Among the various pantomimes, we presented Ken Dodd in 'Robinson Crusoe' at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham. I went back to see Ken after the show; he asked me why he didn’t work for us more often. I replied that I was always trying to get him to work for us, but it was always very hard dealing with his agent, Dave Forrester, who was notoriously difficult to deal with.
Ken said, ‘Well look, don’t bother with Dave Forrester - phone me direct. Here’s my telephone number’. So I took him at his word, and on several occasions phoned him, always to hear an answer machine message. I knew he was listening in, and was teasing me, because he never returned any of my calls, but always, shortly after, I would have Dave Forrester on the phone on some pretext or other.
On a later occasion when we were discussing using Ken at the Opera House Blackpool, I invited Dave out to lunch. After exchanging pleasantries for an hour, without him mentioning Ken Dodd at all, I finally cracked and said; ‘Now, about the deal for Ken Dodd’. He laughed, and said, ‘Oh, we don’t get to that bit until our next luncheon’.
Over the years I found Ken difficult to read. As far as I knew he had no close friends, played no games and had no hobbies apart from collecting bank notes and hiding them in the most unlikely places. His idea of a good night out seemed to be a bottle of beer,a packet of crisps and a cheese and pickle sandwich in his dressing room after the show. But here was a man, who could better than anyone I knew bring unadulterated joy to theatregoers for hours on end and send them out into the night ( or the early hours of the morning ) thinking the world was a happier place.
Eve Taylor, the agent, had been nagging me for some time to go and see a revue in Las Vegas called ‘Bottoms Up’. It had been running very successfully for years, not only in Las Vegas, but also spin-offs, in several other cities in America. It was produced by Breck Wall and Patrick Maes. Having launched ‘The Good Old Bad Old Days’ and ‘Applause, it seemed that this was a good time to follow up Eve’s suggestion, so I made my plans.
Leslie Bricusse heard I was going, and asked me if I would like to stop off in Los Angeles and stay with him and his lovely wife Evie, the glamorous film actress Yvonne Romain: I immediately accepted.
Leslie is the most social person on the planet; he seems to know everyone worth knowing throughout the world. In fact, if he were in a plane which had to make a forced landing on the ice in Greenland, I’m sure an Eskimo would appear outside a nearby igloo, and say, ‘How are you Leslie, I haven’t seen you for ages’. The same would probably apply in Australia, with an Aborigine, (except I don’t think he would be coming out of an igloo).
I arrived at Los Angeles airport and was met by Evie who drove me back to their house on San Ysidero Drive, Hollywood; I was not to be disappointed. That evening, they arranged for two guests to come over for dinner which Evie cooked; they were Gregory Peck and his wife. I found Gregory to be a totally charming and unassuming man, very much in the mould of James Stewart, whom I was to work with a few years later.
After a very pleasant dinner, and the Pecks' had left, Leslie informed me that we were going to have a busy day the next day. We were attending to the wedding of Laurence Harvey and Paulene Stone, who was a famous model; tall, very attractive, with long red hair. Laurence’s nickname for her was ‘Redbird’.
Little did I dream that the resultant offspring from this marriage, was to be a lady, known as Domino, who turned out in her thirties to be a gun-toting bounty hunter. A $60m Hollywood film was made on her life thirty-five years later. She was found dead in her bath shortly before the film was due to open.
The marriage was to be a private ceremony at the home of Harold Robbins, the best selling author. His most successful novel was 'The Carpetbaggers', which was reckoned to be the fourth most read book in history. When it first came out, one critic said: 'it shouldn't be printed between the covers of a book, it should be inscribed on the walls of a public toilet'.
At one stage of his career, he had three novels in the paperback bestseller list, in first, third and sixth spot. Ernest Hemingway once asked him what his literary ambitions were. 'Wealth', he replied. He certainly succeeded there. He sold over 750 million books and he spent the proceeds like water.
At one stage he owned two yachts, one moored in Cannes and the other in Los Angeles, houses in Beverly Hills, Acapulco and the South of France, fourteen cars and an extensive art collection. He indulged excessively in cocaine and one of his favourite pastimes was organising and taking part in orgies. He became, if you like, a parody of one of the characters in his novels. It was said that if he left a note for his milkman, three studios would be bidding for the film rights.
