper.

Like many of the world’s largest private equity companies that started in the 1980s and 1990s, Providence is also dealing with succession issues. A nagging problem it has faced is how to retain top talent when its leaders show no signs of moving on. In recent years, the firm saw talented people leave, some for new jobs, others because they specialized in areas Providence was no longer focusing on. Still others were frustrated that the firm’s leaders continued to reap much of the profits in the 2013 fund.

In 2013 the US buyout house entered London’s West End theatre stage with the acquisition of Ambassador Theatre Group, and plans to boost its presence on Broadway and in Asia. The deal values the company at about £350m including debt. Providence’s swift move highlights the intense competition among private equity groups for assets in Europe, where about 60 per cent of new buyouts in value are companies sold by other private equity groups in so-called secondary deals. As with all buyout fund managers, with the ATG property portfolio Providence were able to secure a debt package from Banks to fund a significant portion of the acquisition.

Providence’s focus on the sector was viewed by the company’s management as an advantage. The private equity group invests a $5bn buyout fund targeting media and telecommunications assets. At the time,” ATG’s joint chief executives, Sir Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire were quoted as saying “Providence’s extensive global reach and its existing investments in media, digital and entertainment companies around the world offer an unparalleled opportunity for ATG to realise its international ambitions”.

Let’s look at the people; the new CEO, Mark Cornell seems to have a chequered track record. He started his career patrolling the streets in Northern Ireland as a British Army Captain engaged in counter-terrorist operations, went on to lead newspaper distribution in London for WHSmith, then took aim at an MBA to launch into luxury goods. In 1999 Mark Cornell gained an MBA from IMD having convinced the Admissions Director to take him on even though he lacked a university degree.

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Upon graduating at the age of 32, he gained employment with luxury goods leader LVMH. He started in strategy and business development but soon distinguished himself by being part of the team that turned around Hine Cognac, a product then in difficulty. In 2002, he went on to become an executive of one of the world’s finest champagnes, Krug. Mark’s decade with LVMH was capped by five years as President and CEO of New York-based Moet Hennessy USA.

Mark left LVMH to seek new challenges and in May 2011 the right opportunity came from Monaco-based Edmiston & Company, the privately-held company is recognised as a global leader in the sale, charter and management of super yachts. Attracted by the prospect of rapid growth and future potential in the industry, Mark became CEO in May 2011. The challenges included building a strong commercial team to expand into Asia, Russia and the Middle East. After just one year in  May 2012, Mark Cornell left his position as Chief Executive Officer of Edmiston & Company. At the time the company said, “Mark Cornell has decided to leave the business”, although they would not expand on the reasoning behind the decision.

It was in July 2013 that Cornell gained his next position as managing director of Sotheby’s Europe, which he left in March 2015. His appointment as CEO of ATG in May 2016 seems strange to many. It is difficult to see what he brings to the business, his business expertise being the management of a “brand” or a division of a company, no industry expertise and possibly of greatest concern what looks like a shaky past 5 years.

 

New Executive Vice-President Adam Kenwright makes the transition from determined marketer to the number two position and business guru in the world’s largest theatre company. He has built up a global entertainment agency over two decades, from a single borrowed desk in a friend’s London office to branches in New York, Sydney, Melbourne, Manchester and Edinburgh, soon to be joined by Berlin and Cologne. At the time of the Providence acquisition Adam Kenwright Associates’ workforce numbered 380.

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A far cry from the days when he hoped to become a professional footballer. He played in goal for England schoolboys and had trials with Arsenal, Everton and other teams, but he could not cut the mustard. “I loved it, but now I am glad that I was not good enough to make it, because it meant that I followed the career I have today,” he said.

While his main focus has been concerned with putting more bums on seats, in recent years he turned his attentions to attracting clients such as the British Museum, OnBlackheath Music Festival, the National Gallery and the Imperial War Museum. Kenwright sees diversification as a means of pooling resources. “The people visiting the British Museum aren’t a million miles from the audience seeing a show at the National, or in the West End,” he says. “If we’re all working together towards a mutual goal, we can be more efficient with our marketing spend.” The comment perfectly encapsulates the Kenwright vision of art and commerce cosily co-existing to their mutual benefit. Music to an institutional investors ears.

Upon securing investment from Providence Equity they said Kenwright would remain both AKA’s chief executive and chairman, adding “AKA will continue to operate as a third-party marketing agency, retaining its brand identity.”

However, the deal has been questioned by some within the sector, who claim marketing should be completely independent of theatre companies. Many did not think the sale was good news for producers or ticket agents. At the time the thinking was that as the owners of ATG, there is concern that Providence are also now taking a controlling interest in AKA. You really want your marketing agency to be independent, and to operate on a level playing field, and that has just changed.” Something that is likely to be further underscored by Kenwright’s ATG appointment.

Kenwright’s career has meant rubbing shoulders with the stars at awards nights, commuting to New York each month and running a global entertainment agency with an annual turnover of more than £40m. But it all began with an after-school job at his uncle’s business, Bill Kenwright’s production company and developed into a long term career opportunity giving him an insight into practically every aspect of the business. It all came to an acrimonious end when Adam wanted more independence and an opportunity to exploit his creative ambitions. At that time he was in charge of publicity and marketing for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat all over the UK, focusing on investment for marketing and advertising in the regions. His decision to break away from the mighty Kenwright production factory did not find favour with his uncle. Bill Kenwright was reported as saying “If you get a job in the theatre I’ll never speak to you as long as you live. I’ll do everything to stop you.”

Now, the current situation could be interesting as ATG are the biggest takers of Bill Kenwright Productions; let’s hope that Uncle and Nephew are both man enough to let bygones be bygones or there could be more changes on the domestic theatre front.

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How the Ambassador Theatre Group looks today; from their beginnings in a development site in Woking Surrey, Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire have built a company that has continued to grow and weather whatever storms the UK economy has hit us with. It was around 1990 when they were engaged to work on a development in Woking, Surrey, that was to include an arts and entertainment complex, which they would plan and manage. The Woking development was completed in 1992 and Panter and Squire set up an organisation to run the New Victoria Theatre, Rhoda McGraw Theatre and the Ambassador Cinemas (hence the name Ambassador Theatre Group being adopted). The foundations of the ATG company was established with founding investors including Eddie Kulukundis.

In the same year ATG bought the Duke of York’s Theatre from Capital Radio, with significant support from Kulukundis. In 1995, ATG bought its second London theatre, the Ambassadors. The company also bid successfully for contracts to manage new theatres being launched in Milton Keynes and Stoke-on-Trent.

ATG underwent major expansion in 2000 through the acquisition of seven West End theatres from Associated Capital Theatres (ACT): the Albery (now named the Noël Coward), the Comedy (now named the Harold Pinter), Donmar Warehouse, Phoenix, Piccadilly, Whitehall (now Trafalgar Studios) and Wyndham’s theatres. Expansion required the involvement of larger corporate investors. Subsequent deals included taking on the running of theatres in Bromley, Richmond and Glasgow.

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In November 2009, ATG consolidated its position as the major UK theatre owner by purchasing the Live Nation UK theatre portfolio of 16 venues in England and Scotland in a £90 million acquisition. Live Nation sold the theatres as part of a business decision of “selling off assets that are not core to our live music strategy”. At that time UK investment firm Exponent Private Equity became the new majority owner of ATG by financing the theatre takeover. Exponent provided at least £75m of financing for the deal, which valued ATG at £150m. Coinciding with the expansion, former BBC director general Greg Dyke joined ATG in a new role of executive chairman.

Potential competition concerns led to an investigation by the UK Office of Fair Trading (OFT). Its conclusion was that it did not believe that it had or may be expected to result in a substantial lessening of competition within a market or markets in the UK.

In 2012, ATG indicated an intention to expand into international theatre ownership, possibly in Australia and China. This included the appointment of Tim McFarlane as CEO for ATG Asia/Pacific. In November 2012 it was announced ATG would be establishing a regional headquarters in Sydney.

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ATG’s acquisition of Broadway’s Foxwoods Theatre in May 2013 heralded the group’s US debut, with Panter commenting, “Ownership of The Foxwoods Theatre within the group will provide a catalyst to expand in the North American market.”  (In March 2014, ATG renamed Foxwoods the Lyric Theatre, following the end of a sponsorship deal between the Foxwoods casino and the theatre’s previous landlord, Live Nation.).

In August 2015, ATG became leaseholder and took over the management of the Theatre Royal, Sydney’s oldest theatrical institution – marking ATG’s first theatre in Asia Pacific. [In September of the same year, ATG acquired ACE Theatrical Group (ACE), a company which specialises in the operation, design, development and construction of world-class, live performance venues throughout North America, comprising of the King’s Theatre in Brooklyn, New York; the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans, Louisiana; the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts in New Orleans, Louisiana; the Majestic Theatre in San Antonio, Texas; and the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre in San Antonio, Texas.

In December 2015, ATG announced that it was to reopen and operate Broadway’s historic Hudson Theatre. Through its subsidiary, Hudson Theatre LLC, ATG has entered a long-term lease for The Hudson Theatre, its second theatre on Broadway, from a subsidiary of Millennium & Copthorne Hotels plc group of companies (M&C). M&C and ATG will be, in a multi-million dollar project, restoring the landmark venue to its former glory as a Broadway playhouse. The once-derelict Kings Theatre, in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighbourhood, reopened in February after an extensive restoration.

In terms of ownership, it is often unclear whether ATG own the freehold to a theatre or a leasehold: reports use terms such as buy, purchase and own, but rarely specify whether they are referring to the freehold or to a leasehold.

The introduction of an external investment company has changed the nature of the business. ATG’s business model involves the combination of theatre ownership with production management, marketing and ticket operations. ATG manage (and in some cases own) venues, mainly theatres, which host shows for paying audiences, including but not exclusively limited to shows created by its production functions; ATG’s production functions create shows, which are hired out for performance at theatres including but not exclusively limited to theatres managed by ATG; and ATG’s ticketing and marketing function sells and charges fees for selling the more than 11 million tickets a year, for venues, including but not exclusively limited to venues owned by ATG.

In the 2014-15 Broadway season, Ambassador was a co-producer with Lincoln Center Theater of “The King and I,” just one show of about 35 each year that it produces or coproduces. With numerous affiliate partner companies and their subsidiary Sonia Friedman Productions, ATG has supported hit shows on Broadway and in the West End, such as the U.K. premiere of “The Book of Mormon.”.

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Sonia Friedman Productions, was formed in 2002 and is a subsidiary of the Ambassador Theatre Group. A West End and Broadway production company responsible for some of the most successful theatre productions in London and on Broadway over the past few years. Led by Sonia Friedman who is regularly credited in the media as one of the most powerful, innovative and influential producers working in British theatre and since 1990 has produced over 130 new productions that have won numerous Olivier and Tony Awards.

ATG has its own producing arm, ATG Productions. ATG ’s production activities expanded with the launch of Theatre Royal Brighton Productions and the formation of producing partnerships with directors Jerry Mitchell and Jamie Lloyd in 2011 and 2012. ATG has a number of major production company initiatives / partnerships including Jerry Mitchell Productions, Theatre Royal Brighton Productions and Jaime Lloyd Productions. ATG also owns a major national family entertainment and pantomime company, First Family Entertainment

ATG is the majority shareholder of BB Group, one of the leading producers and promoters of premium live entertainment in Europe, with a particular strength in touring musicals and dance productions throughout Germany, Austria and Switzerland. BB Group productions include West Side Story, We Will Rock You, The Rocky Horror Show, Cats, The Lion King, The Bodyguard and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Ballet Revolución,: Also, BB Group has won the tender to re-develop the Staatenhaus in Cologne as a 1700-seat theatre.

But it is by producing tours of shows like the Broadway musical “Jersey Boys” that the company can send live entertainment to its venues, and others, throughout the U.K. Similarly, by acquiring stages in the U.S. that are large enough to present Broadway tours, Ambassador can send out work that it backed, such as “The King and I.”

“The objective, long term, is to produce more work in the U.S.”. While several of their new American venues can host Broadway shows, the mix will be broad, ranging from ballet and opera to pop and comedy.

ATG has demonstrated a commitment to the (often historic) buildings that it manages. In 2009, the Theatres Trust, the National Advisory Public Body for theatres in the UK, stated that it “works regularly with ATG, advising them on their plans for maintenance and care of their theatres. As well as having a good record of looking after its theatres, the company has also been a leader in promoting environmental best practice and reducing their theatres’ carbon emissions.” ATG also uses a “restoration levy” on tickets to raise funds to upgrade the theatres that they manage.

ATG have won awards for staff training including the 2005 Excellence in Workforce Development Award from the Learning and Skills Council. The company has displayed commitment to innovation, with examples including the pioneering of ergonomically improved seats, adapted theatre performances for children with autism disorders and the ‘ATG Theatre Card’ loyalty program.

It will be interesting to see if such inward investments continue under the new management who will, no doubt, be incentivised on short term financial objectives and new market achievements.

Since the American money arrived a few years back the largest theatre company in the UK has been accused of exploiting audiences, charging “ramped up” booking fees. The business model includes levying an additional per minute service fee on all telephone bookings and pre-sales enquiries through the use of 0844 numbers, with a total call cost to customers of up to 52p per minute. This includes the helpline for disabled customers seeking information of accessibility issues. They have even billed performers for water drunk on stage.

ATG were quick to adopt the Broadway habit of holding back the best seats from general sale and labelling them as premium at a significantly higher price than the supposedly “best seats”. Something that has infuriated the public and the industry in general.

One independent producer infuriated by an ATG manager’s request for free tickets to an Edinburgh show rejected the request, writing: “Why the hell should I?” before expressing his exasperation at the theatre giant’s drive to squeeze higher profits out of their venues. “No-one gets a free ride at an ATG theatre,” he wrote. “Nowadays, no aspect of the ATG experience as audience member/performer/producer is not monetised, priced-up and charged for.”

The producer continued by saying that private equity companies tended to look to short term returns and “that’s not really how it works in the theatre industry”. He pointed to Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cameron Mackintosh and Nica Burns as examples of theatre owners who “understand the theatre and take the view that it is a long-term project”.

ATG has come under fire in the past few years from performers over the booking fees, some saying they would never play at a venue run by the company again. Other complaints pointed to performers being charged £15 a day for dressing room Wi-Fi and the charging for the water taken on stage during a performance. “It’s not about the £15 or the £1.80, the resentment that dwells in our breast is a lot deeper than that,” he added.

As we look to the future we need to be cautious. Big isn’t always best and expansion into new and untried territories can be fraught with dangers and takes time, unfortunately ATG does not appear to have the appropriate leadership to maximise success, although they do have an investor with deep pockets they won’t have a lot of time. As with the involvement of most investment firms focus shifts away from the product and looks to minimise inward investment whilst attempting to expand and diversify – building on a brand. In doing so they are prepared to sacrifice the heart and soul of a company replacing the inspiration with hard nosed “marketing” and “numbers” people to continuously drive the bottom line and asset value; because one day and that day might be soon they will need to sell the company and that is not always for the right reasons. It could be that because of poor performance in other parts of the investment portfolio they need to realise their assets or they are unable to service their bank loans and the bank could call in the debt and take control of the property portfolio which would have to be sold, probably piecemeal and quite likely to developers in order to get the best price. Not a good outcome but something that could have a disastrous impact on every aspect of Britain’s theatre scene.

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As far as the UK operation is concerned it is probable that the West End theatres, Apollo Victoria, Donmar Warehouse, Duke Of Yorks, Fortune, Harold Pinter, Lyceum, Phoenix, Piccadilly, Playhouse, Savoy and Wyndhams would all find buyers, singly or in groups. The problem will be in the provinces where ATG have a dominant presence – Aylesbury, Brighton, Bristol, Bromley, Folkestone, Liverpool, Milton Keynes, Oxford, Richmond, Southport, Stoke, Sunderland, Torquay, Wimbledon, Woking and York could lose their only touring theatres, in Birmingham the New Alexandra would be threatened as would the Playhouse in Edinburgh whilst in Manchester and Glasgow the two main theatres in each city could be lost.

What leads to this conclusion is that the development value of these city centre properties is dramatically higher than if they were to be sold as on-going businesses. Local authorities and independent groups may be outraged, but in today’s era of austerity they don’t have the necessary funds and organisations such as the Heritage Lottery Fund don’t have the ability to bail out every situation.

The short term impact on touring productions would be significant as it is doubtful whether the remaining No1 houses in Plymouth, Southampton, Cardiff, Eastbourne, Canterbury, Newcastle, Northampton, Nottingham, Blackpool, Belfast and Dublin could sustain the costs of major productions. Let’s hope that Providence Equity have made the right choices and the right decisions in taking this very important business forward, because if they haven’t, the face of British theatre-going could change forever and not for the good.

An impromptu meet up with Phillip Schofield

He may be showbiz royalty, but even Phillip Schofield gets starstruck by some of the Queen’s most decorated citizens.

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 Returning to the stage after a 15 year hiatus to present The Knights of Music, a celebration of the Knights and Dames of the entertainment industry and their music, he has revealed how a chance encounter with one legendary impresario led to his big break in musical theatre.

 “I’ve met quite a few of these Knights, Lords and Dames responsible for some of the most extraordinary music.

 “I’ll never forget the moment when I got the phone call asking if I could audition for Joseph in front of Andrew Lloyd Webber!  “I’d recently been to see Jason Donovan at The Palladium. We were both a bit younger then and I was the same market for his fans who went to see Joseph. I had to be rescued from the audience! It was a long time ago and that doesn’t happen to me anymore! It created something of a stir!

 “When he found out Jason was going to have six weeks off, he said what about Phillip Schofield? Find out if he can sing!

 “When it came to it, I was very scared. I forgot the last verse of Any Dream Will Do and I kept going round and round and round. I had to be stopped in the end. Sort of shot like a rabid dog, really! He said I think that’s enough and I thought I’d blown it.”

 Despite the shaky start, the 54-year-old went on to be a huge success in the title role in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, attracting sell out audiences on his mid 90s Mayflower summer season. “I was there for a season with Doctor Dolittle as well and it’s such a lovely theatre. As soon as I knew we were doing this show, I was keen to see if the Mayflower was available.

“I’ve turned down so many West End shows because of a lack of time that they’ve stopped asking. But all the planets were in alignment for this one! “I love a bit of nostalgia so it will be great to go back. I remember we used to always go to the restaurant across the road for a bite to eat and I remember my young daughters wandering about backstage in awe of Ria Jones (the West End star who made her name as the narrator in Joseph).”

 His daughters Molly, 22, and Ruby, who is 20, with wife of more than two decades Stephanie Lowe, are used to the limelight these days.

 “Oh they are so over it,” Phillip laughs.

 “My older daughter works in my management company and she’s as non-plussed as anything! She’s been used to it her whole life. Sometimes I say did you see my new show last night and she’ll say no sorry I was out! Not that I care. We’re all very normal with our feet on the ground.

 “I suppose occasionally we get nice holidays. When your kids are in their early 20s and you dangle the carrot of a nice holiday, they never leave!”

 Their Dad boasts an impressive CV. He has come a long way since deciding at the age of ten a career in broadcasting was for him and bombarding the BBC with letters. He landed a job as a bookings clerk, at 17, he was the youngest person in the building. It was only four months before he was in the Broom Cupboard presenting live children’s TV.

These days, Phillip is one of the principle faces for ITV. Presenting This Morning and Dancing on Ice alongside Holly Willoughby, as well as The Cube, Mr & Mrs and new hit Back in the Room as a solo host.

 After more than 30 years in television, he’s allowed the odd wild night – or morning. Worse for wear Phillip and Holly famously presented This Morning in their stained National Television Awards outfits after a boozy night out earlier this year.

 “It was a good one,” he laughs. “That’s definitely something you can’t do regularly, but I’m very pleased we have an understanding employer. The most important thing for us was that we still had control, we wouldn’t have gone on TV otherwise. “We got away with it, but it was scary! I’ve never done that in my whole life. I think I’ve done This Morning twice with a bit of a hangover, but never still under the influence! It was quite frightening. I’m normally very professional, so it was scary to be a bit out of control.”

Phillip’s dream This Morning interviewee would be Dame Shirley Bassey, another music legend whose songs appear in The Knights of Music.

If he bows to pressure to sing at the Mayflower, as he wil, he’lll have learnt from the best.

 “I met Sir Paul McCartney when I was doing Saturday Morning. It’s quite special when you meet them for the first time and they’re what you expect them to be. There’s nothing worse than being disappointed by someone you’re a big fan of. He was lovely. “But the only singing I suppose was with Tom Jones. Well he was singing. We went to the rugby together and Wales thrashed us! The rugby was awful, the company was brilliant.”