Through his excessive, hedonistic lifestyle he managed to get through all the money and when he died at the age of eighty-one in the late nineties, he was in debt.
HAROLD ROBBINS QUOTE:"Man, I don't give a shit. When I'm gone, they can grill me and throw away the ashes where they please and say what they like".
It was late afternoon when we arrived at his house; we were greeted by him; a diminutive figure with a bald head and a pot belly, dressed in garish clothes. But regardless of his appearance he exuded a magnetism and warmth which was quite overwhelming.
It was a small informal gathering of about twenty people. The Justice of the Peace was present, but no one seemed anxious for the proceedings to commence. We just stood about, chatting and drinking champagne. I got into conversation with an extremely charming, middle-aged man with silver hair who was impeccably dressed.
The small talk went on for about an hour, with Harold Robbins growing increasingly impatient. Eventually, he said, ‘For Christ sake - will the two of you get married and then you can all fuck off out of here. I’m holding a party for two hundred people this evening, and it’s due to start in about an hour and a half’.
The marriage ceremony was conducted in great haste, and we prepared to leave. Harold’s house was large, but I couldn’t see how he could get it ready for two hundred people, so I said to him as we were leaving: ‘How are you going to get it ready in the next hour?’ He replied, ‘it’s not in here - it’s outside in the garden. Would you like to have quick look before you go?’
He took me outside, and there laid out beautifully, were dozens of tables covered in the finest linen, decorated with flowers with glittering silver and shimmering glass wear. Up above in the clear dark sky the stars were winking. ‘What happens if it rains?’ I asked. ‘You’re in a tent’, came the reply. I looked closer, and sure enough, I was. It must have been the biggest tent I’d ever seen in my life, with hundreds of artificial stars winking away at the roof. But that of course, was Robbins’ style. Everything - much larger than life.
Laurence asked Evie, Leslie and me back to his house which was on the side of a hill overlooking Los Angeles. The five of us sat on his terrace under the stars sipping champagne, gazing down at the lights of Los Angeles, swapping stories and telling jokes.
Eventually, I asked Laurence who the charming, silver haired man was to whom I had been talking. Laurence replied, ‘He’s certainly very charming. He also happens to be the head of the Mafioso in California, so if he likes you, and you want anyone rubbed out - he’s your man - for a price of course’.
The next day was New Years Eve, and Leslie as usual had come up trumps. We were going to the party that was probably the one that most men dream of. It was to be held in the home of Hugh Hefner, the 'Playboy' publisher.
We arrived in Leslie’s car, manoeuvred our way through a massive security check at the main gates, swept up the drive and the car was taken from us to be parked. We strolled into the entrance hall of the huge baronial mansion, and then something extraordinary happened. Usually, if you are at a large gathering and an attractive lady enters, most of the men turn and look; here we had the reverse.
There must have been about thirty men, and one hundred of the most stunning girls you could imagine. When I walked in, all the girls looked at Leslie and me. I thought to myself, this looks like a promising evening, and it certainly was.
The champagne flowed like water, and the few lucky men were all surrounded by attractive girls, (I’m not sure Evie was too happy about it). Whilst all this was going on, ignoring it all, wearing a dressing gown and smoking a pipe, was Hugh Hefner, sitting quietly in a corner, playing chess.
Two of the young ladies attached themselves to me, (not literally), and we spent the next few hours wandering around Hugh Hefner’s ‘Xanadu’. We looked over his private zoo, then one of the girls said, ‘Let’s go to the swimming pool’, which was unlike anything I had ever seen.
Leading off the pool were various grottos, depicting different parts of the world. There was the Hawaiian beach, an African jungle lagoon, a waterfall, etc. We were provided with swimming costumes and changing facilities, so we were able to cavort in the various places. This, together with dinner, occupied about three hours; then Leslie came to find us, to tell me that he and Evie had decided to call it a night, but as I was enjoying myself so much, he and Evie would get a lift and I could have his car, and drive myself home when I was ready.
After Leslie and Evie departed, the two girls suggested our next port of call should be the games room. It was a very large bungalow built in the grounds. The first thing you saw as you entered was this enormous room, containing virtually every game which existed at the time - pin tables, slot machines, table tennis, ten pin bowling, pool tables, disco lighting, sound etc. Off the main room were various other doorways. ‘What’s through there?’ I asked. ‘Oh, those are all bedrooms, in case the guests want to play any other games’, the girls replied.
We didn’t avail ourselves of these facilities, and we moved back to the main party. Several drinks later, and rather the worse for wear, I said to the girls it was time I was leaving, and would the girls like to come back with me. Perhaps, we could avail ourselves of the Bricusse facilities. ‘Fine’, they said. There was however, a problem. Although I knew the address, I hadn’t the remotest idea of how to get there. Fortunately, the girls knew where it was, so I followed them in my car.
We pulled up in the driveway of the house and fell out of the cars. I put the key in the front door lock, thinking, aren’t I the luckiest fellow - me and two very attractive girls about to celebrate New Year’s morning. I tried to turn the key in the lock, but nothing happened, I tried again - still nothing. After struggling with the lock for about fifteen minutes, knowing I couldn’t very well ring the bell to wake Evie and Leslie, to ask them if they minded me having the two girls for the rest of the night, I finally said to the girls, that regretfully, it was not to be, and that they had better leave me and go home.
They drove off and I thought I’d have a final go with the key; Lo and Behold, it worked first time. My fuzzled brain couldn’t grasp this miracle, but when I awoke next morning, I realised Evie must have heard us arriving, and had dropped the catch on the door, so we couldn’t get in; as soon as the girls had gone, she released it. When I saw Evie later, I said, ‘I had a little trouble with the key last night - I hope I didn’t disturb you’. ‘No’, she said sweetly. ‘I didn’t hear a thing’. I must remember to ask her about that night, sometime.
It was time to move on to Las Vegas; Leslie asked me who I was going to see there and I told him, among others, Sammy Davis. Leslie decided this was a great idea, and said that he would join me there. He organised a party of about ten people, and persuaded the head of Fabergé, to fly them all down in his private jet. I went on ahead, and booked into the accommodation which Leslie had arranged for me at a special rate at Caesar’s Palace; the sitting room was about the size of a tennis court.
In those days, the famous Las Vegas strip was just a road through the desert, with hotels dotted along the way on each side. It was hotel – desert – hotel - desert, and so on, with just desert behind each hotel.
Most hotels had an enormous theatre/restaurant, so whilst dining, you were entertained by either big stars, or enormous spectacular shows. In creating the spectaculars, the designer and creator were told to forget about the size of the stage, and just get on with it. If the show was too large, they merely knocked a hole in the back wall, and extended the stage into the desert.
Then, as now, expense was no object; they hired the finest creative people in the world. One of these was Sean Kenny, the designer, and definitely the most imaginative. Sean decided that since expense was no object, he was going to use modern technology to create something that had never been attempted before. He was going to use repelling electro-magnets, to create a series of floating, movable stages.
After months of trial and error and enormous expense, the prototype was ready. Over several days it was carefully constructed in the stage area of the restaurant; everything was prepared under normal performance conditions. The great moment arrived - the switch was thrown. Knives, forks, spoons and every piece of loose metal in the restaurant hurtled towards, and adhered to the stage, drawn by the enormous electro- magnets. Back to the drawing board.
Leslie and his party, including Laurence Harvey and his new bride, Paulene arrived by the Fabergé jet and we all sat at the centre front table and were hugely entertained by Sammy Davis in top form, (but then he was always in top form). Sammy performed for about an hour and a half; included in his act was a tribute to Bricusse and Newley. And then, as it was the first show of the evening, he invited us to have dinner with him backstage between the shows.
Sammy sat me next to him, because he wanted to chat about the shows we had been involved in back in London. The Fabergé party were flying back to Los Angeles that evening. When Sammy found out I was staying on, he asked me what I was doing later on. I told him I was going to see a second show elsewhere. ‘Don’t do that’, he said, ‘come and see my second show’. ‘But I’ve already seen your show’, I replied. ‘Don’t worry about that - I’ll do something different for you’, he said. Naturally, I stayed for the second show.
He performed nearly two hours of material and only repeated two numbers from the first show. Apart from the brilliance of his performance, there was a technical aspect of his act which intrigued me.
He had twenty-two musicians onstage with him, and in order to accompany him on all the numbers he performed, (bearing in mind he chopped and changed and did requests), they must have had at least sixty pieces of music to chose from, which were either on their music stands, (called pads), or on the floor beside them. There was never any hiatus in his act - it just flowed freely.