Recognition of the Stagehand

The stagehand is someone that seldom gets recognition in the theatre and certainly not from the audience, yet without them most musicals could never take place. This is particularly true in the provinces where each week a show has to be packed into a fleet of juggernauts in order that they can travel to their next destination to be unpacked and delivered into the theatre and then assembled before any rehearsal can take place. Typically a show will close at around 10pm on a Saturday and open again at 7.30 on the Monday at a theatre maybe several hundreds of miles away.

 

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Take a look back at the task in 1960 where the US touring production of My Fair Lady is in Washington DC in an AFL-CIO film that goes backstage for a close look at the work the members of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) perform from “play in” to curtain up.

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We are hopeful of being able to bring an up to date perspective of the “get in” and “breakdown” for a current British production shortly.

Cameron Mackintosh, a profile, as he approaches his 70th birthday

London’s Financial Times’ chief business commentator John Gapper profiles the life and career of theatre impresario Cameron Mackintosh. This was first published in the FT on 15th January 2016.

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Cameron Mackintosh is driving through December drizzle on his 1,630-acre Somerset estate when a grey shape looms across a field, opposite the 13th-century priory where he lives. It is a plaster and polystyrene elephant — 15m high with a howdah carriage on its back — the one in which the street urchin Gavroche sheltered in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. It was built for the 2012 film of the musical that Mackintosh first produced with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1985.
“It came down on four lorries and it took ages to put together again. The only thing I didn’t think about is that the bloody woodpeckers think it’s a piece of timber. We keep on having to patch it up,” Mackintosh says. He laughs and keeps driving his Lexus crossover along his private roads through the two dairy farms he owns, around hilly bends to two large barns. Inside one, now pristine and air-conditioned, he leads the way to what looks at first glance like a pile of old wood.

This is the deconstructed set of the 1965 touring production of Oliver!, the Lionel Bart musical on which he worked as an assistant stage manager at 19, while also playing the role of a pot boy. “To Cameron, the man who gets things done,” reads one encouraging message scribbled by an actor on the poster that hangs on a wall in the adjacent barn. Together, the barns contain not only the costumes but the stage sets for his musicals, along with an ever-expanding archive of memorabilia.
We pass racks of costumes for Les Misérables, Miss Saigon and others, and pore over boxes of stage props. Here is another elephant; here an eagle; there a Cadillac from Miss Saigon together with boxed bottles of Saigon beer. Much is still in use on touring productions and storing it here has his signature blend of sentiment and financial logic. He used to rent storage space but his costumes got damp.

As a young stage manager, Oliver! almost finished Mackintosh. His right arm got trapped in a piece of scenery during rehearsals at the King’s Theatre, Southsea, and he was hoisted into the air, nearly slamming his head against a beam. As a producer, it made him. In 1977, he launched a revival of Oliver! and later acquired 50 per cent of the rights. The deal has paid immense dividends — along with his other shows, it has brought him hundreds of millions of pounds.

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Since that first revival, when his name was still sewn in the back of the pot boy’s costume, he has produced Oliver! several times in the West End and on Broadway and is working on a remake of the 1968 film. Each year, there are many professional, amateur and school productions and he profits from every one. Like the other big three productions that made him a billionaire — Les Misérables, Miss Saigon and Mary Poppins — Oliver! just keeps going.

No one in the West End or on Broadway — with the possible exception of Andrew Lloyd Webber, his old partner and rival with whom he has a close but sometimes fractious relationship — understands the value of a franchise like Mackintosh. Early in his career, as he was making his name with productions of other people’s shows, the American lyricist Alan Jay Lerner congratulated him on one succès d’estime. “You know what a succès d’estime is, don’t you?” Lerner continued slyly. “A success that runs out of steam.”

With Cats, Les Mis and the rest, Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh created a new category of theatrical entertainment — musicals that never run out of steam. Since 1981, when Cats became a global phenomenon, Mackintosh has become the master of reinvention, pushing the lives of his franchises for decades longer than anyone had previously believed was possible, and extending his grip over every aspect of their exploitation.

“Cameron helped to create the success story of the current West End theatre. His shows have become global earners and proof to the world of the talent and imagination of which Britain is capable,” says John Kampfner, chief executive of the Creative Industries Federation, a membership group for UK arts and creative organisations. “He remains a genuine enthusiast — he wants the whole sector to succeed.”

This does not mean he is universally popular. “He’s very dynamic, very opinionated and very forceful. Those qualities can be constructive, and they can also cause frictions,” says Robert Fox, the West End play producer. “He has a clear view of how things should be and likes people to follow it. It does not always make him loved but I don’t suppose that bothers him. He’s got an enormously kind and supportive side as well as the tough one.”

After five decades of work, Mackintosh is easing off a touch but remains a restless bundle of energy. He is the sole owner of his business, Cameron Mackintosh Limited, which paid him a dividend of £13m last year, and he likes to have a say in every aspect of it. He is cocooned and supported by a coterie of executives who have worked under him for years, sometimes exasperated by his unpredictable whims — “I would never make a bet on what Cameron will decide,” says one — but loyal.

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He turns 70 this year and, like Fagin in the Oliver! song, he is reviewing the situation, with some satisfaction. Lounging in an armchair in Stavordale Priory, the former monastery he bought with the proceeds of Les Misérables, he breaks into a warble about his impending birthday. “Must come a time . . . Seventy. When you’re old, and it’s cold/And who cares if you live or you die,” he croons. He halts before the next two lines of the song, “Your one consolation’s the money/You may have put by . . . ”

The money would be quite a consolation, if he did not adore his work. Producing is a risky profession — it is difficult to conjure up a hit and many have gone bankrupt or watched their businesses dwindle as they lost touch with a new generation’s taste. Yet measured in cash, Mackintosh is the most successful the West End has known — he is a mere knight to Lloyd Webber’s baron but his wealth was estimated at £1.05bn in 2015 by The Sunday Times, beating Lloyd Webber’s £650m.

This largely compensates for the likelihood that Mackintosh’s best period as a producer is over — largely but not entirely. He wriggles indignantly in his chair at the idea. “Even very sophisticated people ask, ‘Are you doing anything new?’ But they’re wrong. They’re very wrong,” he retorts, waving both hands. “Look: A, I’ve reinvented all the original hits so they are successful and, B, I’ve done a number of new musicals.” He cites Half a Sixpence, which premieres in Chichester this year. It has been reworked by Julian Fellowes, writer of Downton Abbey, from the 1963 musical based on HG Wells’s novel Kipps.

Still, the last work to join his blockbusters was Mary Poppins, which opened in 2004 after he bought the rights from Pamela Travers, the author, in 1994. Martin Guerre, a musical about a 16th-century French peasant written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, the team behind Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, closed after two years in 1998. Moby Dick, about a girls’ school musical of the Herman Melville novel, failed in 1993. More recently, he has brought US hits such as Avenue Q to London and will bring Hamilton, the hip-hop musical about the 18th-century founding father Alexander Hamilton, in 2017.

Not being a composer or author, Mackintosh cannot create his own works — unlike Lloyd Webber, whose School of Rock, adapted from the film with a book by Fellowes, has just opened on Broadway to strong reviews. (“Andrew has written an old-fashioned musical. It’s not trying to change the form or anything like that but it’s a good night out,” Mackintosh remarks archly.) He depends on others for ideas he can develop or acquire.

The fact that they are so hard to find is frustrating in one sense but extremely useful in another. It means that top-rank musicals remain rare and so their value keeps rising. “Les Misérables opened 30 years ago and it’s still playing to over 90 per cent attendance,” says Richard Johnston, who manages the eight West End theatres that Mackintosh also owns. “Who knows what the life cycle of these shows is?”

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Mackintosh was born in 1946 in London. His father Ian was an Anglo-Scots timber merchant and his mother Diana, a former secretary, is of Maltese, French and Italian descent. “I started with nothing because there wasn’t anything after the war. I had a loving family and went to a minor public school (Prior Park College in Bath) so, compared with many people, I had a lot, but I didn’t have a trust fund,” he says. “I had to borrow £10 here and £20 there.”

His childhood introduction to the theatre came from two aunts, who took him to the musical Salad Days in the West End. “I didn’t want to go but I was captivated. So when my birthday came, my aunts and mother said, ‘What would you like?’ I said, ‘I want to see Salad Days again.’” He entered the business after school, graduating from stage management to producing regional shows in the 1960s. He produced Side by Side by Sondheim in 1976 and Oliver! in 1977, and then ran tours of the US musicals Oklahoma! and My Fair Lady for the Arts Council.

Despite a growing reputation, he was still living in a £5-a-week rented flat in 1980 when, at the age of 43, he met Lloyd Webber for lunch to discuss an idea the composer had for a musical based on some TS Eliot poems. “We were nearly the same age and we had an absolutely pissy lunch at the Savile Club. We were tossed out at about five or six o’clock in the evening. We went back to his flat and he played me some of his settings of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and I went, ‘Oh, there’s something there.’”

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Lloyd Webber was already well known, having composed Jesus Christ Superstar, which opened in 1971, and Evita, which opened in 1978, with the writer Tim Rice. Despite that, it was a struggle to launch Cats. Mackintosh had to woo Trevor Nunn, the RSC director (“One day in October, we were having another of our dinners at Joe Allen’s and Trevor said, ‘I suppose, Cameron, I’ve run out of excuses’”). Money was also hard to come by — Lloyd Webber took a second mortgage to contribute to the £450,000 production cost and Mackintosh rang up the Financial Times, appealing for people to invest.
“The idea of the British doing any musical was fairly risible but doing a dance musical was considered total lunacy. Only Americans did that,” Mackintosh recalls. Unlike on Broadway, where A Chorus Line launched in 1975, West End musicals tended to be plays with songs and few actors were trained to dance and sing. The young Judi Dench had been cast to play Grizabella in Cats but was replaced by Elaine Paige after she tore a tendon in rehearsal. They were fixing the show as it entered previews.

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The rest is history — Cats exploded in the West End and on Broadway and the 240 investors in the original London production received £26.8m over its 21-year run, a 60-fold return. “They were people who’d been told, ‘You mustn’t put money into show business — it’s dangerous’, yet they were taking out Post Office savings. I would say, ‘You can’t’ and they replied, ‘We believe in Andrew and Trevor.’” The 68 backers (including one large syndicate) who put up £600,000 for the original London production of Les Misérables in 1985 have made £47m to date — 78 times their money — and are still earning.

Cats broke the mould of musicals in more ways than just becoming an enduring hit. It was global in a way that musicals about the American dream and American guys and dolls were not. Without planning to, Lloyd Webber and Mackintosh had created a show that translated everywhere. The fact that Cats was so unlike conventional musicals produced a further unanticipated benefit — theatres in other countries did not even try to mount their own versions. They asked for the original.

“What used to happen was you’d send them the script and if they paid £3,000 you’d give them the grand plans of the set and they’d do their own version. This time, they were saying, ‘We’d like to do Cats in Vienna or Cats in Norway but we want your production.’” It prodded him into what became his hallmark — making shows look and sound the same in Beijing and Milwaukee as in London and New York. First Cats, then Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables and Miss Saigon crossed the globe.

cameron 7Cameron Mackintosh had a small role (with Roy Garvin on left) in ‘Oliver!’, UK Tour 1965-66

The success of those shows spawned a grand rebuilding of US regional theatres, with cinemas being converted to live performance. “When I did Les Mis I said, ‘I’m not going to take this on the road unless it’s as good as what people have read about, with the same lighting and the same sound.’ I think that’s my biggest bequest — that I imposed my standards. It’s sensible, actually, because the real thing will last longer than something shoddy.”

Thirty years later, he constantly restages the same musicals in new productions, with fresh directors and casts. He pulls out a large spreadsheet to display the 47 productions planned up to 2020. “I’ve got six or seven Les Mis’s, three Phantoms, a couple of Cats, four Saigons . . . Two weeks ago, we opened in Brisbane and Korea with Les Mis, and in Japan with Saigon. Mary Poppins was in Bristol and Phantom in the US. And I’m preparing two movies — one of Oliver!, one of Saigon.”
Mackintosh prefers the West End to Hollywood, although the film of Les Misérables was a global hit and won three Oscars. “The downside of films, as I’ve found out, is that they can take vast amounts [at the box office] but you don’t get much of it and you have to do accounting for about five years to work it out . . . I’d rather take £1m in a theatre than £10m in cinemas because I’ll end up with more in my pocket.”

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One of his frustrations is that few people appreciate his business, and most heavily underestimate its value. Musicals are expensive to keep running — a top musical has weekly costs of between £150,000 and £250,000 — and revenues have to be split between theatres, producers, writers and other rights holders. But they amass very large sums over time. Avatar, the biggest-grossing film in Hollywood history, took $2.9bn at the box office. Phantom’s box-office sales are more than twice that — $6bn to date, while Les Misérables is just behind at $5.5bn.

cameron 9At the Broadway opening of ‘Cats’ in 1982. From left: set designer John Napier, director Trevor Nunn, choreographer Gillian Lynne, producer Cameron Mackintosh and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber

“It isn’t the money, although we’ve made a lot of money,” says Nick Allott, managing director of Cameron Mackintosh Limited, his holding company. “It’s about what the business is worth to this country. I’m a government trade ambassador and I’m constantly saying to them, ‘Do you realise the size of the theatrical sector?’ You take War Horse from the National Theatre and One Man, Two Guvnors or Matilda, and then add in Andrew’s shows and ours. It’s a colossal contribution over a long period of time.”

But Mackintosh’s production arm is only one of three now grouped under Cameron Mackintosh Limited, which made pre-tax profits of £27.7m on turnover of £139m in 2015. “One of Cameron’s strengths is that he has constantly moved on, learning one part of the business and adding another part and another,” says Nica Burns, the chief executive of the Nimax theatre group. Mackintosh has outgrown his origins as a producer and now owns theatres and licenses musicals.

The theatres came first, starting with the Prince of Wales and Prince Edward, which he was offered in 1991 by Bernard Delfont, who ran First Leisure. He took a 50 per cent share in a deal to refurbish them and has steadily expanded into ownership since — now owning the Gielgud, Queen’s and Wyndham’s among his eight. “We kept being approached by people who said, ‘Look, would you like to buy these two? Would you like to buy this? So he was able to cherry-pick,” says Allott.

There is a natural tension between theatre ownership and production — the owner wants to rent out the theatre for as much as possible, and the producer for as little. “I never thought I’d own a theatre. They were always, I won’t say the enemy, but the people you had to deal with not to be taken for granted,” Mackintosh says. But by the time he acquired them, he was wealthy and could put more into refurbishment than his rivals, investing £45m in the first seven.

The biggest theatre owner in the UK is Ambassador Theatre Group, founded in 1992 and now majority owned by Providence Equity, a private equity company. Mackintosh does not care for that at all. “I think it’s deeply unhealthy, and so do most of the producers in London,” he says. “It’s very unhealthy for companies whose job it is just to make money for investors to own bespoke businesses because the pressure is on to make profits. When you start squeezing the product to keep the profit line up, it’s a terrible mistake.”

His indulgence towards his buildings has not noticeably hurt his bottom line, though. Delfont Mackintosh, his now wholly owned theatre group, made pre-tax profits of £14.2m on revenues of £44m in 2015 — a very healthy margin. Indeed, the West End as a whole has flourished in the past decade on rising ticket prices. Although attendance rose by only 1 per cent to 14.7m in 2014, sales rose by 6.5 per cent to £623m, with the average ticket price rising to £42.

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Mackintosh’s third business is the least visible, yet in some ways the most remarkable — the licensing of secondary performance rights to 450 musicals, mostly owned by others. He has gradually taken ownership of Music Theatre International, a New York-based business that was started by Frank Loesser, writer and composer of Guys and Dolls, in 1952. He holds 75 per cent and by next year will control the whole business, which he is expanding globally. Copyright law requires that any production of a play or musical must have a licence, and MTI licenses 25,000 productions a year to 70,000 organisations, from regional theatres to amateur troupes and schools. Every US high school that puts on Hairspray or Annie, for example, pays MTI a fee of between $750 and $1,000. MTI keeps about 15 per cent, with the rest going to the writer and composer, or their estates.

In theory, schools and amateur productions could avoid that fee by buying the sheet music and ignoring copyright. But in the days of social media, when people boast on Twitter or Facebook that they are going to a show or are appearing in it, it is hard not to get caught. “Ours is the one art form that you cannot just steal and do it privately,” says Drew Cohen, MTI’s president. “You can download a song alone but the beautiful thing about our business is you need an audience.”

As a result, MTI is something of a cash machine. Even when musicals such as Little Shop of Horrors (for which MTI will rent schools man-eating plant props) are no longer on Broadway, they are performed hundreds of times a year. This brought in £22.5m in theatrical rights and licence fees to Mackintosh in 2015. That cash is likely to keep flowing for a long time, given the longevity of musicals and the fact that US copyrights last for the life of the author plus 70 years.

Gradually, Mackintosh has shifted the balance of his business from the risks of production through more stable theatre ownership to rock-solid licensing. He has protected himself against the decline suffered by those in show business when the spotlight finds a new star. “One of Cameron’s strengths is spotting how all the elements of theatre connect,” says Cohen. “Others live in the moment. Taking a musical from inception to licensing is like birth to annuity.”

“That’s a Cameronism,” remarks Richard Johnston. We are standing at the back of the circle of the Gielgud, where the play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is on. He is pointing at three boxes of seats that Mackintosh noticed could be added by narrowing the corridor during refurbishment. It is one example of Mackintosh’s constant efforts to upgrade, improve, refine and get more money from his property.

It is also an example of a trait that can drive those around him crazy — he reserves the right to decide on everything. “I was in one meeting where he talked about the design of the loo roll holders for half an hour,” says Johnston. “Everything matters. He’s incredibly curious. If he comes into a room for the first time, he looks in every cupboard to see what could be done with it.”
Front of house at Delfont Mackintosh theatres is almost as minutely directed as the stage sets. Mackintosh found an old ventilation grille at the Prince of Wales before it was refurbished and got the architect to use the pattern for wall friezes in the auditorium. Yet the theatres still come second to the shows. “I’ve said to myself, ‘We need a decision on spending x million and he’s still locked in a room with a director and a piano,’” Johnston says.

“My skill is not to come up with an idea — I’ve never come up with an idea in my life,” Mackintosh says. “What I do is, once I’ve smelled there’s something original there, I’m good at working with the author and making that show as good as it possibly can be. I sort of beat it up in the nicest way. And I have the ability, even though I can’t sing and I can’t dance, to grunt and moan and shuffle out of time with the choreographer to construct the numbers right.”

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His business is run from two Georgian townhouses in Bedford Square, where most of the 45 staff work. “I run my life as if it’s a corner shop, even though it’s become Selfridges. I like having friends around,” Mackintosh says. It is far from a modern open-plan office. An old brass chadburn — the device for a ship’s captain to signal speed to the engine room — sits opposite the reception desk. A staircase winds up to a warren of rooms on different floors.

They are filled with Mackintosh veterans. Nick Allott, who is now 61, has worked with him for 35 years — since just before the first production of Cats — and several others have been there for nearly two decades. “We’re still a pretty small group of people running quite a big business,” Allott says. Alan Finch, former chief executive of Chichester Theatre, will soon join as co-managing director, and Allott’s likely successor. “I’d quite like to spend more time on a beach,” Allott admits.

There will be no successor to Mackintosh. He lives in Somerset with Michael Le Poer Trench, a theatre photographer who is his long-time partner, and has no children. Two nieces through his two brothers work in the entertainment industry, but he does not intend to leave his business to his relatives. On his death, it will pass to his foundation, which last year gave £679,000 to theatrical and medical causes, with the proviso that it keeps the business running but does not mimic his role.
“I’ve been successful beyond any of my dreams and I realise my foundation is going to be worth an absolute fortune. But it can’t create any new productions. I don’t want anyone getting their hands on it and using the money to make new versions of my shows. They can be a co-producer but they’ll have to find another me. I want all the innovation to come from others.” It could be some time before it is tested, since, he says, “The greatest example I have in life is my mother. She’s 97 in January, sharp as a tack.”

At nearly 70, Mackintosh is as insatiable as when he asked to see Salad Days again as a child. When he bought Stavordale Priory, it came with 38 acres of land but he bought a neighbouring field, then another, then others until his estate reached the 1,630 acres on which 700 cows graze (he also owns 13,750 acres in the Scottish Highlands). “It’s organic and it’s really good dairy land. They’re very well-treated cows — they have mattresses,” he enthuses.

Mackintosh’s office in Bedford Square is lined with career mementoes. On a grand piano rests a commemorative bowl given to him by the cast of one London production of Oliver! The bowl shows Oliver in the workhouse, pleading for gruel: “Please, sir, I want some more.” Cameron wanted more, and he got it.

Portrait by Jillian Edelstein

Photographs: Rex; Cameron Mackintosh Limited; Alamy; Corbis; Alan Davidson/ The Picture Library Ltd;

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016.