How did each and every one of his musicians, manage to locate the next song he was going to perform, and shuffle it round so that it was on top of the pad? Half way through his act, I started to wonder, and tried to work out how they did it. I couldn’t find the answer and I have puzzled over it for many years.
I believe that the answer was, that in all his ad libs and jokes, there were codes, which indicated what he was going to do next. The musical director was able to pick these up, and in turn, pass them on to the musicians, who were then able, to surreptitiously locate the next piece from the pile. Even then, it was quite a feat, and one which I have always remembered and admired - almost as much as the three hours of unadulterated pleasure he gave me that evening.
After the second show, the indefatigable Sammy asked me back to a party which went on until four in the morning. Sammy Davis! What stamina - what a man - what all-round talent. In my opinion, by far the greatest entertainer, ever. Incidentally, I spent most of the time at the party trying to chat up a singer from the show - but without success.
The Sands - Las Vegas
left to right - Paulene Stone, Laurence Harvey,
Evie and Leslie Bricusse, me and the Fabergé party
Las Vegas in 1973 with its one major road, (The Strip), bore absolutely no resemblance to what exists today. Today in Las Vegas, which is the fastest growing community in America, every square inch of The Strip is filled with hotels and shops etc. Also, for miles around nearly all the land behind is fully occupied. You have to drive quite a long way before you come to the desert.
In 1973, you could drive from one end of The Strip to the other in about five minutes. Today, the traffic is so dense, that at certain times of the day, it can take three quarters of an hour. In my opinion, Las Vegas is the eighth wonder of the world - and it is still growing.
Meanwhile back in London, we had been planning the unveiling of the New London Theatre. This opened on 11th January with ‘The Unknown Soldier and His Wife’. Peter Ustinov played the lead, and he also wrote and directed it. It was a minimal success, only running for a limited period, and was eventually replaced by ‘Grease’ starring Richard Gere.
I had seen ‘Grease’ in New York, and although I was entertained, I didn’t think it would work in this country. However, we needed an attraction and when Paul Elliott and Duncan C. Wheldon wanted to do it, we rented them the theatre. At the time, I was right about it not being a big success in the theatre, but little did I dream, what an enormous success it would be as a film, starring John Travel.
I went to see ‘Gypsy’ at the Piccadilly theatre, and was totally knocked out by the performance which Angela Lansbury gave, as Rose. It literally made the short hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
What a career - Angela Lansbury - born in 1925, she studied at the Webber Douglas school of acting and then moved to America. Her first film role was in 'Gaslight' in 1944 with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. She won four Tony awards for 'Mame', 'Dear World', 'Sweeney Todd' and 'Gypsy', plus dozens and dozens of other awards, and she is still going strong.
Also in the cast playing Baby June, was the girl who escaped being shoved up the horse’s arse in ‘Gone With the Wind’ – Bonnie Langford. A magnificent performance - so good, that Angela took her back to America to appear with her there on tour and on Broadway.
Went to New York to see the show we were co-presenting with Alex Cohen, ‘6 Rms Riv Vu’ . Alex had fixed me up at the Algonquin hotel and sent his limousine to pick me up at the airport. He also arranged tickets for several shows that I needed to see. As I was on my own, I asked him if he could provide some company for me. He said, ‘Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you’.
He phoned up an hour later, and said, ‘I’ve got just the person for you. She is a well-known performer in TV and films; her name is Louise Sorell. She’s married to Ken Howard, who is at the moment playing the lead in ‘See Saw’ on Broadway, so she’s free in the evenings’.
Louise accompanied me to various shows and we got on very well together. Playing at that time in New York was the film, ‘Deep Throat'which out of curiosity I felt I ought to see. I asked Louise if she shared the same curiosity; she did, so we went to see it together. We sat through about half of it and then found we couldn’t swallow, (oops!), any more, and left. Ken, her husband, didn’t seem to object, but I believe they were divorced a couple of years later.
Bill Kenwright, who had produced and directed ‘West Side Story’, which had opened at the Collegiate theatre on 3rd July, asked me to go and see it with a view to transferring it to the Prince of Wales theatre.
It was a good production, and I felt that there might be a possibility for it to replace ‘The Good Old Bad Old Days. At that time, I wasn’t sure when the theatre would be available, so we kept the discussions going, but in the meantime, we decided to launch a new show starring Danny La Rue later on in the year. I explained this to Bill, and he said he quite understood and took it in very good part. He later opened ‘West Side Story’ at the Shaftesbury on 19th December 1974.
Bill Kenwright over subsequent years has been responsible for many productions in the West End. In fact, I would venture that there was a certain period in the West End theatre, where if it hadn’t been for the efforts of Bill Kenwright, Cameron Mackintosh, Andrew Lloyd-Webber, and transfers from the subsided theatres, the whole West End edifice might have crumbled; it certainly would have tottered. They, and almost they alone, with their productions saw the theatres through some very difficult times.
It wasn’t always easy for Bill. He told me that on many occasions he had to hock all his office furniture in order to meet wage bills; but it was always back in position the following week. Even in those days, if Bill had a choice of attending one of his shows’ previews or watching his beloved Everton Football Club, there was no choice. It was always Everton. He has been the backbone of the football club over the years, through thick and thin; his tenacity paid off, and they finished fourth in the premiership in 2006.
Freddie Starr was now a top drawing entertainer and we presented him at the North Pier Blackpool for the Summer Season. Prior to the start of this show, Freddie had asked to see me in my office. My curiosity having got the better of me, I arranged the meeting.
He came straight to the point. ‘I think I am being screwed by my agents, Mike Hughes and Evie Taylor’. ‘Absolutely no way, Freddie’, I said. ‘They are both extremely honourable people’. ‘Well, I don’t believe you’, he said. ‘Can I look at my contract they have signed on my behalf?’ ‘Well, what did they say you were getting?’ I asked. Freddie answered, ‘£1,250 per week and a percentage’. ‘Well, if that’s what they told you, that’s what you are getting’. ‘I still want to see the contract’, said Freddie.
I called my secretary on the intercom and asked her to bring it in. She handed it to me, and standing up, I made sure I was more than an arm’s length from Freddie; (knowing how unpredictable he could be), I thought he might snatch it out of my hand and tear it up). I held the contract up to show him the figures. He looked at it, gave a little lunge forward, and I jumped back. Then he laughed. ‘Only joking’, he said with his wicked smile.
Earlier in the year, I had received a phone call from an agitated Dave Forrester who was Mike Yarwood’s agent. He asked if he could come and see me that afternoon. I agreed, and as soon as he sat down opposite me he said, ‘Do you want Mike Yarwood for the ABC Blackpool?’ I thought, What’s this? We normally don’t get to this stage until the second lunch. I asked him what salary he wanted, and he said, ‘The usual that you pay for your stars’. ‘What, no negotiation?’ I asked. ‘No, the usual will be fine’. ‘No other demands, no special billing, no billing by arrangement with Dave Forrester?’ ‘No, no, everything’s fine. Just prepare the contract and I’ll sign it’.
I dictated to my secretary on the spot; she typed it out and Dave signed it. He left the office clutching my copy, with me wondering what on earth was going on. I discovered shortly afterwards, that his agreement to represent Mike Yarwood was about to terminate, and Mike was leaving him, to go with Derek Block, so Dave wanted to make sure Mike was committed to this contract and Dave’s commission before he left.
Received a phone call in July from Charles Lowe, saying that Carol was on tour in America appearing in a musical called ‘Lorelei’ and asked if I would be interested in doing it in London. ‘Very interested’, I replied. ‘Where is the show at the moment?’ ‘We’re in Chicago’. I flew out the next day.
The journey from the airport to my hotel in Chicago took me through one of the most deprived city areas I have ever seen – burnt out cars, run-down tenement blocks, some with windows smashed, some boarded up, graffiti everywhere, non--descript groups of people wandering about. It made me feel as if I was in a violent third world country. I was thinking to myself, I hope we don’t break down here when the cab driver said, ‘I’m just going to pull in here for some petrol’. I sat in the back seat nervously looking about me, waiting to be mugged.
Fortunately I wasn’t, and we drove off and finally arrived at the hotel where Charles and Carol were staying; a room for me had been booked. I met with Charles at lunchtime, and said, ‘I’d like to see the two shows, matinee and evening, then we could discuss the project.
After the shows, in which Carol was electrifying, Charles and Carol took me out to dinner, and when she made her entrance in the restaurant, the diners applauded. Carol ordered the usual clean plate and empty glass, and then switched her special brand of electricity on for me. She gave me about ten minutes, then Charles switched her off, and we started to talk about the show.