GARY BARLOW AND TIM FIRTH TALK GIRLS

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It started life as a tongue-in-cheek way to raise money for a cause close to their hearts and went on to spawn a smash hit movie, as well as a record-breaking stage show.
With the world premiere of The Girls just a few weeks away, the musical inspired by the film Calendar Girls, based on Rylstone and District Women’s Institute’s decision to raise funds for charity by producing a calendar, writers Gary Barlow and Tim Firth talk to Overtures.
Gary Barlow strides into the brick and glass building in the shadow of London’s Shard and quickly finds himself being gobbled up by a sea of sunflowers. The bright yellow emblems adorn the all-black outfits of the Calendar Girls, trademarks of that band of almost unnaturally effervescent Yorkshire women of a certain age who, having conquered box offices around the world, now have their sights set on Broadway.
The Take That frontman, soon sporting his own sunflower badge on a buttoned-down denim shirt, greets them like old friends and gets several shades of lipstick on his designer stubble for his trouble. “He’s lovely,” gushes Angela Baker, whose loss of husband John to non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1998 inspired that now infamous calendar and the amazing rollercoaster ride that has followed. “Gary’s the kind of guy you would love to have as a son. He got the heart of our story and why we did it straight away.”
Barlow is here, in this high-end rehearsal space in a corner of south London, to show the ladies, and a hand-picked media pack, two of the songs he has co-written for new musical The Girls, the latest telling of the story of Rylstone and District Women’s Institute’s finest. It follows in the wake of the hugely successful Calendar Girls film and subsequent record-breaking stage play, which between them have raised £4m for research into blood cancers.
Even at first listen the tunes have Barlow’s trademark pop hooks in spades, that together with his previous experience of working as part of a creative team which has resulted in the Broadway smash hit musical, Neverland, (expected in the West End next year) certainly builds up the expectations of a sure fire box office hit. The recently written opening number, called simply Yorkshire, is guaranteed to have audiences humming along when the show has its world premiere at The Leeds Grand Theatre next month. At its end, there is barely a dry eye in the house.

LISTEN TO “YORKSHIRE” BY CLICKING HERE

“He told me not to go and watch a load of musicals,” says Barlow, motioning to co-writer Tim Firth as we sit upstairs an hour or so later, the girls having been whisked off for well-earned refreshments and a chat with the cast. “Tim said, I want you to go and do what you do, be moved by whatever point of the story you like. Here’s some lyrics, here’s some titles. I want what you do, not you impersonating someone else who writes musicals.
“He would leave me alone for months at a time and I’d come in with a bunch of starts, melodies, ideas and then from that point Tim would progress them and start work on the lyric and making it work for the show. “So I feel like I’ve been spoilt slightly because I haven’t had any of the heartache of working to specific scenes. I’ve had real freedom as a songwriter to be able to express how I’m feeling and how I think a scene should be, and then he’s really made it into the gold it is.”

The link-up between one of British pop’s greatest ever songwriters and a man with credits under his belt for both Calendar Girls and Kinky Boots would appear to be a match made in heaven. No wonder the girls are already talking excitedly about future trips to opening nights on Broadway.
So it’s surprising, given the fact they’ve known each other for 25 years, that this is the first time Barlow and Firth have worked together. Doncaster-burn Firth says they had been talking of writing an album for English divas, then, with the stage version of Calendar Girls breaking box office records, thoughts turned to setting it to music.
Four years later, they’re weeks away from opening night, which is how Firth explains the tears that welled in his eyes after the run-through of that rousing opening number: “Fatigue and fear.” “I wouldn’t have just put the play to music, that would have been very dull,” he says, the rings under his eyes lending credence to that half-joked admission of worry.
“There was the sense that maybe there’s a different story to be told here, a story that involves kids and husbands. “What started to emerge was a kind of comedy Under Milk Wood, the life of a small village for a world audience. A very English village green musical about very English things but which spoke at the heart of the very quiet, unassuming bravery that these women showed. “We thought that if we can capture that then we may have this other telling, this whole other story.”
Barlow says he’d seen the film version with Dame Helen Mirren but had “sort of forgotten about it”. When Firth took him to see the stage version he was surprised at how quickly the ideas started to come. “I went and watched the play and I could hear music straight away to it,” he recalls. “I think that initial thing’s very important, that feeling you get. I was ready to go. You know, let’s do it, let’s put some music to this.”
The pair met up with the Calendar Girls in Burnsall back in March and Barlow says it helped him get a better grip on a few things. Since then they reckon about a third of the show has been changed. So did they feel a renewed responsibility to do the women and their story justice?
“Well, Tim’s had responsibility for two different incarnations with the film and the play,” says Barlow. “But before I met them all in Burnsall I hadn’t really thought about it. “Once I’d met them… it’s different when you see people in person because then there does become a responsibility to it. “I was also thinking when I saw them here today, what a beautiful thing for it to continue and for them to sit and watch themselves and their lives being recreated. It’s gorgeous, they must love it.

“When you’ve been doing something for four years and you’ve got it on its feet, how can you not be emotionally involved? It isn’t just because of your work, but then add to it the story… “Their story is incredibly emotional and the humour is done in such a way that without the emotional side it wouldn’t be what it is. They both depend on one another.” “It’s a northern humour but it’s also a very English humour,” Firth insists.
“Partly I wanted to bring the girls down here to hear the cast perform, but also I wanted the cast to meet the girls today because part of the rehearsals for this process is understanding that corporate humour, that mentality that they have which is at the heart of this story, that comedy.”
The ladies may already be eyeing up Broadway, but for The Girls’ writers hopes for the show’s future so far extend no further than that opening night in Leeds. “I want the audience to come out of The Grand humming the songs,” says Firth. “And having laughed so much they didn’t realise they cried.”
The Girls opens at Leeds Grand Theatre on November 14. The calendar, film and stage show have raised £4m for charity Bloodwise, which funds research into leukaemia. They will be staging collections at the end of the shows in Leeds and hope that the success of The Girls can add another £1m to that total. “It’s still a big part of their lives,” said the musical’s co-writer, Tim Firth. “I hope they like the story, but I think they love the fact that every show raises funds for their charity.”

Millicent Martin returns to London

From her home in Beverly Hills, Millicent Martin spoke to Musical Theatre Review contributor Craig Glenday.

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MILLICENT MARTIN is making a rare visit to London this Sunday 25 October to appear on stage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in Hey, Old Friends! An 85th Birthday Tribute to Stephen Sondheim.

Born in Romford, Essex, Martin first trod the boards in the children’s chorus at the Opera House in Covent Garden, and later turned up in the chorus of South Pacific – with Sean Connery and Larry Hagman. She made her Broadway debut opposite Julie Andrews in The Boyfriend (1954), and took over the role of Dorothy in the original Broadway production of 42nd Street.

Back in the UK, she became a household name as the singer of topical news songs in the 1960s TV satire That Was the Week That Was, and went on to front her own show, Mainly Millicent. She also guested a number of times at the Royal Command Performances, and appeared in classic movies Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965), Alfie (1966), and Stop the World I Want To Get Off (1966).

Now resident in Beverly Hills, Martin is a regular on US television, where she is best known for her role as Daphne’s mother Gertrude in Frasier. Her TV CV also includes Days of Our Lives, Guiding Light, As the World Turns, L.A. Law, The Drew Carey Show, Will & Grace and Modern Family. She counts Betty White among her closest of friends, and recently guest-starred alongside her in the hit comedy Hot in Cleveland.

On 25 October, Martin will be returning to the London stage to star in a one-off 85th birthday celebration of Stephen Sondheim. It was for her role in Side by Side by Sondheim that the singer-actress earned her first Tony nomination in 1977, and she will be reunited with her Side by Side co-star Julie McKenzie in this star-studded charity gala concert at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

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CG: Are you looking forward to coming to London for Hey, Old Friends!?

MM: I’m thrilled and so looking forward to it. It’s going to be wonderful. It’s got to be six or seven years ago since I was last in London. It was for Gigi at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre [in 2008], I think. I can’t remember! I know it was a long time ago. When I did Regent’s Park, it rained on me every day. It wasn’t one of my best visits, trying to do a show eight days a week and being rained on constantly.

CG: Do you enjoy visiting London?

MM: Oh yes, but I found it really crowded last time. A thing came on television here about homes around the world and they said that London is one of the most over-populated cities in the world. It’s actually quite a small city – it wasn’t meant to have all these people and all this excitement! But it’s only that it’s London that I’m coming. I don’t think I’d make a big long trip to anywhere other than England. Travelling is such a horror now. Before you could just hand over your passport and enjoy the lounge. Now it’s a two-hour horror of customs and queueing each way.

CG: You must live a very different lifestyle in Los Angeles…

MM: Well, we’re much more laid-back and enjoying life. I still do a lot of television and that’s fun because it’s on my doorstep. Twentieth Century Fox is just across the street, so I can roll into there after a nice morning breakfast. And today, like most days of the year, it’s about 70 degrees. But we have an Olympic-sized swimming pool, at least. We also have a home in Palm Springs, which gets very hot in the summer but it’s just beautiful. It’s in the desert and has that lovely desert air. It’s like silk as you drive through it.

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CG: What can we see you in at the moment?

MM: The most recent show I did was last week, a comedy called Two Broke Girls. I’ve done Modern Family, Castle, Bones, Chuck… most of the big comedy series. It’s so lovely. I can enjoy the week and it’s not months of exhausting work. My time off is precious to me – I love being lazy!

CG: You’re coming over to sing Sondheim again. Do you have a particular favourite song?

MM: I’m doing ‘I Never Do Anything Twice’, and that one is a favourite for me, because when I was doing Side by Side by Sondheim, that wasn’t in our first production. Stephen said to me: “Very little of that song has remained in the film [The Seven-Per-Cent Solution],” and he asked me to put it into the show, and I did. I feel like that was a gift from him. I think I was probably the first person to ever sing it all the way through.

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CG: Side by Side by Sondheim opened in 1976 and was a turning point for the composer in the UK. What kind of impact did it make at the time?

MM: It was amazing! Julia and I were both in Alan Ayckbourn plays at the time – she was in The Norman Conquests, I was in Absurd Person Singular at the Vaudeville – and David Kernan was in Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. I popped in to see him and was sad because I’d been offered the role of the Fairy Queen in the film The Slipper and The Rose. I couldn’t do it because I was booked to do a play for Michael Carter and I had top billing so I couldn’t just be let out to do a movie. I went to David and told him how sad I was about not doing the movie, and he said: “Last week, I went to do a charity gig and I sang some Stephen Sondheim numbers, and the audiences loved them. I thought we could work up some Sunday shows together.” That’s how Side by Side by Sondheim started. We did four or five of these Sunday concerts – with Ned Sherrin doing the narration – and two of them at Cleo Laine and John Dankworth’s Stables Theatre [in Wavendon, Buckinghamshire], and we were just stunned at how it took off. People would sit there all polite at the start of the show and by the end of it they’d all be on their feet. It was so exciting to realise that somehow we’d managed to make this wonderful little show and eventually bring it to the West End. It just happened and was very exciting – we all loved the music and loved doing it.

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CG: How important was the show in popularising Sondheim in the UK?

MM: It made a big difference, I think. One night, Julia and I went out with Stephen for a little supper after one of the first shows and he said: “This work that you’ve done has opened me up to a bigger audience than I’ve had here before.” That was an enormous compliment. I think he really enjoyed the show. He didn’t have to do anything with it, or go through all the horrors of mounting a new show, which can be very daunting for some people. He just came over for it, stayed a couple of weeks for the cast recording, and it was an enjoyable time for him. He even brought Jonathan Tunick over to do the recording, which says a lot about what he thought about it. It’s a lovely recording, and we’re really proud of it.

CG: What’s the lasting appeal of Sondheim?

MM: He’d probably shout at me and tell me I’m wrong but I think it’s his use of lyrics. It’s the same way Shakespeare took words and lyrics and shaped them until they became poetry. But more importantly, the rhythms are also different because he writes them to be sung in exactly the same way you’d speak them. So you get [sings] “Sunset Bou-levard” but you’d never stop someone for directions and ask for “Sunset Bou-levard”. But with Stephen’s lyrics – like “With so little to be sure of; If there’s anything at all. I’m sure of here and now and us together” – it’s the same whether you say it or sing it. Because it’s written as speech, it makes it lovely to sing. You’re not twisting words, or hanging on to words, because you wouldn’t when you speak. When we did ‘Getting Married Today’ [as part of Side by Side by Sondheim] and I had the fast part, I used to speak it: “Pardon me is everybody there? Because if everybody’s there, I want to thank you all for coming to the wedding…” That’s how it sounds – no different saying it than singing it. It made it much easier to learn because you could say it over and over before introducing the music.

CG: I’m impressed you can still remember the lyrics to ‘Not Getting Married Today’. Do you still know them off by heart?

MM: I do. I remember all of Stephen’s lyrics because he doesn’t jump off at a tangent. Whatever he’s writing about, he writes that idea fully. He doesn’t jump about unless it’s somebody at that point in the show being demonic or having a breakdown and would do that anyway. That to me is very appealing.

CG: What is a favourite Sondheim role you’ve not played?

MM: Oh, I would have loved to have been Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd. There was one point when I was asked to do it but I was in the middle of another job and I just couldn’t make the dates. Maybe he’ll write another show for an 80-year-old Mrs Lovett!

CG: Do you find it more difficult to secure work as you get older?

MM: I do a lot of television, so they know me and get me to play lots of old eccentric ladies. I love guest slots because you go in for just a week. So yes, there are plenty of parts available to older women, I think. The thing I think one needs in a musical is colour and texture. It’s lovely to have these glorious young soprano and tenor voices but to have a fully rounded-out musical – which is what Stephen’s are – you need all different types of voice. You need the aged voices and the young voices, else it’s all just one colour. An evening of pink is not going to cut it: you need pinks and whites and red. After a while, if you’re just hearing one sound you can lose concentration, but with lots of different types of sound, you’ll stay interested.

CG: Do you consider yourself a singer who acts or an actor who sings?

MM: Before, I was definitely a singer who acted, but I now say that I’m an actress who performs songs. So I’m very good with lyrics: I’d say the best things I did in my working life were the lyrics. That was where my talents lie, in performing the lyrics. I’ll leave the glorious singing up to Julia McKenzie!

CG: Sondheim is also very particular about his lyrics, isn’t he? More so than his music?

MM: Yes, he is very kind and very accommodating with the music. My voice is very low, so when I went into Follies, I found that the verse of ‘Ah, But Underneath’ had quite a wide range and went too high for me. But Stephen re-adjusted the music for me. The orchestra, when I finished the rehearsal, applauded the work he’d done adjusting the song to my range. That he will do, but he won’t touch the lyrics. He’ll come up to you after a show and say: “You sang ‘and’ instead of ‘if’ tonight!” You mustn’t change the lyrics and I wouldn’t want to. He said to me one time: “It takes me a long time thinking about how to get those words just right,” so for somebody to just throw out the odd word is kind of an insult. It would be like giving one of Shakespeare’s great speeches and throwing in a couple of extra words. You just don’t do it.

CG: What’s Sondheim like to be around?

MM: I always feel for the first ten minutes when I meet him that it’s like I haven’t met him before. I think it’s a reserve or shyness – it takes him a while to warm up to people. Even when we haven’t seen each other in years, Julia and I are exactly the same when we get back together, but I think Stephen’s reserve means that he takes a while to warm up. I hope his ego enjoys the fact that we’re all making a fuss over him at this gala. He’s wonderful, and I do admire him so.

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CG: And you’ll get to spend time with your chum Julia McKenzie when you’re in the UK…

MM: I will. Her lovely husband has decided to go to their other home, so Julia and I can have a terrible few days together! Jerry’s probably thinking: “I’m outta here, these two will never stop talking!”

CG: You must have made some good friends over the years…

MM: I’ve been very lucky, making some lovely friends in London and over here. Like the fabulous Betty White from The Golden Girls. She’s wonderful: she’s 93 and she’s a pistol, as they say over here. She’s so fast and has the most wicked sense of humour. Just a joy! And Alfred Molina… Lots of nice people. I’m very lucky.

Millicent Martin

CG: And you worked with Leslie Bricusse…

MM: Ah yes, a lovely man. I did Stop the World I Want to Get Off with him. I’ve seen him and his wife Evie a lot over here because of that. In fact, he calls me his second Evie!

CG: You and Leslie must spend a lot of time name-dropping…

MM; Well, I try not to. I’ve got a pretty good list but I’d better shut up because people will think I don’t know anyone who’s not famous! When you live in Beverly Hills, everybody is somebody!

Ashley Day in conversation

AD HeadingOn a sunny June day, a smiling audience are filing out of the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury where   they have spent what has obviously been a very enjoyable afternoon in the state of Oklahoma! This Music and Lyrics production has been on tour since February and has a couple more months to run. Its leading man Ashley Day (Curly) has joined me to talk about his amazing career. Although only 28, Ashley has been in more major productions than most musical theatre stars will see in a lifetime and as we find out, this is not just down to luck.

 

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Overtures: Ashley, thanks for taking time from your punishing schedule to come and chat, especially as you have to be back on stage in around 2 hours. It’s a great show, and an outstanding and tireless performance from you, in every respect. This isn’t  your first time with Oklahoma! is it?

Ashley: No, when I was in my early teens I spent a lot of time with the National Youth Music Theatre and in my second production with them I was in the ensemble of Oklahoma! and performed the dream ballet in their production at the Cardiff International Festival and later at London’s Peacock Theatre. It was an amazing experience, one that I really loved, it was like 6 weeks in a holiday camp each year, with like-minded kids. It was so much fun just being around amazing people that were just like me. Fifteen years ago, theatre, especially musical theatre wasn’t that accessible to kids, unlike the opportunities that are about today. So, I guess with parents that encouraged me and a little bit of luck I was able to pursue every aspect of performance in the best environment.

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Ov: It is unusual to see a 1st class production of Oklahoma! where the lead playing Curly also performs the dream ballet, don’t producers often bring in ballet dancers for this particular sequence.

AD: I don’t think it’s been done too many times and maybe it’s a cop out, just to be happy with the singing and acting and then find someone specifically for the dream sequence. Luckily it fits with my background, training and it’s what I like to do. It’s a nice piece to dance and it seems a long time since I’ve been able to dance properly, and hopefully its something that I will be able to tap into in the future.

Ov: It seems to me that you are a rare breed of performer, dancer, singer, actor. What came first and how did you start out.

AD: It might sound a cliché, but my sister who is 8 years older than me took dance lessons. So, as a 3 year old I was bundled into the car in East Sussex and taken with her to the dance class. Rather than sit and watch I used to join in; so I was enrolled in a very good dance school locally and I just became obsessed with it. I’m not sure at that early age what I was so excited about, but once I started school I began having dance classes every day. I can now explain it as my connection with music but then I just didn’t know. I attended Stonelands School of Ballet and Theatre Arts in Hove which gave me a very firm foundation in all aspects of performance and really shaped the mould for what I am today.

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Ov: Am I right in saying that the first professional theatre production you played in was the Cameron-Mackintosh production of Oliver! Another show with an exclamation mark?

AD: I must have been about 8 when my Mum and Dad took me to see Oliver! After the show Mum said let’s go and find out where they get all these kids from. So we went round to the stage door and Mum asked a guy at the stage door and he gave her the number of Jo Hawes, the leading kids casting director. I went to an audition and within a couple of months we were staying in London four nights a week and I was performing. It was a bit like the later NYMT experience being around all these like-minded kids, all having a ball. It was different from dance school because the pupils there didn’t share my enthusiasm, today I call it passion. I did Oliver! twice, the first was for about six months and that was with Jim Dale as Fagin and the second time was a year later with Russ Abbott. There are people I’ve worked with as an adult that were in that production and we all hate the moment when someone comes up to us and says you’re one of the kids.

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Ov: The first time I saw you on stage was back in 2003 when you were in Matthew Bourne’s production of The Nutcracker, how did that come about?

AD: That was my first “grown up” job. I was at college, not having a particularly good time, I was desperate to start working. I was like a greyhound in the trap, ready to go, when I got an audition with Matthew and landed a part in The Nutcracker. We opened out of town before moving to Sadlers Wells and then we transferred to Japan where we performed for four months. I look back now and it was a huge learning curve, with dance you have to take classes every day and then perform, so in a way it was a bit like being at college, but doing what I wanted to do, learning from the best and being paid for it. However it very nearly didn’t happen as I was offered a musical at the same time; they were recasting CATS, a show I’d always wanted to do and I would be assured a long run. This was a very difficult decision, but listening to the experienced advice that was coming my way the decision was taken to join with Matthew Bourne and thank God I did as it led into my second job. Matthew Bourne was choreographing Mary Poppins and so I was able to get an audition through him and this became my first major step into musical theatre.