I told them I had thoroughly enjoyed it, and thought it would work well in London. ‘How much time can Carol give us over there?’ I asked. Charles replied, ‘Six months at the outside, including rehearsal time’. ‘Let me go away and work on the figures’, I said. I sat up all night doing calculations, and came to the conclusion, that we would be lucky to break even in six months.
I had a breakfast meeting next morning with Charles, went through the figures and asked him if he could stretch the commitment to nine months. He said, ‘unfortunately, not. Carol has no gaps in her diary longer than six months’. He was very understanding when I told him that this wouldn’t be a financial viable proposition. I then got on the next plane, and flew back to London.
I always received Christmas cards from Carol and Charles, which were sent well into the nineties; then they stopped. I later found out the reason, which staggered me.
In 1997, Carol sued for divorce after forty-one years of marriage. According to the divorce papers, Carol said they only had sexual relations once or twice during their forty-one year marriage, and that was forty-one years ago. Charles reportedly told Channing he was impotent.
But regardless, Carol said, not once during the course of their forty-one year old marriage, had she had an affair, or been intimate with anyone else. She asked the court to freeze her assets, (you can put your own joke in here), since Charles was spending her money like a drunken sailor.
She also claimed that he physically assaulted her and humiliated her in public, throughout their forty-one years of marriage. It was also reported, that she implied that Charles had a long running homosexual relationship with a photographer.
Charles refuted all the allegations. Well – he would wouldn’t he. He died in August 1999 before the divorce was finalised. I was extremely sad to hear this about Carol and Charles, to whom I had become rather close, and who seemed to be so fond of each other. It just goes to show – you never know what goes on behind closed doors. On 10th May 2003, Carol married Harry Kullijian, a childhood sweetheart.
CAROL CHANNING QUOTE:"The First 80 Years Are the Hardest."
Manny Azenberg, the producer of most of the Neil Simon plays, asked if I would be interested in presenting ‘The Sunshine Boys’ in London, which was currently a big hit on Broadway.
I flew to New York, had a meeting with Manny and said yes, I would be interested, but only if I could get the right people to appear in it. I had the idea of bringing Jewel and Warriss together again. They had been the top double act in the country in the forties and fifties; the ‘Morecambe and Wise’ of their day. But they had long since split up. I thought it would be a great coup to bring them back together again.
I first of all spoke to Jimmy Jewel, who was ecstatic about the idea; Ben Warriss didn’t want to know. No matter how much Jimmy and I tried to persuade him, he refused. So reluctantly, I decided to drop the idea. Jimmy was most unhappy about this and asked if he could pursue it with Manny Azenberg, on his own. ‘Be my guest’, I said.
Jimmy being extremely tenacious, finally got it together with Alfred Marks. The show was finally produced at the Piccadilly theatre in May 1975. Once again - critically acclaimed, but only moderately successful.
Frank Hauser invited me to see his production of ‘The Wolf’ at Oxford, starring Edward Woodward, Judi Dench and Leo McKern, with a view to transferring to the West End. I snapped it up, and we opened at the Apollo on 23rd October. There was quite a hassle about getting the billing right, but eventually it was resolved, with Edward Woodward and Judi Dench being top of the bill, and Leo McKern centred immediately below them, preceded by the word ‘and’. It received good notices, but it finished up almost a tour of the West End.
After a few weeks, my old friend Toby Rowlands asked me if I could help him. He had a chance of booking for the theatre a play called ‘Why Not Stay For Breakfast’, written by Jean Stone and Ray Cooney, presented and directed by Ray Cooney. Toby thought this might be a big success, and he knew that ‘The Wolf’ would only run for a limited period, since our three stars had relatively short contracts. I acquiesced, and we moved it to the Queen’s theatre, where it re-opened on 3rd December.
With this change of theatre, I thought that Judi and her co-stars might be a little unhappy, but there were no complaints. However, the play’s travels were not over yet; Toby Rowland came to me yet again, and asked if I could help him.
This time he had the chance of booking a musical called ‘Bordello’ into the Queen’s theatre, which he thought might be successful. Bearing in mind all his friendship and encouragement which he had given me in earlier years, I acquiesced and we moved it to the New London theatre where it opened on 2nd April.
This time, I thought I’m definitely going to get a complaint from the actors, but not a bit of it. It seemed to me that Judi, Edward and Leo were quite happy to play three different theatres. I suppose like me, they thought it was very interesting to do a tour, without leaving the West End.
Bernie had received a phone call from an agent in America, asking if we would be interested in presenting a murder mystery entitled ‘Gomes’. It was co-written by David Swift and Sidney Sheldon. Sidney was one of the most successful novel writers in the world; his book ‘The Other Side of Midnight’ sold millions of copies, and his credentials were very impressive. He started off as a scriptwriter with MGM, preparing synopses. Having done this for some time he decided to write himself, becoming one of the widest read authors in the world.
He was also involved as co-writer on ‘Easter Parade’, ‘Annie Get Your Gun, and created the smash American TV hit, ‘I Dream of Jeannie’. He won two Tony Awards in 1959 for Redhead, and had dozens of screen writing credits. In view of his track record, we had a meeting in London and made our plans to proceed.
On the page, it was a very interesting thriller. Richard Pilbrow who lit it for us, described it as a cross between Titus Andronicus and Sleuth. The cast included Roy Dotrice, Aubrey Woods and Rachel Kempson, (Lady Redgrave). The director was Peter Coe. Peter had his misgivings about the convoluted plot, and only agreed to do it on the basis that I, and I alone, was the only one he was prepared to accept notes from, (none from the authors).
There were all sorts of complex special effects, and we spent almost as much time working on these as actually rehearsing the dialogue. After a slightly traumatic rehearsal period, we opened on 20th November at the Queen’s theatre. On the first night, Bernie and I sat together a trifle uncomfortably. When the curtain fell, Bernie turned to me and said, ‘We’d better get the notice ready to close on Saturday Saturday night’. I agreed, and the next day, so did the critics.
SIDNEY SHELDON QUOTE:"What I do is put my characters into situations that are so precarious there is no way to get out. And then I figure how to get them out."
We were presenting Val Doonican in a Summer Season at the ABC, Great Yarmouth. Usually when I visited Val we would have a game of golf. He would always find the best course within reasonable striking distance and ferry me there in his Rolls Royce. About that time personalised number plates were extremely popular in the profession; Jimmy Tarbuck had ‘COMIC’, Paul Daniels ‘MAGIC’ and several stars had their initials with the number ‘I’ after them; Val decided not to use his initials.
Val always paid my green fee and presented me with three brand new golf balls, which I usually managed to lose before the end of the round. He was a very fine golfer, playing off 4 handicap and always used to beat me. Except for one occasion when I took him to Wentworth, where I was a member playing on the Burma Road off 10, (I later on managed to get down to 7, but as I write this Anno Domini has caught up with me and I am now off 16 and rising). I managed to go round and only drop five shots. For the first time having been well beaten, Val said with a wry smile, ‘It’s nice playing with an expert’.
Val was right up there with Harry Secombe as being one of the nicest people to work with. Always warm and friendly,never temperamental. The only time he ever put his foot down was when our dear Maurice Fournier ( our chief of production )died. Maurice had always directed Val's shows and when we suggested Dickie Hurran as the director Val said " No way " He was aware that Dickie could be a trifle temperamental and Val just wanted a calm environment.
Getting ready to tee off with Val Doonican and friend
I had always thought that the best of summer season light entertainment would hold up in the West End for a limited period, so I brought ‘The Val Doonican Show’ into the Prince of Wales. In essence it was exactly the same format as his summer show. It received rave reviews, saying that this was precisely what good variety was all about. It ran from September 27th to November 24th and did wonderful business.
VAL DOONICAN QUOTE: "Listening to Oireachtas Report tonight I thought I heard an Taoiseach say "It took Ireland 30 years to become an overnight success. Surely I misheard."
We had spent some time this year planning ‘The Danny La Rue Show’ for the Prince of Wales. It opened on 19th December and exceeded all our expectations, selling out and running for 503 performances, until March 1975.
Prince Littler died during this year and Lew Grade appointed Louis Benjamin and Toby Rowland to run Stoll Moss theatres between them.
The Danny La Rue show ran extremely successfully during this year. There were a couple of minor blips; once when a lift bearing Danny down from the flies got stuck and all you could see was the bottom third of it, so Danny spent five minutes on his knees with his head just visible under the bottom of the house tabs, doing a comedy routine with David Ellen, who was standing on stage whilst the lift was slowly winched down.