 

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Ov: Were you part of the premiere production of Mary Poppins?

AD: Right from the very beginning, the long out-of-town run in Bristol in 2004 and then the move into the Prince Edward Theatre. It was an exciting production for a number of reasons, it was huge, the Disney connection, Cameron Mackintosh’s first big show for some while, I stayed with the show for over a year and had my first experience of participating in an original cast recording.

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Ov: From Mary Poppins you moved to an iconic musical, Evita; I believe that this was the first major revival of the show in the West End?

AD: Yes, I was in the show from the opening and the star of the show was Elena Rogers, someone who we all learnt so much from. Imagine being picked up from Argentina dropped in London, not much English and then to see her pull off that huge role under those circumstances was amazing. She matched every challenge through the rehearsal period and became the inspiration for everyone else in the production. Its people like her that have formed the way that I work, you see what you have to do to become a true performer, it’s hard, hard work, relearning, adapting and persistence. I stayed with the show for a year, but later I went to visit Elena in New York where she recreated her role as Evita and she was just magnificent.

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Ov: Again, your next major venture was somewhat different – how did you get involved with the English National Opera’s production of On The Town?

AD: It was the same casting director as for Evita and ENO wanted to recast the production that they did the previous year. It was a short run and I wanted to do something new having spent a year in Evita. It really excited me being part of a big opera company and to experience the scale of their productions, performing with a 50 piece orchestra every night. It was another steep learning curve. With opera they perform in a different way and so coming from musical theatre you have to adapt. Another major difference is that with an opera company they perform a repertoire, so it’s not just the same show night in, night out, they can perform 3 different operas in 3 days, so their schedules are crazy and I guess you never have the chance to get attached to a company. Whereas with a musical theatre company you have one show and each other, so you become a very tightly knit crew.

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Ov: You moved more or less straight away from the Coliseum to the Chichester Festival Theatre and into one of my favourite productions, Babes In Arms. How was it being back in Sussex?

AD: It was lovely to be back near home and be part of the summer season at Chichester. My memories of that production are of real hard work: it was a relatively short run but there was talk of extensions and the possibilities of a West End transfer. This was in 2007, before the West End move of a Chichester musical became more or less obligatory. Bill Deamer was the choreographer and he is notorious for pushing everyone to their limits, determined to get the best performance possible from each and every one of us and judging by the critical reception the show received, it worked. The one thing that sticks in the mind about the show is the score, Rodgers and Hart at their best.

 

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Ov: What followed was the lead in what was probably the most marketable product of the time the stage adaptation of Disney’s movie High School Musical, a million miles from the classic musical theatre world that you were accustomed to. Did replacing the movie star Zac Effron in the minds of the hundreds of thousands teenage girls that would be storming theatres, scare you?

AD: Not really, not having seen the movie, I read the script, talked with the creative team and built my own persona of Troy Bolton, captain of the school basketball team. The problem with the role is that the audience believed I was Troy Bolton, and as a 22 year old while it is good in the theatre it’s not so good out of the theatre, in fact at times it could be scary. I guess it was more like being a pop star than an actor, but it was a fun show to be in requiring loads of energy for every performance. It was also the first time I’d done a touring production and I couldn’t believe we played to sell-out houses at every performance in many of the largest theatres in the country. It was an amazing experience that taught me a lot about audiences and the challenges facing performers outside the theatre as well as in. Being on tour also taught me a lot about self-discipline, it is so easy to be caught up in a cycle of partying every night, but with the next performance being just hours away, that is so unprofessional. So, some may think me boring, I don’t think I am, but I always think about the next audience and the price they have paid for their ticket which in turn pays me.

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Ov: In 2009 you made your first pantomime appearance. Not any old pantomime but one that was bound to be fraught with difficulties at the New Wimbledon.

AD: Now that was a challenge. They kept changing the star (it was planned), however each one had their own take on the role and their own music and so my performance as Aladdin was always changing. First it was Pamela Anderson in the role of the genie, then Paul O’Grady, followed by Ruby Wax and finally Anita Dobson. Paul O’Grady was a dream to work with he would ensure the show flowed, the others, well… I had a much  better time at the Wycombe Swan in 2012 playing Prince William in Snow White with Craig Revel-Horwood as the Wicked Queen. This year I’m back at Plymouth Theatre Royal in Cinderella with Gok Wan. That will be good because my Mum has moved to Devon and we’ll be able to have a traditional family Christmas. The great thing about pantomime is that it fills what is a very quiet time for touring musicals and West End openings.

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Ov: Your continuing search for new challenges led to 2 different productions for you in 2010. A provincial showcase of Kander and Ebb songs and your first foray into the London fringe.                                                         

AD: Oh you mean And the World Goes Round which I did at the Castle Theatre in Wellingborough and The Drowsy Chaperone at London’s Upstairs At the Gatehouse. You’re right they were both very different to what I’d done before. The first was a concert format and was a joyous experience performing alongside Sophie-Louise Dann, Laura Pitt Paulford, Dominic Tighe and of course Louise Plowright. It was only a week’s run and it seemed over before it had begun. The Drowsy Chaperone was fun, working in an intimate space, so close to the audience in a show that had recently been in the West End but hadn’t lasted, which was unfamiliar to many of the audiences. It was so different after the Prince Edward, Adelphi, Chichester, performing in a 120 seat theatre. The fringe has such a buzz to it, real devotees of musical theatre form the bulk of the audience and it gives the performers the opportunity to really reach out to them.

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Ov: Shortly after Drowsy you returned to the stage of the Palladium for the first time since you were a kid, how was The Wizard Of Oz?

AD: For me it was the opportunity to get back to a huge scale West End musical and work with the legendary Michael Crawford who I was able to learn so much from. It also gave me my first chance to understudy one of the main roles, that of Scarecrow played by Paul Keating. It was a very electric, tightly produced show. The theatre had changed considerably since my Oliver days; I believe Andrew Lloyd Webber had spent a mammoth amount of money refurbishing both the auditorium and backstage facilities making it a lot more comfortable for everyone. It was an enjoyable time but I decided to seek out something more challenging for my next role.

AD Book of Mormon

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Ov: And that came with the opening of The Book Of Mormon?

AD: Book Of Mormon is a show that I’d been following since it opened on Broadway. I had the cast album as soon as it was released, I was expecting some average musical but my reaction was Wow, what is this? Then seeing the various clips on YouTube, each making me more determined to be part of a London production should it materialise. When the casting call for the London production was posted I made sure that I was on the list. The audition process was crazy; there was no point in putting myself under pressure because I could only do what I could do and the decision would rest in the hands of other people. I must admit it did get stressful I had thirteen auditions, the most I had ever had before was six. It seemed like the whole theatrical world was auditioning and later I found out they were. From my perspective this was my big break. When I got the call I was ecstatic. The rehearsal process was amazing. Casey Nicholaw (co-director and choreographer) took us from day one of rehearsals. I think Casey is one of the nicest directors I’ve ever worked for; he was so inspiring and helpful throughout the process. The cast are amazing, there are seven of us Mormon boys and we all share a dressing room, we’re like brothers. My double role – Hitler and Jesus– involves a quick change from Hitler into Jesus which is a little bit crazy, I was also made understudy to Gavin Creel playing Elder Price. It was just a few days after press night, my mum was still up in town, I was in the gym and she was using the pool, when I got a call to come to the theatre, so there and then I left. Forgetting mum was still there, not knowing where I was. I texted her about an hour later to tell her I was on and so that was how she was able to see me for my first performance as Elder price. I hadn’t had a run through but felt I was up to it, and boy did it feel good. When I’m on as Elder Price, Jared Gertner as Elder Cunningham (he played the role on Broadway too) is just incredible and he gives you so much to play off. Handing back the role is always tricky, but at the end of the day you just say that’s his job and this one’s mine. However, I played the role sufficient times that I can truly say I played Elder Price in the West End. I was in the show for over 250 performances and a lot of personal and family stuff happened to me during the run, so by the end of two years I was ready to move on.

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Ov: In your career you have worked with some of the big names in musical theatre, who have stood out for you?

AD: The one that really stands out for me is Gavin Lee. Maybe because Mary Poppins was my first major musical as an adult, but I was amazed by his strength. What he did in that show, how he lived and worked, those were the really important things for me, he might have been a lead in the show, but Gavin led the Company and that is the job; always to be pushing people in the right direction in a positive and upbeat way. He was truly amazing and I learnt so much from him. Another is the American Gavin Creel who in Book Of Mormon displayed the same attributes and as his understudy I had a closer working relationship and of course as we mentioned earlier Elena Rogers.

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Ov: Next on your schedule is the Opera North production of Kiss Me Kate which opens in September, did your ENO experiences position you for this?

AD: No, I don’t think so, although its nice to know what you’re auditioning for and to have some idea of the expectations. But with this show, I saw it announced and said “I’m going to do that”. I saw their production of Carousel a year or so ago and knew the director, who used to work for NYMT. Kiss Me Kate is another chance to perform in a classic musical produced on a huge scale. So in the space of three weeks I’d seen the announcement, been in to meet the director and team, auditioned and was given the great role of Bill Calhoun. The thing I love about it is that it’s a show biz story. I opened the script for the first time the other day and the opening line is “This is a story of showbiz”. I’ve never done a show before that’s in that style or has that insider feel to it, so I’m excited.

AD in rehearsals for the National tour of OKLAHOMA! credit Pamela Raith

Ov: What is it that keeps you motivated?

AD: Well, one thing is the unknown, you never know what you will be doing and that you are continually moving, this is what excites me; always looking for new challenges. I must say that the singing part of a performance is one that I really enjoy – which I guess is newish to me seeing that I started with dance. As for the future, I’m keeping an eye on what may be coming over from Broadway. But for now I am busy into the New Year, so we’ll see what 2016 will bring.

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Ov: I read somewhere that you would like to play Pippin if that came over, but I can think of two shows currently on Broadway that are tailor made for you should they come to London, An American In Paris and On the Town. Whatever happens Ashley I’m sure it will build on the success of your career to date and I hope that Broadway don’t steal you before we get the chance to see you in a couple more shows in the West End. I hope the rest of the tour of Oklahoma! continues successfully and I look forward to catching up with you some time in the future.

Illustrations come from the archives of Overtures and The Mayflower Theatre Trust

Copyright of all materials remain with their owners and have been used to support the conversation and have not been used nor are intended to be used to promote any production, performance, event or other commercial initiative.

Particular thanks go to Music and Lyrics, Mayflower Theatre, Alison at Amanda Malpass and Ashley Day.

“KEEP BAYLESS HOT!”

A Unique Interview with West End icon Jean Bayless by Martin Milnes

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Actor, writer and director Martin Milnes has been privileged to spend time with a very special lady of the theatre who secured her place in West End history by captivating audiences eight times a week from a papier mache rock high on a hill …

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Jean Bayless is the glamorous star who created the role of ‘Maria’ in the original London production of The Sound of Music, which opened at the Palace Theatre in May 1961. Hand-picked by Richard Rodgers himself to play the part, her career scaled the heights of both the West End and Broadway when the Golden Age of the Musical was at its peak.

Martin has known Jean well several years and has discovered that there is a fascinating story behind the very first lady whose heart was blessed with The Sound of Music …

 

 “How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?”

 If Oscar Hammerstein II has substituted the words “Jean Bayless” for “cloud” then he’d still have been right on the money. Jean Bayless has passed her eightieth birthday but is still as “flighty as a feather” and her lifestyle could “throw a whirling dervish out of whirl”, exhausting someone half her age. Yet Jean Bayless never stops. There are five grandchildren to look after (Tamar, Pheobe, Beaulah, Ava and baby Nova); there are countless friends calling on her, and social engagements to attend; and right now she and I are off to her son Daniel’s jewellers shop (where her other son Adam also works) on Corporation Street in Birmingham.

When we arrive at the shop this glamorous octogenarian, who still cuts a dash, promptly whizzes behind the counter and starts serving customers. It’s not in every Birmingham high street store that the lady behind the counter has, during the course of her lifetime, created one of the most iconic roles in musical theatre history; starred on Broadway; been a chorus girl with an unknown Audrey Hepburn; and even been shot at in the jungle during an ambush in the Korean War (not to mention having flown across Malaysia during the same conflict at the mercy of drunken pilots). As she makes a sale and passes the credit card machine to the proud possessor of a new watch can it really be conceivable that this same lady once had Noël Coward and Gloria Swanson asking to visit her dressing room after the show?

 Jean Bayless today

The dazzling lady behind the counter was chosen by Richard Rodgers over fifty years ago to be the very first person to sing such (now) classic songs as ‘Do Re Mi’, ‘The Lonely Goatherd’ and ‘My Favourite Things’ … for Jean Bayless was the original ‘Maria’ in The Sound of Music when it opened in the West End in 1961. It seems incredible to think today that there was once a time when the songs of The Sound of Music weren’t imprinted word for word on the brains of most of the world’s population … but indeed there was, and Jean Bayless is the artiste who introduced them.

 I first met Jean Bayless after she was interviewed on a radio show about Rodgers and Hammerstein in 2004. Being a seventeen-year-old aspiring actor (who knew of her reputation and admired her performance preserved on the Original London Cast Recording of The Sound of Music) I wrote and asked her for advice about a career in the theatre. My stamped addressed envelope came back with a note inside: “Here’s my phone number, let’s meet for coffee.” A meeting was duly arranged and the whirlwind figure who breezed into the jewellers shop (the location of our rendezvous) looking like a woman half her age was hardly what you’d expect of a retired actress who made her stage debut in the 1940s. She was gentle. She was wild. She was a riddle, she was a child. She was a headache. She was an angel. She was a Star.

From there – and don’t ask me how this happened – I somehow became adopted into Jean Bayless’ life and family – and my world has been enriched immeasurably ever since. When I first met Jean Bayless I was star struck, as would anyone be when meeting a theatrical phenomenon. Now, almost eight years after that first coffee date, she is ‘Nanny Jean’. So contemporary is she that one forgets she is now an octogenarian. Yet, whilst so impressively modern in outlook, she remains a ‘classic’. The star quality with which she held audiences captive at the Palladium, the Palace, Broadway’s Royale Theatre, and even from a makeshift stage on the back of a truck in the Malaysian jungle, still runs through her veins as strong as ever. Once seen – either on or off the stage – Jean Bayless is never forgotten.

With the shop closed up for the night she and I take a taxi back to the flat and at last pause for breath after what, for her, has already been an exhausting day. Yet not a hair on her head is out of place. We sit in her “mini cinema” (with widescreen TV and reclining seats) overlooking the garden. Jean relaxes on the sofa in front of a poster of Kings Rhapsody which is pinned to the wall behind her – with Jean’s name, quite rightly above the title. To my left is the gold plaque which hung on her Palladium dressing room door in 1951 when she played ‘Princess Miranda’ in Humpty Dumpty. Apart from these two token items the room is strewn with recent photographs of her family, and toys and clothes belonging to her youngest granddaughters. At the moment they’re too young to “make them stay and listen to all you say”, but one day they’ll realise just how much their ‘Nanny Jean’ has done with her life – and she’s done virtually everything but “hold a moonbeam in her hand”.

Jean doesn’t often talk in depth about the past – but as she recalls her earliest childhood memories she looks out through the window and off into the distance. She can see in her mind, very clearly, the images of her early days – and, due to the powers of her vivid recall, so can I.

“I was born in the East End of London – the Chapel of St Luke’s in Shoreditch – I used to say that my mother was passing through there at the time in a Rolls Royce, but she wasn’t! We were really quite, quite, quite poor … but amazingly my grandmother had a little back yard and she grew grapes! She had these wonderful grapes in the East End of London under a little glass roof, which I’ll always remember. She made the most of everything she had. We had the most wonderful childhood. Granny brought us up. A holiday for poor people in the East End was to go to Kent hop picking (and those last two words are carefully enunciated in her perfect theatrical tones) and so Granny took us off in a lorry. The lorry was the most exciting thing that had ever happened! It would pull up and we’d have all the things that we needed as we were going to be at Farmer Mainwairing’s for about six or eight weeks picking hops! My grandmother earned a lot of money for those days – I think £60 – but she always wanted me to be on her vine – because I was the best picker – and I didn’t stop! And I don’t think I’ve stopped ever since!

“So … in the lorry away we went. When we got to the farm they put us in little huts, like caravans, on a hill. We had orange boxes covered with white lace to make little side tables, with candles on them. We must have been amongst the first people to own a duvet, which we stuffed with straw. My mother won the prize for the best hut! And this is my earliest memory: Looking up to the sky, with my father saying to me ‘There’s a Spitfire, and there’s the Germans!’ And then Daddy said ‘Oh, we’ve got him! We’ve got him!’ and I saw it coming down – zooooooooooooooom – down, down, down – and then we were actually fired on in the forest by German planes! My grandmother threw herself on top of me. You can’t fathom that they would be shooting at civilians – children! Every night we had to go to air raid shelters dug through the hills … Long clay tunnels which came out on the other side. Suddenly from this beautiful hop picking adventure, earning money, we were all transported back to London. During London air raids my mother put me into an all-in-one navy blue ‘siren suit’, which was something to throw on quickly in the middle of the night when the sirens went off. It was made out of soft wool and had a zip up the front. I loved getting into it, it was beautifully designed! Then my sister Florence, my brother Harry, my cousins and I were evacuated to Kings Lynn. I didn’t like it and wrote home, so Granny escorted us all up to Blackpool. As we were from the East End of London we had to be de-loused – I had to have a white vinegar ‘thing’ put on my head. It’s extraordinary looking back! We were requisitioned a house in Palatine Road with army blankets … But … Evacuees from London’s East End in Blackpool … we were looked down upon, really, but that was never a problem to me. But the things I saw … I saw mines and Doodlebugs … I wasn’t scared. Very strange.

“I was so spoiled. I had this red hair and everybody loved me, just like my little granddaughter Beaulah – she can’t do anything wrong! Blackpool is where my life really began – because my grandmother noticed that I could sing. I was in the girls’ choir – always at the front – and then as a soloist in the church choir – ‘God Loves A Little Garden’ …” Jean then breaks into song: “It matters not how small / The birds may sing / And blossoms bring His tender … something … to all …” Anyway, there I was! Grandmother sent me to a singing teacher and she used to buy glycerine and rose water for my throat. I had singing lessons opposite a munitions factory and we could hear them making parts for the planes! My aunt worked in the munitions factory and her white overalls were always covered in oil. Every week in my domestic science lesson we had to take in something to wash and iron, to teach us how to be good housewives. I always had to scrub and iron Auntie Lil’s oiled overalls! That was my contribution to the war effort! Then the war finished, the boys came back home and I went back to London.

“I was fourteen and I’d just left school. I got a job right away at the Co-Op. We were still on coupons – so a woollen sweater was six coupons – and cotton things were four coupons. My father belonged to a working men’s club called The Langham Club. It was run by a wonderful man called Billy Westwood and I used to sing at the club on a Sunday. They’d throw money up onto the table and I used to do quite well. I sang ‘We Are In Love With You, My Heart and I’ and ‘Because’. The pianist said to my father ‘Really Jean should be on the stage. She ought to go to a stage school.’  Through the pianist I got an audition for the Italia Conti Stage School, for which my sister Flossie made me a beautiful white dress. Daddy paid eighteen guineas for my first term at Conti’s … it was an enormous sacrifice as he only earned £2 12s 6d a week working in the cigarette factory. Meanwhile I still worked at the Co-Op in Tottenham. I remember learning Shakespeare in the Co-Op – and I loved it. I’d sit by the radiator learning Shakespeare … I’d get the tube from Manor House in Tottenham to Covent Garden to Piccadilly and then walk to Archer Street to go to Conti’s. And then – for no reason at all – I suppose I was very, very good – Conti’s offered me a scholarship! So then I had to pay them nothing except twenty percent of anything that I earned 

“I was a little East End girl that was now full time at Conti’s, and I had a wonderful elocution teacher called Miss Hitch-cock (The two syllables in the name ‘Hitchcock’ are carefully pronounced by Jean all these years later, which proves that Miss Hitchcock’s tuition must have been rather effective). It was Miss Conti herself who said to me ‘I think the first thing we’ll do, dear, is get rid of that little Cockney accent!’ That wasn’t difficult for me as I’d been to Blackpool so my vowels were a little more Northern – ‘likhe that’.

“So … I’m at Conti’s … And there’s Tony Newley! Milly Martin! Jean Bayless! Nanette Newman! And there we were …” And suddenly I notice that Jean has tears in her eyes. “The happiest … most wonderful time …” Her voice cracks – and is now a whisper: “Singing … with Miss Jacobs …” She’s been gazing out of the window all this time but now stops and looks at me. Her eyes are gently glistening. “Sorry,” she whispers, apologising. “I just suddenly saw … all the opportunities … It’s ridiculous really.” She takes a tissue and wipes her eyes. We’ve been talking about what was clearly a very special time in her life.

“Well,” she says, recovering herself with aplomb. “With my voice I was in everything, wasn’t I? After the first three months at Conti’s I was the leading lady, ‘Rosamund’, in Land Where The Rainbow Ends at the Cambridge Theatre in the West End. That was my first job, and they were getting their twenty per cent right away,” and she laughs. “Then I did Christmas Stocking at the Duke of York’s.  I was always able to get work at Covent Garden in the children’s chorus of the Opera House. I used to stay after we’d done our scenes to watch Eva Turner and Walter Midgley from the wings. He used to stop the show every night when he sang ‘Nessun Dorma’. And we always had to curtsey to Miss Turner! She was a large lady and once had to sing the line “I am lost!”, and a stage hand came up to me in the wings and said ‘Well, it won’t take long to find ‘er, will it, girl?’ I was able to catch the last tube home from Covent Garden after the show, so I could stay to the end of the opera – even though I was only fifteen!”

Jean appeared in various operas at Covent Garden, including Turandot and The Magic Flute, but a special moment came in La Boheme when she was selected from the children’s chorus to sing a solo line. “There I was, thinking that this was my big chance on stage at Covent Garden, so I came forward and sang in my best operatic voice ‘Want a gee-gee! Want a drum!’ And the conductor, Karl Rankle, stopped the orchestra and told me ‘No! No! Your big moment hasn’t come yet! Just sing it like a child!’ They wanted it far more whiney! I also did the first ever episode of Opportunity Knocks, and for a different TV show I had a song written for me, called ‘Priscilla Sue’. It was from the Alexandra Palace and was broadcast live – absolutely live. They had big stars introducing up and coming performers. Jack Buchanan introduced me. I sang ‘Clang Clang Clang Went The Trolley’ with a chap called Jack Hilliard. He tried to date me but my mother put him merrily on his way!

“The story of my real start was probably when … My mother … who was the most amazing woman …” and here again Jean has to pause as her nostalgia sweeps over her. “She … worked around the corner from Conti’s at the Anglo Palestinian Club, on Great Windmill Street … as a charwoman. She worked terribly hard. We used to leave together from Tottenham and she’d work cleaning these offices and polishing floors while I’d go to Conti’s for the day. We’d go home together on the 29 bus … from Leicester Square … and it was just … marvellous.” There’s a long pause and she reaches for another tissue. “What’s going on?” she asks me. “What’s going on??! Why am I doing this?!” She blows her nose determinedly. “It was hard for my mother, that was the thing. It was terribly hard for Mummy.” Her descriptions and emotions make me recall that in the 21st Century, whilst times aren’t easy, they were difficult for Jean’s generation – and the generation before her – in a way that we can’t really imagine today. “Anyway!” she says, snapping out of it again. “We’re there! … God!

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“Cecil Landau was one of the biggest producers in London. And his secretary was also the secretary of the Anglo Palestinian Club. Cecil was putting on a revue called Sauce Tartare and my mother told his secretary about me and the secretary got me in to sing for him … So really Mummy was the true instigator of that first big break – which mothers usually are, aren’t they? They see their children’s potential and they work hard at it. This put me in a new league. I was with Cecil Landau for two years with wonderful stars – I was in Sauce Tartare with Renee Houston and Claude Hulbert, and Sauce Piquant with Jessie Matthews and Bob Monkhouse. Cecil had five comics in the show!”

 Sauce Tartare programme Sauce Tartare

One of Jean’s fellow chorines was a young lady who within two years of Sauce Tartare would be catapulted to Academy Award winning Hollywood fame … Audrey Hepburn. “Audrey was the most beautiful girl. She was a dear friend and gave me my first pair of fishnets. Audrey’s mother was a Baroness. When they escaped from Holland during the war they were given an apartment by the government. They lived in South Audley Street which was very, very expensive and I used to go up to her flat. Although it wasn’t grand it was posh in comparison to the Tottenham council flat where I came from! But none of that – none of that – made any difference whatsoever, because when you’re all together in a show none of your backgrounds matter. The only thing that matters is your talent – your singing – whether you can do the job. We’d do a show called Christmas Party in the morning, then follow that with two shows of Sauce Tartare and then we went on to sing at Ciro’s nightclub after that. I danced with the Hollywood movie star Walter Pidgeon there. He asked Audrey and me to join his table, which we did, and I remember singing the ‘Tritsch Tratsch Polka’. It was an amazing cabaret – whereas today it’s all disco! We had pink table cloths, candlelight, romance, a beautiful little band – and a wonderful, wonderful cabaret. By the time I’d done the cabaret and got the 29 bus from Trafalgar Square back to Tottenham believe it or not my father would be there at two o’clock in the morning with his bicycle waiting for me! I would sit on the handlebar of his bicycle and he would take me home. He had to be up again early – but it didn’t mean a thing to him … I was his daughter. I look back and think he did all of that! I’d be up again at about nine getting on the bus to Leicester Square to go to the Cambridge Theatre, and do it all over again! The cabaret at Ciro’s was only for a short period – but my goodness, it was just ridiculous! But we weren’t tired. We weren’t tired, we loved it! I was earning more money than my father earned so I was contributing to the family coffers … and he was so proud.

Sauce Piquante programme

 

“Audrey designed me an evening dress – my first ever – and it was made of green satin. I had this long red hair and we were going to the Albert Hall for some function, it must have been at New Year. We all got a £20 salary and she bought two coats with her £20 – two coats for £10 each from Austin Reed. She bought a black and she bought a grey. And I bought a little plastic handbag. She did not approve and tried to teach me to have a little more taste. I’m afraid my money had to go a little further than coats! 

“Audrey and I shared a dressing room. My wonderful sister Florence came up to see us one day and said afterwards ‘Mummy! They were all in their bras and knickers!’ She was quite shocked! Marcel Le Bon, the male star of the show, was a young Maurice Chevalier. He was in love with Audrey. I adored him but he only ever said to me (for which Jean adopts a heavy French accent) ‘Jean, I love you as a sister. But Aud-e-rey I love as a woman!’ So, thanks very much, Marcel! He was divine and charming.”

 Fancy Free 1 Fancy Free 2

A flurry of shows followed including Fancy Free at the Prince of Wales with Tommy Trinder and the most glamorous theatre star of the era, Pat Kirkwood. “She was the most beautiful, wonderful, divine, sexiest woman. She had a husband – Spiro de Spero Gabriele (Jean enjoys drawing out the theatrical name) – and I used to go across to the Café de Paris with her and (again she draws it out) Spiro de Spero Gabriele – and she showed me glamour. True glamour.”

Jean and her colleagues Jennifer Jayne and Irissa Cooper were billed as “Three little starlets (reaching for a star)”. Their presence at social functions was much in demand: “The Australian cricket team had been to see the show and Tommy Trinder said he wanted me to go out to dinner with them so I said ‘Well, you’ll have to ask my mother first’. So Tommy gets on the phone to my mother in one of the corridors outside the dressing room and says ‘Mrs Bayless, you don’t have to worry, we shall take great care of your daughter. We’ve got these famous cricketers over – Charlie McCarthy – and we’re going to have a lovely evening’ and Mother says ‘Yes, yes, put my daughter back on the line, will ya please?’ So I say ‘Hallo, Mummy! Is that okay? Can I go with Charlie McCarthy and have a lovely evening?’ and she says ‘Get yourself back on that train and get back home!’ ‘Okay, Mummy!’ And that was it! I was brought up to absolutely obey her and I do respect her for it, but I missed some lovely times, I think!

Fortunately ‘Mummy’ wasn’t around to prevent something exciting happening in Birmingham where Jean was starring in panto … “I went to the pantomime ball in Birmingham and I met a reporter who said to me ‘You’re really a lovely girl, but you’re far too small for me to go out with!’ He must have been about six foot five! And then he said ‘But I’ve got a wonderful friend who I’d like you to meet,’ and I said okay … Because … And I know this is a terrible thing to say …” Jean speaks conspiratorially and adopts a knowing but naughty expression, “But if you are in the theatre – and you’re a girl – you don’t meet many … err … men! The reporter said ‘I’ll bring him to see the show and meet you, but could you bring the Fairy for me? Because she’s tall!’ So we arranged it so the actress playing the Fairy and he went out together. The reporter’s friend was David Johnson. The night he came to the show I peered out through the curtains at the side and looked up into the box – and there was this Greek God! He was the most handsome man I’d ever seen. He came round to the stage door and he said ‘Are you hungry?’ and I said ‘I’m starving!’ … And he always used to say ‘I’ve been feeding her ever since!”

Jean and David courted from that moment on – controversially in some eyes since he was from a Jewish family and thirteen years her senior – but that did nothing to diminish the romance, although, like any relationship, it had its rockier moments. “We have an argument … So I get on the phone to the War Office and they send me to Korea. David phones me and says ‘You can’t leave! We’re so in love!’ and I reply ‘Well, you go and speak with the War Office then!’ Every time David and I had a row I’d take myself to the War Office. That was it! We were finished! I was off! So I’m in Malaysia in the jungle in a truck with the comedian, his wife and an officer in the front with a long sten gun. And there’s me sitting in the back, heartbroken. The Royal Fusiliers were driving in front and behind our truck in lorries protecting us … and then suddenly, out of the blue, I hear someone yell ‘Ambush ahead!’ The officer says ‘Get on the floor of the car!’ The ambush begins, shots are flying and I’m on the floor with the comedian and his wife weeping ‘I’m never going to see David again!’ The Royal Fusiliers jump out into the jungle, fight the bandits, the ambush ends, and off we go to do the show! And we do the show on the back of a lorry, entertaining all these boys. The officers sat in the front, then the sergeants … I think the boys might have preferred more modern songs, but since I was a soprano I ‘got’ them with Novello and Puccini – ‘One Fine Day’. The curtains would open with a rattle and then we’d do a sketch in which a Mother tells a soldier that there’s no private room at her house for him to stay that night so he’s going to ‘have to sleep with Baby’. And the Soldier says he doesn’t want to ‘sleep with Baby’. And then I walk in, all bosoms and tight waist, and the Soldier says ‘Who’s that?’ and the Mother says ‘Oh, that’s Baby!’ and then there’s a blackout! And when I came back from Korea I was straight into David’s arms!”

 

Upon her return Jean appeared in pantomimes and summer seasons with Morecambe and Wise, Harry Secombe, Janet Brown, Peter Butterworth, Allan Jones and Norman Evans, amongst others (“I first met Danny La Rue when I was doing a summer season in Eastbourne. He was only eighteen and not yet in the theatre!”), and she also starred alongside Norman Wisdom in his own West End show. But when opportunity knocked in 1955 it was David who came to Jean’s rescue. “I’d auditioned for The Boyfriend and got down to six, and then down to two. At the time I was in Pick of the Pack with Joan Regan in Blackpool and Dickie Hurran, the director, came to me and said ‘We’ve had some news for you. You’ve been chosen to replace Julie Andrews in The Boyfriend on Broadway.’ I was absolutely delighted, but the first thing I said to Joan was ‘What are the dressing rooms like?!’ So I’m going off to America! But I’m not going, am I? Because I had a contract in Blackpool! David spoke with the management and paid them to release me. So they replaced me … and off I went to America to do The Boyfriend – leaving David for two years! But he never left me. He kept flying over and ruining my life! Oh, all the fun I might have had …!!

Boyfriend Broadway with Hewer

“I knew Milly Martin from Conti’s – she was already in the cast – but I didn’t know anyone else. On my opening night I was clapped into Sardi’s, which was rather nice … I was living in a hotel and Julie Andrews said to me ‘You can’t be alone in a hotel, come and sleep on our settee’. She shared an apartment with Milly and Dilys Laye, who had a double bedroom. Julie had a single, and they put me on the settee with their beautiful little daschund dog. It was terribly kind of them to invite me to stay, but I was the one who ended up wiping the dog’s mess and doing the shopping! Julie was flying off to Canada to see her boyfriend at the weekends and I was polishing the flat! But we did have a wonderful time in this fantastic apartment. At this point I’d had to re-name myself ‘Jo Ann Bayless’ as American Equity had decided that ‘Jean Bayless’ was too similar to the name of a comic they had, so I said yes. I didn’t care what they called me. I was just so happy to be on Broadway and working. So I was ‘Jo Ann’ for several years, which was quite fun!

 

Boyfriend - New York - when Jo Ann Bayless

 The curtain would rise and John Hewer, who played ‘Tony’ in The Boyfriend, had to explain to the American audience that what they were about to see was a pastiche, and not what the British were still doing! There were a few sophisticated cities which took objection to that, but he had such charm that it all worked out very well. If The Boyfriend is done as Sandy Wilson correctly insists it’s done then it is truly taken seriously. If you over-do it then it doesn’t work. So we believed in our parts. I was there with darling Annie Wakefield – the greatest ‘Maisie’ who ever lived. Everyone was so brilliantly cast. But after The Boyfriend was over I went back home – for David. Otherwise I might have stayed in the States. They tested me for Les Girls at MGM, and I met Elvis out there. But somehow Birmingham beckoned!

 “I became engaged to David whilst I was in America. He’d sent me his family tree in a written pamphlet. It said ‘David Johnson’ at the bottom of the tree and there was a little space next to his name for ‘Wife’. So I took that as a proposal! I went to a rabbi and became Jewish in Chicago while I was on tour … Well, David and I knew we were destined for each other. He’d flown over enough times! It must have been awfully hard for my Mother, though, having been brought up a Christian … But even in America after the war there was anti-semitism. I went with the cast to a club one night after the show and it said it was ‘Restricted’. I couldn’t go in! So John Hewer said ‘Right! We’re all leaving! We’re off!’ And everybody left!

 My dresser had told me where I could get some dresses wholesale so she took me to a warehouse where we met an English girl who worked there called Peggy. She was married to an American colonel who she’d met in Birmingham at her parents’ pub. I said to her ‘I’m engaged to a boy from Birmingham’, and – people do not believe this when I tell them, but it’s true – she said ‘Would that be David Johnson?’ And I said ‘How do you know?’ and she said ‘Well, he’s the most handsome man in Birmingham, so it would have to be him!’

 Harmony Close

Still as Jo Ann Bayless she returned to London and starred in an original musical, Harmony Close, with Bernard Cribbins at the Lyric Hammersmith, shortly after which Jean and David were married and they had their first son, Daniel.

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Channing, Tune will share a stage and a lifetime of stories

An article from the Boston Globe. Even over the phone from his home in New York, Tommy Tune’s excitement is contagious.

Carol+Channing+Tommy+Tune+Actors+Fund+Presents+KJ9rB0k238al

“Carol Channing is one of the greats of theater,” says the nine-time Tony Award-winning performer, director, and choreographer. “The fact that she’s willing to schlep across country and sit on stage and talk to me shows how full of life and love she is, and how eager she is to share it.”

Channing, best known for originating the role of Dolly Levi in Jerry Herman’s musical, “Hello, Dolly!,” will appear in Provincetown’s Town Hall on Thursday for “An Evening With Carol Channing & Tommy Tune,” as part of the Crown and Anchor series. Channing, the iconic platinum blonde with saucer-sized eyes, an even larger smile, and a distinctly throaty voice, first achieved fame in the Broadway production of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (a role Marilyn Monroe played in the film), and she earned an Oscar nomination for her role in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” as well as a Tony for “Hello, Dolly!”

Thursday’s appearance will not be a performance, just a conversation. At 93, Channing says there are no roles she’s still interested in playing. “I’m enjoying just being me right now,” she says via e-mail. “It’s a whole lot easier. I get applause for just telling people my age.”

Tune says the format will be fairly relaxed. “I’m inviting people to send questions via the Internet,” he says. “I know what I want to hear her talk about, but I’ve known her since I was 17 and don’t want to ask too many obscure questions.”

Channing and Tune, 75, met when he was working his first job for Dallas Summer Musicals, which presents Broadway shows in his native Texas. “She was booked for a week in ‘Show Girl,’ ” says Tune, “and when I saw this tall, gorgeous blonde stride onstage singing, I was smitten. And we’ve been friends ever since.”

Says Channing, “Tommy and I have a bond that is very special. We had an immediate connection when we met years ago in Texas. I fell in love with his mother, and Tommy became my spiritual godson.”

Over the years, Tune says, Channing is the person he turns to for advice before he makes any big decisions, whether it was how to play Vegas (“You must start with the finale and go up from there”), sartorial suggestions (“Always dress up. It shows the audience you think they’re important”), or how to be interviewed by a journalist (“Decide exactly what you want to talk about and stick to it”).

Channing says she hasn’t really mothered too many other aspiring performers but, she says, “When you travel and work that closely with people, you become a family of sorts. You care for and worry about them.”

Tune says he and Channing come from the old school of theatrical touring. “I always say that theater is a blue-collar job,” he says. “It’s almost a religious ritual when you sign up for the living theater. You have to dedicate your life to it. That discipline is what she inspires.”

Both Tune and Channing agree that the commitment to learning and rehearsing pays off when what they do looks easy to an audience. “It takes a lot of work and rehearsal to appear to be winging it,” says Channing. “I was fortunate enough to be in 10 Broadway shows, and three were smash hit musicals. Between the out-of-town tryout and opening night on Broadway . . . well, I don’t think any of us slept for weeks.”

For “Hello Dolly!,” she says, “Poor Jerry [Herman] was working on music until all hours. When he finished “Before the Parade Passes By,” he called me in my room around 1 a.m. and we went over it for a couple hours, and then woke poor Gower [Champion, the director] up at 3 a.m. to come listen.”

Still, Channing, with her distinctive style, is a performer whose persona dominates a role rather than one who disappears into a character.

“I don’t know that any person is the character, as much as we bring ourselves to the role,” Channing says. “Dolly has been played by many wonderful women, who did great jobs by bringing themselves into their idea of Dolly. Oh, Pearl Bailey! She was wonderful. When Marilyn played Lorelei in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,’ she was wonderful, because she made the character her own. She didn’t do it anything like the portrayal I did on Broadway . . . and they made her watch me every night for two weeks, second row center.”

Tune laughs at the suggestion that Channing would disappear into a role. “She’s an original,” he says. “The word ‘unique’ applies to her and Louis Armstrong more than anyone else I know.”

In Bed with Elaine Stritch: One of Her Final Interviews

Elaine Stritch, who died on Thursday at 89, sat down with Ramin Setoodeh in February for Variety to talk about the new documentary about her life as a legendary stage and screen actress. When he  got to her hotel on the Upper East Side, Stritch didn’t feel like she had enough energy to get out of bed, so she invited me into her room. It wasn’t a conventional interview. Stritch stayed under the covers with her white sneakers propped up. Her answers often had nothing to do with the questions, and she’d close her eyes between thoughts, as if she was about to fall asleep. Then she’d spring back to life with another story.

elaine-stritch-last-interview

Stritch was joined that day by a man who identified herself as her interior designer, an assistant and Chiemi Karasawa, the director of “Elaine Stritch: Just Shoot Me.” She agreed to let the doc’s cameras follow her for a year, for an an unflinching look at her struggles with diabetes, alcoholism and aging. (The critically acclaimed-doc is likely to factor in this year’s awards season race.) Here’s an edited transcript of one of her final interviews.

You’re getting attention on the Internet today.

Oh, that’s great. Isn’t that good? There’s so much sarcasm in the world, you never know if anybody is serious or not. It’s getting to be mind-boggling.

The reason you’re trending is because you said the f-word on “Today.”

I did? In regards to what?

I think you said it by mistake.

No, I never say the f-word by mistake. I do it on purpose. [To her interior designer]: You should sit down for five minutes!

Interior designer: I was redecorating your room. I want you to see the fireplace from your bed.

Stritch: God, I can’t believe it’s such a lousy day. Is it going to get better?

Karasawa: It’s nice to see a little snow.

Stritch: Not when you got an infection in your left leg and you can’t get in the car because you can’t walk anymore. That’s a little tough, when the weather turns on you. This lovely car pulled up, and the door swung open, and I’m getting all this attention like the queen of the May, and I look down and there’s a pool of water!

How many times have you seen the movie?

About three. Oh, I loved it. I thought everybody did their job so well, which was no surprise to me, because everybody on this film is really talented. Kind of offbeat talented. They weren’t just a bunch of kids that were doing a documentary. I wanted to treat it with a combination of humor and tragedy.

Did you like to have cameras around?

It didn’t bother me.

There’s a scene with you performing and you forget your lyrics on-stage. Was that frustrating?

I was 88. That’s late in life to be remembering Noel Coward lyrics. He used to have a contest with me. I knew what I was talking about when I talked about lyrics. I said, “I will not make one mistake tonight in my lyrics, Mr. Coward.” [Pause.] What’s your first name?

Ramin.

I can’t remember your name. It’s odd.

Karasawa: You should have seen her when I was trying to initially teach my name, Chiemi. She finally said, “What does your mother call you?” I said, “Chiem.” She said, “That’s what I’m calling you, Chiem.”

I noticed you joined Twitter.

Yes, isn’t that interesting? I recently found that I did too.

Did you like doing “30 Rock”?

No.

You’re not being serious.

Yes, I am. I want broader comedy than that. I never had a question in my mind about Noel Coward’s humor. I knew there was a basic humor in Noel Coward that was healthy and funny and fast. And the melodies were funny and fast. Oh, I loved Noel Coward with a passion.

How did you meet Stephen Sondheim?

I met him at a big party at a very close friend of mine in Michigan. He was a producer. I was studying to be an actress. And I saw this guy across a crowded room, and it was something about him that really blew my mind, because I knew how smart he was and it was scary.

Did he offer you a role that night?

No, I think he was attracted to me. I’m an unusual broad.

James Gandolfini is featured in the movie.

I don’t want to talk about Gandolfini, because I’m too emotional about it. I haven’t gotten over it yet. It just broke my heart is what he did. Like die. When I think of the work that we missed from this guy. To see “The Sopranos” would have meant some kind of an exit for a great actor, and it was his first big part.

Were you a “Sopranos” fan?

Oh yes. It was the only time I walked up a flight of stairs at the Carlyle when the elevator wouldn’t come. How did that music go?

 

Interior designer: 70s porn music.

Did you hear about a woman recently arrested for forgetting to return your movie “Monster-in-Law.”

What?!  Wait. Hold the phone. I want to know what part she watched.

Was it fun making that movie?

No, I made it fun for me, so I could stand to be out there. But, you know, I love it that people think I had a ball. I think it’s great when you can confuse people and convince them, “Oh boy, you look like you’re having a ball.” I know Walter Matthau used to go, “We did it again.” Because he wasn’t having any fun at all. He was sick of getting up at 6 o’clock, and he wasn’t well. And the same thing with Jack Lemmon, he was tired. We’re all tired. I decided to pack up again and give it another shot. I’m very happy that I did. I didn’t declare any retirement. If somebody sent me a play in the mail, I’d grab it, if there was a good scene.

Would you come back on Broadway?

Yes, if they pay me and I like the play.

What would you like to do?

A new play that I’ve never read before. Or I can settle down in Michigan and do a revival of a play. I love Ann Arbor.

The interview ends and he got up, when Stritch calls out, “Where did my darling interviewer go?”

I’m leaving.

Oh. Are you? It was lovely talking to you. It’s fine if I could be interviewed here and not in some fluffy place.

 

I really loved the movie.

I get so glad when somebody approves of me. Even now. I just get a thrill.

AN INTERVIEW WITH JIM DALE

By Ken P.and conducted in 2003

To a generation of children raised on the Harry Potter phenomenon, Jim Dale gives voice to literally hundreds of their favorite characters on the Potter audio books.

To my generation, he was the villainous Dr. Terminus in Pete’s Dragon – whose plan to dissect Elliott for his very valuable dragon parts still brings a shiver to my spine (and a memory of the wonderful song that accompanied the nefarious plot).

 

1k jim daleDale is also an accomplished comedian, singer, and theatre actor whose career stretches back 50 years – and it has just been announced this past weekend that he will be awarded an MBE (Member in the Order of the British Empire) from Queen Elizabeth II in the 2003 Royal Birthday Honours List. This honor is bestowed on civilians who have distinguished themselves through exceptional achievement or service.

IGN FILMFORCE: Am I correct in remembering that you were born in Rothwell?

JIM DALE: It’s a very small town – it’s in the very centre of England, about 72 miles north of London, yup.

IGNFF: This would be when, the mid-’30s?

DALE: The mid-’30s, yeah.

IGNFF: How would you describe that sort of environment at that time, growing up?

DALE: Oh, the environment there? It was just before World War II, so it was a very sort of wonderful time for a young kid to be born. It was in the country, obviously, so my front door in the house lead into all the fields, and I literally lived in the fields. I worked on a farm – when I say worked, I went to the farm almost every day to help out. So I was a country boy, really a country boy, and I’d seen very little of theater… I’d seen very little of musicals. On those occasional trips later on, to London, it was quite a thing to hear a couple of thousand people laughing, instead of a few hundred people cheering at a football game.

IGNFF: Being as far away as you were from London proper, what were the war years like for you?

DALE: The war years for me – I have certain memories of them. We were obviously rationed. We had a certain amount of food, and every week we had a certain amount of candy that we were allowed to have. I remember we were in the area where there were American Air Force bases, and there were British Air Force bases. Every night the sky was filled with the sound of hundreds of bombers going over to Germany to drop their bombs over there. Occasionally, in the daytime, we would see fighter planes in the sky fighting some sort of attack from the Germans. We’re not very far from Coventry, which was completely bombed and wiped out during the war. Blitzed it was. I remember seeing a German plane come over and somebody leaping out and parachuting to the ground. About half an hour later, at the bottom of the street, I saw this guy – obviously the pilot – with his parachute in his arms, being escorted by our local policeman, who was just pushing his bicycle alongside the guy, trying to talk to him. It was all very friendly 

IGNFF: I can’t even imagine that kind of environment.

DALE: How about that, yeah.

IGNFF: So it was sort of a distant, observational thing for the most part?

DALE: Yeah, I suppose so. My father was too old to go into the army, so he spent the war years as an ARP, Air Raid Police, and he spent a number of weeks up in London helping out there. Came back with vivid stories, plus mementos – like pieces of aircraft, pieces of buzz bombs they used to drop on London. So I had a whole collection of memorabilia of aircraft and rockets, et cetera.

IGNFF: In those country towns, what was the education system like?

DALE: The education system was okay. You moved from a very small school for 4-year-olds to 7, then another school from 7 to 11, another school from 11 to 15 – which was the grammar school – and then you went on to university.

IGNFF: At what point did your first inklings of performing start?

DALE: Oh, that came about when I went to London to see a big musical there, and it so knocked me out I said to my father, “I’d like to do that… make people laugh.” So that’s when I started dancing. He encouraged me to take up dancing, because that was the best way to learn movement as far as he was concerned. He used to work in a theater when he was a kid. My grandmother, she had a house outside the stage door of the theater in the nearest big town, which was called Kettering, and it was called the Savoy. In those days, for more money, she let out one or two of her rooms to the local theater people – or I should say the visiting theater people. My father was in a wonderful position of having breakfast with some of the big stars who were visiting Kettering, which included the great Houdini. My dad actually worked in Houdini’s act as a young boy, while he visited Kettering. Dad had to disappear, then appear at the back of the theater, running down the aisle saying, “I’m here! I’m here! I’m here!” Or something like that. So Dad had a little inkling of show business, and obviously he knew the secret of all theater – which is movement.

IGNFF: It’s very surprising for a parent of that time to encourage performing arts.

DALE: Yep, absolutely. He himself was a pianist, so from him I got my interest in music, et cetera.

IGNFF: Were you able to pursue dance in your area, or was it something you had to travel to get to?

DALE: Yes… it’s lucky. There was a dancing school in Kettering, but it only had girls. So I was the only guy there, only young boy. I keep saying I had more fights in tights than any other kid. While everybody else was playing football, I was doing ballet, you know, or tap, or eccentric comedy dancing, or ballroom dancing, or national dancing. There were a hell of a lot of lessons I went to, and I continued that from the age of about 9 to 15 – it was 6 years of it.

IGNFF: I’m sure the other kids were a bit confused by it.

DALE: Well, they didn’t know who the hell I was. I didn’t know who I was either. It was during those times that I used that talent for tap dancing and all that to do some local shows, talent contests and all that, so that gave me an inkling of what it was like to face an audience. Then, later on, I started to bring some comedy into the routines.

IGNFF: What was it like for you, during your first performances?

DALE: Well, you know, obviously when you’re that young, you live off of sympathy – especially if you’re a comic. The jokes were very simple jokes, and they were local audiences. Don’t forget – this is a small town, so they all knew me. I’d be in a competition one week with a ballet dancer and a guy who played the spoons, and he would win. Then the next week, I’d win and he’d come second. The third week, the ballet dancer would win and I’d come second. So we took it in turns to win.

IGNFF: So everyone got a fair shot.

DALE: Everybody got a fair shot at entertaining. Of course, this was in the days before television, so there were lots of opportunities to put yourself in front of an audience. There were some local clubs there that encouraged all the family to go along, and they were entertained by the local people and visiting artists. So I took my place among all of those people.

IGNFF: How do you start to move outside the local circle?

DALE: That came about when an audition came along. There was a guy who arrived with his show at that Savoy Theater in Kettering, a discovery show. He was very well known through his radio shows of discovering young people and giving them an opportunity to present their talent on the radio. He also had this show that toured all the big musicals. It was a discovery show, and they had their young discoveries in there. They came to Kettering, and the first act, the first half of the show, was going to be people who traveled with him, and the second half of the show was going to be local talent that he discovered at the audition on Monday morning. So I, along with 2 or 300 other people who appeared, went along there for an audition on Monday morning in front of this giant, Carroll Leviss to try to get into the show. That’s how it happened. He didn’t like my impressions at all, but I did an accidental trip as I came on the stage and he said, “That was very funny. Get an act where you fall over and come back tonight.” That’s how simple it was. I went home, quickly put together a routine – I was only 17 – and came back and I did this routine in front of him and the audience, and he loved it and the audience liked it. He asked me to become a permanent member of the show. So two weeks later I joined him, and stayed with him visiting every, every musical – big and small – in England and Scotland and Ireland and Wales for the next two years.

IGNFF: Was it a big culture shock to move from your small town?

DALE: Yeah, it was great. It was great to get away. My ambition had been to leave Rothwell, and lots of people’s ambition is just to sort of marry the girl next door. But my ambition had been to leave… it was to join show business in some way. Now, of course, I was having the opportunity to be a part of show business – in a very, very small way, mind you – but giving me an opportunity of traveling, of meeting people, of appearing on different stages and hearing different accents and dialects, and meeting different types of people. So I was learning at a very early age what is invaluable to any performer – the experience. Early experience of communicating with an audience.

IGNFF: What were the difficulties of that kind of schedule?

DALE: I suppose the difficulties were my age. I was very, very young. I had to resort to absolutely clean material – it was clean material I was desperate to do, because that was the only type of comedy that was acceptable to the theater managers. The theater manager would come to you and say, “Look, you’re going to go away at the end of the week, and my customers are going to be coming back, so I don’t want you to drive them away with your dirty comedy material, if you have any. So cut out all the rude jokes, cut out all the blue material, and just give my family audience a good show.” That warning was given to every comedian, which meant that the musical circuit contained very, very good material, very clean material, and material that was worthy of being heard by a family audience.

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IGNFF: Were there performers that wouldn’t comply with that?

DALE: Yes, and what happened to those performers was the curtain was dropped on them. They dropped the curtain, and their name was circulated to other theater managers around the circuit and they were banned from appearing. So the penalty for going against all this was quite severe.

IGNFF: What would you say would be the worst audience or worst date you ever played?

DALE: That would be Scotland. That would be Glasgow on a Friday night.

IGNFF: What were the reasons for it being so disastrous?

DALE: Well, they didn’t like the English up there, especially English comics – especially young English comics, and I was about 17 or 18. What they would do to frighten the hell out of you was – in those days the English penny was quite a large coin, measuring about an inch and a quarter across, inch and a half across… a very big coin. These guys would take these coins into their workshop and get the grinding wheel going and sharpen the edges of it, so that it was sharp nearly all the way around, like a knife, a razor – except for the two places where they could hold it in their thumb and finger, to enable them to throw it. You understand?

IGNFF: That’s pleasant.

DALE: So you would be doing your act and suddenly you would hear jeering from the second balcony, and suddenly thud – you would go down and see a penny embedded in the stage. You’d go to pick it up and you couldn’t get it out of the stage, it was buried in it. It’s a frightening, frightening, frightening experience. To see five of six of these pennies embedded in the stage by the time you finished. They could have been embedded in your head.

IGNFF: Was anyone injured?

DALE: On one of the nights it went through the bass drum – the guy was in the pit, completely out of sight, what I thought, to the audience sitting in the auditorium – but not to the second balcony. They threw a penny, and a penny missed the stage and went straight through one of his drums that was obviously visible. It went straight through it, a very big slit straight through it. So it was a pretty dangerous place to be.

IGNFF: Is that the kind of thing where you just sucked it up and finished the act?

DALE: What happened, like an idiot – they were jeering and I called out, “I’ve got one word for you.” And the guy called out, he said, “What?” And I said, “Jump.” They were waiting for me afterwards, and so I was beaten up just as I came out the stage door. These guys stopped me and said, “Are you the bastard who called back to us?” I said, “Yeah, it was quite a funny joke, wasn’t it?” The result of it, I limped on stage the next day with a black eye and I said, “A funny thing happened to me on my way back from the theater last night.”

IGNFF: Well, at least you were able to use it for material.

DALE: I had to, because I was limping. I couldn’t do my dance routine anymore.

IGNFF: How often would you play Glasgow?

DALE: Once.

IGNFF: So once was enough?

DALE: Once was enough, yeah.

IGNFF: I guess that would qualify as the worst experience.

DALE: Looking back now, yes.

IGNFF: How would you define a good night?

DALE: A good night was when the audience were really with you, they were a happy audience, something had happened – maybe there was good news in the newspapers that day and everybody was in a great mood. Maybe it’d been a nice day and everybody had been out in the sun, something like that. Maybe it was just because I felt good that night and was really going all out. On those nights, it’s lovely to hear the whole audience laughing and applauding you – especially a young kid. That’s the encouragement that you need.

IGNFF: Well, that kind of scenario – being a kid, out on the road – it seems like it’s ripe for people being taken advantage of. Were there any protections against that?

DALE: No, there were no protections whatsoever. Actually, looking back on it now, I was with all these kids, Carroll Leviss Teenage Discoveries, and no time that I was with them, sharing digs with them, did I hear any stories or witness anything about these kids being taken advantage of. It was just very alien and unheard of.

IGNFF: And financially, no one was rooked out of any money?

DALE: No, looking back on it, I can’t remember anything. Nobody was ever molested by stagehands – and we were kids – we were 16, 17, 18 years of age. But we didn’t have any people there to look after us, we just looked after ourselves. As I said to you, I can’t remember looking back and even hearing of anybody being screwed out of money or beaten up or molested or anything like that. Those were what they called the innocent days, in every way.

IGNFF: It’s amazing.

DALE: Absolutely, absolutely.

IGNFF: Especially when you describe the venues you were playing, that nothing ever happened.

DALE: That’s right.

IGNFF: How long did you play that circuit?

DALE: Well, there were many circuits … the great big Empire Circuit theaters. Then you have the smaller ones, and then the even third rate ones. So we jumped from one to another … We got our taste of the very best and the very worst.

IGNFF: How many years could you stay with the juvenile acts?

DALE: They finally caught up with me to join the Royal Air Force, to do my national service, when I was about nearly 19. I was forced to join the Royal Air Force program, compulsory two years, which I did.

IGNFF: Was this the time they declared anyone born after 1940 was not required?

DALE: Actually, I think it was 1936 or something. I was one of the last ones to be caught, as it were. I was furious, because I just started my career, and now there I was stuck in Germany entertaining the troops with a guitar, singing away.

IGNFF: Do you think that was, in hindsight, a valuable experience in getting out of the country – or it just ground your career to a halt?

DALE: Not at all, not at all. I think it was just a waste of my life there. I tried to work in the theater as much as I could when I was in the Royal Air Force in England, for 14 months. See, they were waiting for me. I had been on television, doing my first comedy routine on television, and I was due to join the Royal Air Force the following week. I thought, “What can I do, as a way of a comedy act?” I had the announcer say, “Jimmy’s just about to join the Royal Air Force next week, and we’re giving him his big opportunity today.” So I came on the stage and started to do my act, and then suddenly two – I’d arranged for this, I got two guys, we rehearsed this – and they came on dressed as military policemen with a big kit bag and they came and interrupted my act. They said, “It’s not next week, it’s tonight. You’re late.” There was me desperately trying to do my comedy routine, and I’m being kitted out by some Royal Air Force men. Finally, I was frog marched off the stage, and I’m still trying to get the tagline of a joke out. I thought it was funny, the audience thought it was, but the powers that be at Padgate didn’t. They were waiting for me the next week – there were about 8 or 900 of us in a hanger. We’d just arrived and the sergeant stood on a table and said, “Anybody’s name here Smith?” Because my name was Jim Smith in those days, James Smith, Young Jim Smith. About 12 of us stood up, and he said, “Jim Smith, comedian.” The other 11 sat down, and there was just me standing there. He said, “Come out here.” I marched out to the front, and he said, “Get on that table.” Then he called out to the 900 kids, he said, “We don’t mind you taking the mickey out of the Royal Air Force, lads, we all do it. But when you’ve got the gall and the bloody cheek to do it in front of 3 or 4 million people, that’s going a bit too far, isn’t it laddie?” And that was it. Instead of 8 weeks training, which is what you should do at Padgate – which is a very strict training camp – I was held there for 14 months. They kept me there for 14 months. Not absolutely training, I did my 8 weeks training then I was put onto permanent staff there – and my job was to have a new musical, a new show every three weeks, I think it was. I had to get the talent from the new guys who had just arrived, so I would march into the village and say, “Has anyone here been in the theater before?” And of course they all came from farm country, they all came from very poor housing estates, nobody had been on the stage. So within three weeks I had to get maybe 10 of them, dress them as women, and have them doing a knees-up Mother Brown routine across a stage like the Rockettes. It was crazy. I was lumbered trying to create entertainment on the base for another year.

IGNFF: Well, there must have been something positive in having to …

DALE: That was positive, that was good. I mean, what did I know? I was only 19. So, with my little bit of experience, I managed to put on some sort of camp show for them… camp in every way. It was fun – that part of it was. Then I was finally sent to Germany to finish my service over there, and nobody wanted to know about camp shows there, because they were out every Saturday night to the local town where all the dances were and the girls were. All I could do was entertain at the bingo. So that took me up to about 20, 21 when I came out of the Royal Air Force.

IGNFF: How does that affect your standing within the circuit you were once in?

DALE: Oh, I didn’t go back to that show. That show had sort of passed on by that time. I went back to being what I thought was a stand-up comic. I had an agent who’d seen me before I went into the Royal Air Force who said he would represent me as soon as I came out. So I joined him, and his name was Stanley Dale, and so my name was Jim Smith. One day I got a contract saying, “Jim Dale, care of Stanley Dale.” They’d made a mistake, and I thought, “Well, the name looks good. So I’ll change it.” There was another Jim Smith that was a comic and he was getting better reviews than I was, so there was good reason to change your name. So I became Jim Dale. For the next couple of years I was touring the country as a stand-up comic.

IGNFF: Was it different touring independently, outside of the group?

DALE: I’m a little more adult by this time, but I was on my own. Before, I’d been with lots of kids who were friends of mine, you know – we were always a crowd. We went everywhere. During the day we’d go to the cinema together, we’d go to the parks together, we’d go swimming together. This time, I was just me on my own, so it was a very lonely life. Very lonely life, and every week was different. You were in a different room of people. This wasn’t a traveling show… I went to a different theater every week with a different number of stars or performers. I never knew who I was going to meet. By the time Friday came, you’d just got around to saying, “Hello, would you like to have a coffee?” and then by the time Sunday came, you were on a train elsewhere and never seeing each other again, maybe. There was a very big community of people on the road in those days, because there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of theaters throughout the country. The big cities had maybe three or four of them. Everybody was traveling.

IGNFF: I’m assuming the audience makeup was different for those shows?

DALE: No, they were still music hall. The thing about music hall – it attracted the same audiences because it was the only entertainment that town had. So it had its regular customers. Every week, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and their two children would go on a Thursday night. Their neighbors would go on a Friday night. For other people it was Tuesday night they chose to go to the music hall. But a great number of the townspeople always made the local music hall a stop one day of the week, it didn’t matter who was on. It didn’t matter who was there. That was their local thing they did, every certain day of the week.

IGNFF: So, essentially, it was the same places you played with the juvenile act, but you were just independent this time.

DALE: It was the same places, yeah.

IGNFF: I’m assuming it’s very similar to the vaudeville circuit in the U.S.

DALE: It’s not quite like the vaudeville, but it was just as hectic I think.

IGNFF: Were the dangers different, being a single act touring on your own?

DALE: No, not really… I don’t think there were any dangers. I mean, seriously, I never experienced anything in the way of anything criminal that went on there. Not to my eyes. I never experienced it, and I did it for a number of years.

IGNFF: What other aspirations did you have at that time?

DALE: Aspirations when you’re a comedian and you’re in a small theater and it’s Tuesday and there’s about a dozen people in, your aspirations that night are not to necessarily play the London Palladium – your aspirations that night is to make that guy in the second row put his newspaper down and recognize that you’re up there and you exist, and you’re trying to entertain him. That’s all you can think about, that I’m playing to 12 people and 1 of them doesn’t even know I’m here. So there were no big aspirations to star, to be a big star in those days – it was just work. It was just getting experience. Something lucky might come up later – that’s all we lived on. The possibility that we might be seen by somebody. Obviously we didn’t have the talent to go straight to the Palladium, but we might be given a little leg up the ladder by being put in the company of another comedian on his bill, so that we could learn from him. Or given an opportunity on a radio show – or this new medium called television, which was just raising its head.

IGNFF: So it’s not something you could actively pursue…

DALE: No. No.

IGNFF: So what was the big break for you?

DALE: The big break for me was when a rock and roll show started on television. We didn’t have many rock and rollers in England – we didn’t have any, just half a dozen singers. We’d heard of Elvis and the rock and roll thing starting. I’d always strummed the guitar, so I was asked to go along as a comedian to warm up the audience for this rock and roll show. So I warmed them up with 5 or 6 minutes of my humor, and then I said, “Can I borrow your guitar?” to some kid there. He said, “Yes,” and I took it and I sang a song. The producers phoned me up during the week, or my agent, and said, “We’d like Jim to come back next week, actually to be on the show.” I said, “You want me to do comedy on the show?” They said, “No, forget the comedy, but we’d like you to sing.” I said, “But I’m not a singer, I’m a comedian.” They said, “Well, you sang last week. We’ll give you a song to sing and you’ll come back on as a singer.” So this happened, and then they called me back and said, “We want you on next week.” They didn’t have enough talent in England to fill out an hour’s show. So Jim became a regular, singing a song until one day a guy phoned up, he said, “Hello, my name’s George Martin. I’m a recording manager, and I’ve just started work for EMI. Why the hell don’t you record one of your own songs, or an English song, instead of promoting all these American songs, and I’ll record you?” That was my introduction to Sir George Martin. I became one of his first recording artists. Myself, I was in the pop field, and Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth were in the jazz side of it. This was a few years before the Beatles, obviously.

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IGNFF: When would this be?

DALE: That was about ’57, I think… something like that. I stayed with George for a number of years. One number was number two in the Hit Parade – that’s about as high as I got. I made half a dozen records with him.

IGNFF: Where are all these records now?

DALE: Well, they’re in museums throughout the country. No, they’re not – you can find them in junk shops, all over the place. I went into one junk shop, and they had all these old 10-inch breakable records, and I looked through them, and it said, “Jim Dale, ‘Be My Girl.'” I said to the owner, I said, “Hey! Look at this!” He said, “What?” I said, “It’s by Jim Dale!” He said, “So?” I said, “Well, it’s ‘Be My Girl’!” He said, “So?” I said, “Well, that was a big hit for Jim Dale – ‘Be My Girl.'” He said, “So?” I said, “How much is it?” He said “4 p.” Now, 4 p is like 6 cents. I said, “4 p, for a Jim Dale record?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “It’s worth 4 pounds, of anybody’s money.” He said, “All right, 4 pounds.” I said, “That’s better,” and I peeled off four pound notes and gave them to him. I’m not going to be sold cheap.

IGNFF: Did it make you feel better?

DALE: It made me feel much better. You’d be surprised – kids in those days, they’ve still got some of these records. I keep hearing from people. So, anyway, I stayed with George Martin and became known then as a pop singer, going back to the same musical theaters that I had been before, but now gone were the family audiences. This was a theater packed with hysterical, screaming teenage girls. You know? That were around in those days of the rock and roll era, and I became part of all that craziness for a couple of years.

IGNFF: Did it make you feel like a star at the time?

DALE: No, it just made me think, “Where the hell were you when I needed you a few weeks ago?” So two years of that, and I’d had enough. I appeared in a film. I did so many television shows it’s unbelievable. I was on the radio a hell of a lot and I got my face to be known, but I didn’t enjoy it. So I said, “I’m giving it all up and I’m going to go back to comedy.”

IGNFF: To everyone’s dismay?

DALE: Yeah, I suppose so. Not mine, I just hated it all. I just didn’t like it. I had girls sleeping on my doorstep outside my house, and my wife just hated the idea of that.

IGNFF: I can imagine that might be the case.

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DALE: So a guy from Southern Television, which is Southampton, got in touch with me. He said, “I’m the head of the television scene down here. You say you want to get back to comedy – I’ll give you a lunchtime show with the option of a further two. Just one, with an option of two.” I went to see him, and I said, “Well, can we put sketches in the show?” And he said, “Yes, provided you sing in it as well.” So, by the time we finished, we had a one hour lunchtime show – and it wasn’t just one with an option of two, we actually stayed down there doing three shows a week for two years. We were writing our own comedy sketches, so that was something like 600 plus sketches I wrote, with a guy called Dick Vosbrugh, who is a very good writer, and two or three other script writers as well. So that was my introduction to television as it were, proper.

IGNFF: Did you enjoy the format more than playing theaters?

DALE: Absolutely. Oh yes, I was my own boss then. I wasn’t being dictated to. See, in theater, I’d take my guitar off to tell a joke, and the whole audience would scream, “Put it back on!” And they didn’t want to hear my jokes. They just wanted singing. That wasn’t interesting to me. So at least I was back doing what I love to do, which was inventing comedy and performing it.

IGNFF: How long was each program?

DALE: An hour, three times a week. Three days a week, a one-hour show, so it took quite a lot of putting together, and a lot of rehearsal time and writing time was necessary.

IGNFF: Did your experience with the RAF influence your ability to put those shows together?

DALE: Yeah, I think that came about, having to quickly put up stuff.

IGNFF: See, and you said the RAF stuff was useless…

DALE: The latter part of it, in Germany, was useless. The earlier part, putting together the shows, was helpful, because I found the secret of it. If you’re going to do a two-minute sketch, start off with a joke. Make it a joke that becomes a sketch, and then work back from the tagline. Work back from the funny tagline 

IGNFF: So it’s just being able to improvise on the spot.

DALE: Yeah, literally. Start with a funny ending, and work your way back so that you end with a laugh, as against a blackout with nothing. At least we ended our sketches with a laugh.

IGNFF: Do any of these programs still survive?

DALE: No, I think this was before videotape. That’s why we did – in those days, there was no taping of it, you did it live. Earlier on I did a magic show that was put on, we did it in London on the Tuesday, then had to go by train up to Manchester and rehearse the show and do it live on Thursday. With the advent of tape, you wouldn’t have to – it would have just been shown on the Thursday. So there was a lot of extra work due to the fact we couldn’t capture it on tape.

IGNFF: Was there a point where the grind began to get to you?

DALE: Oh yeah – there’s a grind to everything, after a while. You start to O.D. on it all, or you’re working too hard, so you need to take time off. I’ve always tried to pace myself that way. When I felt really tired, I knew I wasn’t doing my best – so, you know, just get out of it for a few weeks or months and do something else. I don’t mean just sit on your ass – I meant get out and do something else. Travel up another branch of show business that you haven’t explored.

IGNFF: Around this time you started doing more films, right?

DALE: I started to do disc jockey work for the BBC, and that was interesting as well. Then I started to do Carry On films, yes. Many other things. I continued songwriting. So there were many things that would keep me occupied, rather than just sitting on my ass watching the sun go down over a sea somewhere.

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IGNFF: I know that Americans don’t really know much about the Carry On films, which are a huge phenomena in the U.K. How would you condense what exactly the Carry On films were?

DALE: All right. You’re looking at a screen, it has a house on it. You see someone walk up, opens the door, there’s an empty field behind it. That’s an American film. You see a house, somebody walks up, opens the front door. There’s a field behind it, and there’s a urinal sitting in the field – that’s the French version of it. Carry On, there’s the house, somebody walks up to the front door, opens up the door. There’s the field, there’s the urinal, and there’s somebody with his back to it, using it. In other words, push it to the extreme, be as crude as you possibly can without being too, too disgusting. In other words, we didn’t show bare breasts in all these Carry On films. It was innuendoes, all the time… innuendoes.

IGNFF: Do you think it was just this side of burlesque?

DALE: Yeah. It was British humor. There were some beautiful lines. I remember one guy was just about to have his head chopped off in a film about the French Revolution, and a guy ran up to him on the scaffold and said, “I have your reprieve, my Lord.” And the guy looked up and said, “Drop it in the basket, I’ll read it later.” This, to me, is wonderful comedy. But most of it was a bit double entendre and innuendo.

IGNFF: There’s been what, over 20 of them so far?

DALE: There were 33 of them. I only appeared in about 14, under the same director.

IGNFF: That was during the formative years, wasn’t it?

DALE: Yeah, even Phil Silvers came over to do one, called Carry On, Follow that Camel or something.

IGNFF: I know they’ve started releasing them on DVD.

DALE: That’s right. Yeah, I’ve been over there, putting my voices on them. That’s me saying, “Oh my God, look at this! This is pathetic!”

IGNFF: Does it feel good that the work is being preserved?

DALE: I think it’s wonderful. I’m only sorry that my work in the theater has not been preserved with such intensity as this, because I’m very proud of my work in the theater – but I’m not necessarily ultra-proud of the Carry On films. They were just, as far as we’re concerned, just run of the mill. Two and a half films a year – we never knew they were going to be put on television, we never knew we were going to become famous in Prague and Budapest and East European countries, as we are in Africa and Australia. Not that I’ve ever been to these countries. I wouldn’t want to be recognized in the streets in any of the countries. I don’t even want to be recognized in the streets over here. I’m allergic to being recognized. We didn’t know that those films were going to go on television, so no proviso was made for remuneration and residuals. So nobody has ever, ever made one penny out of the fact that these films have been shown thousands of times – and are still being shown thousands of times on television. They are as popular as The Honeymooners are in America.

IGNFF: It must be nice to know that they’re finally breaking into the American market, being available here.

DALE: It’s nice to know. Well, the whole series of films has been accepted by the British Museum, and put in the archives of the British Museum as a perfect example of humor of the twentieth century, at that particular time.

IGNFF: What was it like filming one of those?

DALE: You filmed it all in eight weeks. You were never allowed to ad-lib, you were never allowed to put an extra line in. You were never allowed to do more than one take, because this was real film they were using.

IGNFF: And real film cost money.

DALE: That’s right. So take two? Forget it. Take three, definitely out. But it was fun to do… I was working with a very good crowd of comics. Comedy actors, I should say, not comedians. These were comedy actors, and some of the best in the business.

IGNFF: With a lot of stage experience, I’m assuming?

DALE: Absolutely. All stage experience, yes.

IGNFF: I can’t see that kind of one take perfection coming from anything less.

DALE: That’s right. Well, you had to have the expertise. You couldn’t just have people, just comedians going up there, because comedians did not have any experience of working with other people in scenes. So these had to be stage actors, who were comedic stage actors, and we had the very best. That was the joy of working with the top, top, top people.

IGNFF: Was it constricting? Being a comedian – here you are, and you can’t ad-lib…

DALE: Well, obviously, you feel you’d like to take – for instance, I was in a film with Phil Silvers, there was one when I had to fall off a camel. Now, I defy anybody to have had experience falling off a camel to say they have, because very seldom does a camel come into your life. When it does come into your life, you very seldom fall off it. But, having fallen off it backwards, and landing with my head embedded in the sand, they said, “Okay, cut. Thank you.” I said, “Please, please, please, let me try a different way.” They said, “We haven’t got time.” I said, “Please let me try. Let me do something different, please …” They knew me by this time, that I wasn’t going to waste their time, so they said, “Okay, take two.” This time, I slid down the neck of the camel as it lowered its head to put its knees down. I fell off the side of the neck, my foot got entangled in the straps around the camel’s harness, the camel turned around, started biting my leg. My valet, the guy playing my valet, ran on into the scene with his umbrella and started smashing the camel around the head with the umbrella. I finally got free and dragged myself off. That couldn’t have been written, you see? And that’s what I had to try and impress on them. Comedy builds itself, comedy grows from moment to moment to moment, and you must allow it to happen.

IGNFF: How often were you able to impress that on them?

DALE: A few times. But they did trust me in so far as they knew I was not wasting their time if I said, “I’ve got a better idea than what you’ve done. Please give me an opportunity.” But who needs to have to beg? Comedy should be allowed to grow. We just didn’t have the time. Eight weeks from start to finish, and that was a one and a half hour film.

IGNFF: What was it like working with Phil Silvers on that film?

DALE: Oh, Phil was in a bit of a problem. Phil was losing his eyesight, and he also was forgetting things. He would tell you a story about meeting the Pope, then two minutes later he’d say, “Did I ever tell you when I met the Pope?” And you’d say, “Yes, you just told it to me about two minutes ago.” Then five minutes later, he’d say, “I met the Pope once.” You’d say, “Yes, you told me.” He wouldn’t even hear that, he’d tell you the same story again. He wasn’t very well, he wasn’t very well at all. I think it was a problem. He was the only American in an all English cast. It’s like a new musician going into the Beatles. You know, you’re an alien because you don’t know their world. It’s another world that you’ve entered.

IGNFF: And he, with his film experience, wasn’t used to one take.

DALE: No, exactly. He said, “I’d like all the words put on a blackboard, alongside the camera.” And our director said, “We don’t do that. You learn your lines.” He said, “I can do a two-hour show in America without having memorized one word.” And the director said, “Well, I would like you to try and memorize these words.” Phil was losing his memory a bit, and he couldn’t memorize the words. So we did have to put them on a blackboard. But we were professionals – we never did that. Part of our job is learning your words, not just reading them on the morning of the shoot, because reading words doesn’t give you an opportunity of actually performing those words. We were comedic actors – therefore, when we were talking the words, we were also using our facial expressions or our body language to emphasize what we were saying. Not just standing there reading the jokes.

IGNFF: So it was a bit of a culture clash?

DALE: Yeah, yeah. I think so. But it was a bit of technique clash – that’s the technique they did in Northern America. That’s not the technique we did in England. We had more pride in what we were doing. We’d actually memorized the lines first.

IGNFF: As you said, if you look at a lot of American performers who had come from Vaudeville and such, there wasn’t a theater background.

DALE: That’s right. No, that was stand-up comedy, a slap-dash of scenes, confrontational scenes between large-boobed girls, et cetera. But that wasn’t theater. We came from theater, we came from plays, et cetera and all.

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IGNFF: At what point had the Carry On series burned out for you?

DALE: It burned out for me when they offered me Carry On of the Jungle, and they said, “We’d like you to play the part of Tarzan.” I said, “Where are the words?” They said, “He doesn’t speak.” I said, “Well, that’s it. Thank you, good-bye.” It wasn’t a very good film. I was at the National Theater at the time… see, there’s a contrast – doing a Carry On and appearing at the National Theater. I was playing Autolycas in The Winter’s Tale, and I’d just signed up to join the National Theater to do some more serious work with them. I really didn’t have time to do the Carry Ons anymore. That was the reason.

IGNFF: You also did the role of Autolycas in the film version…

DALE: Absolutely. That’s a film that I think is lost forever. I only ever saw it once. I don’t know what’s happened to that. But, yes, I did film that. I had forgotten about that. I’ve got the poster of it, but God knows where that film is.

IGNFF: Who else was in the cast on that production?

DALE: Laurence Harvey, Jane Asher. It was a company called Pop Theater, which means popular theater at popular prices, with popular performers. In other words, you know, to get a younger crowd in to see Shakespeare, it’s very difficult. But we managed, and that Pop Theater turned into what’s called the Young Vic, which is a very famous theater now in London. I was the first one to open in a play. We opened a play at the Young Vic called Scapino, and it was Scapino that became a big hit over there – and that was the play that we finally brought to America in 1973, or 4, and it stayed on Broadway for a year.

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IGNFF: Around that time, didn’t you also get a new TV series?

DALE: I’d had lots of television series. I had Meet Jim Dale, and things like this. There were many of them.

IGNFF: All basically the same format?

DALE: Sometimes. You know, they allowed me to improvise on one of them, and I had more fun on that. But basically the same. It was 8 weeks, say, or 10 weeks of the Jim Dale Show, and it would be a different format for each Jim Dale Show. Another thing I was doing at that time was hosting Sunday Night at the London Palladium. That was a live show that was broadcast all over England on a Sunday night, and I was hosting it. They had all the great stars of television and films, et cetera. That was quite an experience as well. I was working in a musical in the West End during the day, and then in the weekend, on my Sunday off, doing Sunday Night at the London Palladium.

IGNFF: So, in other words, you don’t like free time.

DALE: Well, I do – I appreciate free time when I have somebody to spend it with. You know, nowadays, over here now, I have a little more free time than I did in England, because London is the center of television, film, and theater. Whereas New York is the center of theater. Television and film is probably Los Angeles. So I’ve literally edited out of my life work on television and films, purely because I want to live in New York and be in New York, and work here, and be with my wife.

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DALE: Do I miss it? Well, I made 28 films, and I haven’t made any for 3 or 4 years – so yeah, you miss making films. The last one I did was with Mandy Patinkin over here. It was called The Hunchback, I think. We shot it in Europe, with Richard Harris… a lovely crowd of actors there. So that was a few years, and yes, I enjoyed that. But most of my work seems to be in theater at the moment.

IGNFF: I know something I definitely wanted to speak to you about was Adolf Hitler – My Part in His Downfall.

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DALE: Yeah, there’s another film. I haven’t seen that film, either. I’ve got a poster of that as well. But I’ve seen that once at the press showing all those years ago [1972], and I think it’s been on television recently over here. I missed it.

IGNFF: And you portrayed Spike Milligan, right?

DALE: Right, yeah. He portrayed his own father in the film.

IGNFF: I can’t even imagine this experience.

DALE: Well, see, we had the same agent, so I knew Spike as a kid. When I was 19 or 20, that’s when I first met Spike. We were in a farm – we called ourselves “The Farm.” It was Stanley Dale – he represented Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Tony Hancock, Eric Sykes, Ray Galton and Allen Simpson – who were two of the top, top writers in England – and Frankie Howard, one of the great, great comics. So I got to know all of these people, meeting them at the various offices and all that, and I knew Spike very well. So when they said they were making a film of Spike’s book, Adolf Hitler, would I be interested in playing the young Spike? I said, “Yeah, certainly.” I jumped at the idea. I didn’t try to imitate Spike, because nobody can, but I tried to play the part as a young Spike, who was just beginning to blossom and realizing how different he was.

IGNFF: George Martin was producing The Goons at the same time he was producing you, right?

DALE: Yeah. Yes, he must have been. Oh, George is such a lovely man.

IGNFF: What was George like at that time?

DALE: He was very young… he was 27 when I joined him, I think. I’ve got a photograph of us, just the two of us in his office looking towards the camera, but we’re on either side of the latest record-playing machine – which is now an antique. It’s this big thing that you lift up and there’s two turntables – two! This was before 45s… this was way back, way back. My relationship with George was and is still that of admiring his ability and loving him as a person. He is, without doubt, one of the English gentlemen. Everything about him is that of a gentleman, and I think everybody recognizes that. I’ve never heard him lose his temper or get angry with anybody. He probably can, but nobody seems to have been in. He doesn’t use his anger to get things to work – he just talks and smiles and you love him for it. So, a great relationship.

IGNFF: So when are you putting that photo up on your website 

DALE: Oh, I haven’t got it up on the website, have I? You’re damn right, I’ll do it. Yes, I’d like to do that. I’ve got so many photographs I haven’t put up. Oh, you’ve seen the website?

IGNFF: Oh yes.

DALE: That’s what I do in my spare time. I designed that and put it up. That was quite fun to do. Getting other people’s contributions as well.

IGNFF: If you could find those recordings, you should put your recordings up there on the website as well.

DALE: I don’t know. I tell you – here’s something. I wrote a song for an English performer called Des O’Conner, and it was called “Dick-A-Dum-Dum.” It was a song about modern day London, and it was quite a catchy song. I just found out it got to number 17 in the English Hit Parade. But that happened all those years ago. My children, about 5 or 6 years ago, heard this song, and my nephews, and they all fell about laughing, because they thought it was the silliest song – which is fair enough. It probably is now. My son recently – and he’s old enough now – he was having a row with his cousin. They’re both in their 35s, and they were screaming, nearly coming to blows, and my son hurled something at him in the way of an insult, and his cousin couldn’t think of anything worse to say than to scream at Murray, “At least my father didn’t write ‘Dick-A-Dum-Dum!'” And my son fell on the floor laughing. That was the worst insult he could ever hurl at him. Isn’t that funny? So anyways, that’s true. But, getting back to George Martin – yes, lovely to work with him, and I must put that picture up there.

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IGNFF: Yeah, the website’s real fun to navigate, and you can definitely tell that it’s something you enjoy doing in your spare time.

DALE: Absolutely.

IGNFF: Another movie I have to ask you about – since it was such a large part of my childhood – was Pete’s Dragon.

DALE: Oh my God, yeah. See, that never worked out for Disney. They thought it was going to be another Mary Poppins. For the company, they say it was a flop. But, you know, the number of kids who were brought up on that film and loved it, really enjoy it – I’m amazed. We had a great time doing it. It’s just such a pity that it wasn’t distributed and recognized better than it was.

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IGNFF: It’s such a wonderful performance 

DALE: Ah, thank you. With little Red Buttons.

IGNFF: I know that it’s something where everyone in my generation seems to know the songs from that.

DALE: Well, you know, the greatest challenge of that, as I said to you when we were talking about Phil Silvers – you have to know the words. Remember?

IGNFF: Yes.

DALE: Now, in this film, “Passamaquoddy” – that was one of the most difficult songs for anybody to perform on film because you had to lip sync to it. That was the challenge.

IGNFF: And make it look fresh.

DALE: When you memorized it, you had to put in a few mistakes deliberately, like, “Oh, ah, ooh,” because they had to be recorded, and they also had to be lip-synched to everything – not just the words. That was the big, big challenge to that film, to actually memorize “Passamaquoddy,” knowing that the camera was going to be on you all the time, and there’s going to be somebody sitting at your feet, looking up at your mouth and listening at the same time, and getting ready to stop you should you screw up … and it never happened once, which was great.

IGNFF: I think the remarkable thing looking at the performance of that, is – as you say – actually seeing a performance of the character stumbling through, trying to figure out what he’s going to say.

DALE: Yeah, that was fun. Thank you for that.

IGNFF: That was your first special effects film, wasn’t it?

DALE: Yeah, I think so. I did a couple more for Disney. I don’t think any of them worked. One was called – I know why it didn’t work -.it was called The Spaceman and King Arthur. Then, when it came to America, it was given another title which even the kids wouldn’t come to see – with a title like Unidentified Flying Oddball.. 

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IGNFF: I can say, I have never see it.

DALE: As I said, an astronaut in King Arthur’s Court is the same as a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. It was an updated story of that. You know, a space ship takes off and lands in Camelot – why not? But, to change it to Unidentified Flying Oddball …

IGNFF: Well, there are some things that you can say, “Yeah, you know, that’s early ’80s.”

DALE: Yeah. So when they say, “Are you proud of that?” I say, “What was that title again?” So I had three films from Disney during the time that I was working over here. As I said, I came over here in ’73 or 4, and then during the next 5 or 6 years I did 3 Disney films, and then finally came over to do Barnum. Of course, that was the big, big Broadway hit. I decided to live over here from then on. So I’ve been here for the last 23 years.

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IGNFF: What was it like to star in a huge hit like Barnum was?

DALE: Well, it was just unbelievable… to know that you’re giving them something – not just you, but the whole show, directed by Joe Layton. He was the genius behind it. But, to have 12 kids on that stage – I think that’s all there were – but those 12 kids made the audience think they’d seen a three-ring circus with hundreds of people and the most unbelievable sights and sounds ever. At the very end of the show, there were just 12 kids up there on the stage, and an audience cheering their heads off every night. That was great. You see, you can’t create magic from something – you can only create magic from nothing. We didn’t have the smallest man in the world – we had the tallest furniture. You know? Things like that. It’s not magic, taking a rabbit out of an empty hat. It’s magic if the audience thinks they saw a rabbit come out of an imaginary hat. That’s magic, and that’s what we created up there on stage. We took them back to the circus days when they were kids, and we created a few little miracles up there, without the use of magic.

IGNFF: It’s a shame that that performance wasn’t preserved on film.

DALE: Well, I didn’t preserve it. Michael Crawford came over from England to study that part, to play it in London. I’d love to have done it in London, but they wanted me for Broadway. They’d sign me up and I had to stay on Broadway. Michael Crawford came over and studied our show intimately, because that’s exactly what he did in London, and it’s that production that they filmed. So, it’s a great pity they didn’t capture the one in New York. They did do a version of it for Lincoln Center archives, I think they just put one camera at the back of the auditorium on a wide-angle lens and just shoot the whole show, which of course doesn’t look anything – but it just proves that it existed once.

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IGNFF: At least the cast album is still available.

DALE: The new cast album, they’ve done it digitally now.

IGNFF: Oh, did they remaster it?

DALE: Yeah, they’ve remastered it. It’s supposed to be very good. I never listened to any of these things. I’ve never listened to Harry Potter, you know, but I’ve heard that this CD of Barnum is supposed to be very, very good. But I haven’t heard it myself.

IGNFF: How long did that show run?

DALE: A year and a half on Broadway, with Glenn Close playing Mrs. Barnum.

IGNFF: The very start of her career.

DALE: Yeah, really. She was sitting in the box one night, just before the show, and the director of The World According to Garp was sitting in the audience. He looked up and he said, “That’s the type of serenity I want from Garp’s mother.” So Glenn really got the part before the show even started. Which was wonderful for her. She hadn’t even opened her mouth. Big things happened for Glenn, which was great for her. Then we toured for another six months to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

IGNFF: As you mentioned, things happen when you’re not looking for them.

DALE: That’s true… that’s true, isn’t it?

IGNFF: What about New York did you fall in love with?

DALE: Well, I fell in love with the owner of a gallery, to start with. Most people go into a gallery, buy something, and come out. I came out with the owner. That was 21 years ago, 22 years ago – we got married, and I lived here ever since. Julie has the gallery on Madison Avenue and 65th Street called Julie Artisans’ Gallery, and we just live on Park Avenue a few blocks south. So she walks to work every morning, and it’s perfect for both of us.

IGNFF: Was it just a function of New York that the only thing available was, as you said, stage work?

DALE: Well, for me, yes. When you look back on the stuff I’ve done over here, there’s probably one word that comes over, and that’s quality. I’ve tried to make everything that I’ve accepted – I’ve done it because of the quality of the material, or of the fellow artists I’m working with, or the director. To me, that’s the only way to really be completely, utterly satisfied and able to close your eyes at night… not going around doing every bit of crap that comes along for the extra buck or something like that. I’d rather stay out of work. You know, people tend to think that we people in show business live it 24 hours of the day, but in actual fact, I don’t. I don’t think many of us do. I’ve got another life, you know, which is Julie’s world. She has all her artists, who are just as talented as some of the stars on Broadway, and it’s their world that I’ve entered by marrying her, and it’s their world that I share with them when I’m not working in the theater. So I’ve got two lives going, and it’s absolutely marvelous. When I’m not working, I’m not exactly not living. I’m living it up to the hilt, but in another, different type of world.

IGNFF: How would you compare how you are now to the performer you were at 17 or 21?

DALE: There’s never been ambition, I promise you that. There’s never been ambition, or I would have gone to Los Angeles and be living over there now, desperate to make a big name for myself. There’s never been that sort of wanting to be a star. It came along by accident in the pop world. It’s great to be known in the theater in New York, but it’s great also to be able to get in a car and drive for half an hour out of New York and nobody knows you from Adam. That’s a joy – as against being recognized everywhere you go, like certain film stars are. That I’ve had in the past, during the pop singing, and I hated it. So I’m absolutely thrilled to be in New York, working here, doing the very stuff that I think is good work. Because the people who come to see me and have done over the years know that the stuff I do is worth a visit. If Jim says he’s going to be in a play or a musical, you can bet your life that he’s not going to be in a load of junk or crap. I’ve never disappointed them, I hope. That’s the only thing I have an ambition to do, which is just to come up with these good projects for the future.

IGNFF: So you cut out all the distractions.

DALE: Yeah, yeah. I don’t need to work with egotistical actors anymore. I don’t need to. I don’t need to do bad material. As I said, I’d rather be part of another world while I’m waiting, and enjoy myself in that. But when I do do work – like the latest one, The Comedians – I’m thrilled, absolutely thrilled, to be doing that.

IGNFF: I was reading the reviews that you’ve gotten, which are just glowing – to say the least.

DALE: Well, I wish you could see it, because I’m working with some of the great talent … Everybody on that stage is so bloody talented, and it’s just a joy for an actor to be completely in a company of talent like this. This is 50 years, by the way, this year, that I’ve been a professional performer.

IGNFF: And how are you celebrating?

DALE: I’m not. 

IGNFF: Continuing to work?

DALE: I’m celebrating with The Comedians. That’s a great play to be doing after 50 years of work.

IGNFF: How many people after 50 years can say they’re still working…

DALE: Yeah, that’s the point. If you’re a big star in the movies, you’re not going to be around. I don’t know… I can play in Broadway, Off-Broadway, until I’m 120. I hope I am. Age doesn’t come into it, not at all.

IGNFF: How did the Harry Potter books come along?

DALE: I did a play Off-Broadway called Travels with My Aunt, which was written by Graham Greene. It starred Maggie Smith in the films, remember? So the stage play had 33 different characters in it, and there was a cast of 4 men – all dressed in identical blue suits, all with the same moustache, all with the same hairstyle. In other words, 4 clones up there on the stage, almost. The idea was that without any change of costume or makeup, just with a flick of the wrist in my case, you become a different character. So there were 33 different characters we created. Somebody in the Harry Potter office was asked, “Do you know of anybody who could perhaps read the Harry Potter books? They’ve got so many different characters in it.” One of them said, “I saw Jim Dale in a play, he’d be all right. He used to be an actor on the stage and now he’s doing books. He could perhaps …” And I got the job through that. It was only later that the guy realized that out of the 33 characters, Jim Dale only played 2. I played the aunt and the nephew. But by that time it was too late, and that’s how I got the job.

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IGNFF: You do a marvelous, marvelous job.

DALE: Thank you very much. I’m dreading the next one.

IGNFF: How does the process work?

DALE: Well, you know, the next book will be 255,000 words. Now, the last book was very, very thick, and was 196,000. So this is 50,000 more, and at least 200 characters. It must be – the last book was 127. So I’m thinking along the lines of having to find another 50 or 60 voices on top of those 127 that I did for the last book. You can run out of voices. You know, you can run out of them. I was trying to remember every voice I’d ever heard as we got three quarters of the way through the last book. But it’s nice. They’re sending away to the Guinness Book of Records to see if we can be accepted – “Most voices by one actor for an audio book.”

IGNFF: Now they just have to wait until you do this latest one and you’re a shoo-in.

DALE: Well, I don’t think anybody’s ever recorded anything like over 100 voices for one audiotape. I think there’s a good chance of being able to get in. There aren’t many more people in that category.

IGNFF: How do you keep the voices straight in your head?

DALE: You open the book, and there’s page one. Three lines down, it says, “Professor Dumbledore said,” so you start a little tape recorder by the side. You say, “Page one, third line down, Professor Dumbledore,” and then you read into the tape the line that Dumbledore says, with the voice that Dumbledore uses. All right? So now you’ve got that on tape. Now, you read further down the page and there’s somebody else talking. So you then say, “Voice two, Professor McGonagall, seven lines down on page one,” and then read her first line. So you’ve got all this on tape by the time you get to the studios. As you’re going through, reading, you suddenly get to Dumbledore, and you say, “Can we stop just here?” Then we stop and I play the tape, and I hear myself say, “Professor Dumbledore,” Dumbledore’s voice, and then I say that first line, and I say, “Oh yes, I remember. Let’s record it.” Then we start the recording again, and I record that. Then, further down the page, we stop to see what the next voice is. You go through it like that. In fact, the recordings are just hundreds and hundreds of stop, start, stop, starts, and the success of it all is the linking it all together to make it look as if Jim Dale doesn’t take a breath for the whole bloody book. That’s the expertise of these wonderful editors.

IGNFF: You can’t tell the pauses – there’s a very natural flow to it.

DALE: Yeah, that’s what they’ve given me.

IGNFF: How long does the recording process take?

DALE: It varies. On a normal book, hopefully you can record 20 pages an hour. If you’re doing voices, strange voices, then you have to allow a little more time, because you have to keep stopping and starting – because if one voice ends and the next voice starts, sometimes it’s difficult to do the switch vocally. The last book, [Harry Potter] 4, took about 10 days in all.

IGNFF: So you’re probably looking at about two weeks on number 5?

DALE: If we get it, yeah. But what happened [on Book 4] was I couldn’t read the whole book. They said to me, “It’s Friday now, we want you in the studio on Monday.” Now, you can’t possibly read 700 pages and invent the voices in two days. So we decided that I would read 100 pages a night, and invent the voices for those 100 pages, then record that the next day. Then that night, Monday night, I’d come home and read another 100 pages and invent all the other voices for that 100 pages. Then record that on Tuesday. Tuesday night, come home, read more. That’s how we did it for a total of ten days. So I really didn’t know where the story was going – I hadn’t read the book.

IGNFF: That’s mind-boggling.

DALE: I’d just read it once the night before, and then recorded it. So it was the second time I’d read it – the first time I’d read it out loud. If you read 100 pages out loud to yourself the night before, you’ve no voice left for the next day. After recording all day long, you can’t go home and start reading aloud to yourself, because you can’t – you’ll ruin your voice box. So that was a problem with trying to create the voices with what little voice I had left at the end of every day’s recording. But we got through it. We got through it.

IGNFF: Did they give you any inkling on when you’ll begin recording book 5?

DALE: I think the book’s supposed to come out on June 21, which means that the audiotapes will have to be on the shelves the same day as the books – or the kids will not be able to control their enthusiasm and insist that their mothers buy the book. Then the mums are going to say, “You either have the book or the audio tapes when they come out. I’m not buying both of them.” So we’ve got to get the audio tapes on the shelves the same time the book’s released, which takes quite a bit of doing, because they’re in front of us – the publishers are in front of us with the book. What we have to do is to actually record the audio book, and then edit it, and then see how many CDs there are, and then design packages for these CDs.

IGNFF: Then manufacture, and then ship.

DALE: Yeah, there may be 20 CDs for this next book. My suggestion is that they design packages to accommodate 18 or 19 or 20 or 21, so that they’ve done that work in advance. Then, we find out there are 19 CDs – at least the drawings are there and you go straight ahead without wasting time designing it then. That’s my advice to them, but that’s probably what they’re doing anyway.

IGNFF: I can’t even imagine the logistical nightmare of this. And imagine – you still have two books left. The next two could be even bigger than this one.

DALE: Oh please! What a lovely legacy to leave your grandchildren, isn’t it 

IGNFF: It’ll take at least a year to listen to them.

DALE: That’s true, yeah. It’ll be 30 hours of listening, something like that. It’s nice for the kids growing up to know my voice. It’s lovely.

IGNFF: A whole new generation of fans.

DALE: Yeah, but there always will be a whole new generation. It’s like I’m Alice in Wonderland. There’s always a new generation ready to read the books. Hopefully the audiotapes or CDs of Harry Potter will not be just for this coming generation, but for future generations. That’s the joy – to be part of all that.

IGNFF: Just like Pete’s Dragon. That’s entering, what, its fourth generation now?

DALE: That’s right, that’s right. Isn’t that nice?

IGNFF: And I saw they just re-released the remastered soundtrack last year.

DALE: Did they really? I didn’t know that.

IGNFF: It sounds very nice… completely remastered.

DALE: Ah, good, good 

IGNFF: When you look at the Harry Potter books, is it almost like a sort of “in the background” celebrity? Because a lot of people found it odd that you weren’t cast in the films at all.

DALE: Oh, I haven’t been cast in the films, no, and I don’t expect to. I’m over here, I’m doing the voices. My agent, in London, did get in touch with the office when Chris Columbus was directing and said, “We sent you the audiotapes of Harry Potter, recorded by Jim Dale doing all the voices, in hope that you might have a part in the film for Jim Dale. Has Chris Columbus even listened to Jim Dale?” And the answer to it was very interesting. The secretary said, “Oh yes, Chris listened to the tapes to give him some idea as to what the characters should sound like.” Isn’t that nice?

IGNFF: Well, that’s sort of a backhanded compliment, isn’t it?

DALE: Backhanded, isn’t it? It really, really is. I don’t know, I’ve got the market over here for Harry Potter audiotapes, so maybe I should be just grateful and satisfied with that.

IGNFF: And more to come.

DALE: More to come, hopefully.

 IGNFF: So, what is your next project?

DALE: I was going to do a big Broadway musical, but that fizzled out. I signed the contract the day before the tragedy in New York City, and the next day 10 million dollars ran away. They’re thinking of maybe doing it this year, but I’m sort of ready to pass on it now. It’s been too long, do you know what I mean? My enthusiasm for it has dissipated.

IGNFF: The bloom is off the rose?

DALE: Yes, the bloom is off the rose, as they say. I really don’t know. This is far better than me saying to you, “Well, I’ve got another four seasons on television …” That, to me, would be hell. That’s like telling you of a prison sentence I have. Not knowing what I’m doing is an absolute freedom for me to do what I want. That’s the joy of saying, “I don’t know what I’m doing next.” It doesn’t mean there won’t be anything, it doesn’t mean I’m going to be out of work. It just means that at the moment, I really have no idea. I’ve got three or four plays in front of me that I’m reading, a couple of revivals here – so I’ve got these things to pick and choose from. I’ll go along with my own instinct, which has never let me down. Obviously, if your own instinct has never let you down, you don’t go along with anybody else’s. You go along with your own, first, and I’m waiting for mine to really let me down in a big way – and then I’ll trust somebody else’s instinct. So far, I’ve gone along with my own instinct, and it’s paid off handsomely… in the way of not necessarily monetary gain, but in the way of having the greatest experience of working with good people or good material.

IGNFF: For 50 years.

DALE: Yeah, for 50 years.

IGNFF: Would you say that you’re happy with where your career is right now?

DALE: Don’t I sound happy?

IGNFF: You sound extremely happy.

DALE: Exactly. I think that’s what keeps me young, because I’m extremely happy 

IGNFF: You don’t sound like somebody who’s been in the industry for 50 years.

DALE: No, I don’t. I know that. I’m very happy, I’ve got a fantastic family in England, and I’m seeing one of my sons this weekend. He’s flying over just for one day, from England. I mean, that’s loving. So he’ll come and see the show. I have five grandchildren in England, who I adore. They come over here regularly so that I can take them fishing whenever I want. As against staying in London, waiting for them to be available to me, it’s much better for them to come and stay with me over here – then I can wake them up any time of the day or night. They’re mine, they’re mine, they’re mine! And being happily married, and living in New York especially – what more joy could you want in your life? That’s it. I’m very happy and very contented.

IGNFF: Now you’ve made me envious.

DALE: Get back to New York.

IGNFF: It’s a wonderful place to live, if you have money. How do you compare it to the New York you experienced during Barnum?

DALE: Oh, it’s changed. It’s changed completely. Times Square now is a joy to walk through. You’re not hustled, you’re not bustled. There are no sex shops there. Wandering through at 11:00 at night, it’s marvelous. It really is a nice atmosphere down there. I have friends who have come to New York and have been amazed at how safe they feel, just walking through the streets. It really is a safe feeling these days.

IGNFF: The kind of place where you’re perfectly content, wandering around with your grandchildren?

DALE: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.

IGNFF: Did you ever think you’d see a New York like that?

DALE: No, but I’m amazed – great transformations. And it works.

This week’s Rob Morrison show

For those who are interested, Rob’s next “Musical Theatre Melodies” broadcast on 96.5 FM on Tuesday, 8th July will feature a 40th Anniversary tribute to the Mermaid Theatre’s City of London Festival production of the musical revue COLE, (an entertainment based on the words and music of Cole Porter), from the 1974 original “live” London cast recording starring Ray Cornell, Lucy Fenwick, Peter Gale, Julia McKenzie, Kenneth Nelson, Elizabeth Power, Angela Richards, Una Stubbs and Australians – Rod McLennan and Bill Kerr.

This will be preceded by an introduction to the revue, (‘live’ via telephone from London), by British Musical Theatre historian, archivist and author* – Rex Bunnett.

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* Details on Rex’s current activities may be found on Overtures – The Bunnett-Muir Musical Theatre Archive Trust website at http://overtures.org.uk/

The broadcast will go “to air” between 9 – 11 p.m. EST local Melbourne time; (= 12 noon – 2 p.m. BST in Britain; = 11 p.m. – 1 a.m. NZST; = 7 – 9 a.m. EDT New York time; = 4 – 6 a.m. PDT Los Angeles time.)

For those listening in via the Internet on 96.5 Inner FM’s website the new webpage link for the Inner FM Web Radio player is  http://right-click.com.au/rcPlayer/index.php?c=innerfm or go to the Inner FM homepage at www.innerfm.org.au and follow the links.