This was the ‘Winter of Discontent’ when strikes and power cuts were instituted in various sections of the country. The Prince of Wales theatre was only affected on a couple of occasions and in those days we didn’t have a stand-by generator, so we positioned someone in a box at each side of the stage with some headlights and car batteries, which were kept focused on Danny. As usual, Danny continued with his performance, as if this was a perfectly normal occurrence. This, together with the emergency lighting, kept the show running.
Me about to be attacked by a man-eating lobster -
Freddie Carpenter and Danny don't seem too bothered
It was during the run of this show, that Danny discussed with me a project he was considering. He had fallen in love with a property called Walton Hall, which was situated near Wellesbourne, in Warwickshire. He told me that this was his dream. He purchased it two years later.
Walton Hall had seventy-five acres, its own church and graveyard, and a magnificent mansion, part of which Danny converted into a Victorian music hall. He initially paid £500,000 for it, and for the next six years, invested everything he earned in it - he even sold his pub, The Swan, in Streetly to help fund the alterations. The renovations simply ate money, and very few people went to stay there.
At the time he told me he was going to buy it, I thought to myself that it appeared to be a bit of a white elephant in the middle of nowhere; why would people stay there? Maybe to see Danny, but Danny would probably be away working; but knowing Danny had made up his mind, there was no point in arguing with him.
Finally, after years of ploughing money into it, it was still not working; the reason being, if it was Danny La Rue’s hotel, people who went there, went to see Danny La Rue and he wasn’t there – he was away, working for us.
Danny put it up for sale in 1983. He was approached by two Canadians, who wanted to take over the hotel, but they wanted Danny to remain as a figurehead, as a director and a major shareholder. They told Danny they were going to invest millions of pounds in the project, so Danny enthusiastically joined in their scheme.
While he was absent, they moved in, and lived like kings. They flew in and out of the country, and everything they spent, was put down to the hotel. In July 1983, the two Canadians were arrested for an airline and travel ticket fraud in Canada. In the meantime debts had accumulated at the hotel and bailiffs moved in, to seize assets for payment of an outstanding VAT debt. It transpired, that the Canadians had ordered everything, using Danny’s name, and of course, technically, since the hotel had never officially changed hands, Danny was responsible for all the debts.
In July 1983, Walton Hall went into liquidation. Danny lost every penny he had ever earned in show business, and he had to sell his antiques and his home in Henley-on-Thames to help pay off the debts.
Following the fiasco of ‘Gomes’, I did salvage something from it. I persuaded Roy Dotrice to repeat his one man show ‘Brief Lives’, which had earlier been a great success at the Criterion theatre. We opened at the Mayfair on 15th January. It was directed by Patrick Garland, based on the writings of John Aubrey.
The setting, magnificently designed by Julia Trevelyan Oman, was the study of John Aubrey, and was absolutely crammed with bric-a-brac, furniture and pile upon pile of manuscripts and books all in a glorious state of disarray, most of it covered with a layer of dust, and in some corners, festooned by cobwebs. This was the chaos which John Aubrey was purported to have lived in.
It was quite successful at the Mayfair theatre, cost very little to put on, and made a small profit. It was pleasant to do, and to be associated with Patrick Garland, who had also adapted it.
JOHN AUBREY QUOTE:"Upon the sixth of April, Alexander the Great was born. Upon the same day he conquered Darius, won a great victory at sea, and died the same day."
Our next production was ‘Henry IV’ by Pirandello. The stars were Rex Harrison and Yvonne Mitchell. It opened on 20th February, and was directed by Clifford Williams.
This was my first opportunity to work with Rex Harrison, although previously I’d had a lunch meeting with Rex and his agent, Dennis Sellinger to discuss the possibility of him doing ‘Man and Superman’.
We seemed to be chatting amicably enough, when suddenly Rex said, ‘Fuck this - I don’t want to do the play after all’, and got up, and left. Dennis and I continued with a rather subdued luncheon, and I finished up paying the bill.
Bob Clinton, who was the Company and Stage Manager for 'My Fair Lady' at Drury Lane, told me that he always had a bad time with Rex who was playing Professor Higgins.
Every night before the performance, Bob would go to his dressing room and Rex would give him a list of complaints. These varied, but there was one in particular which always came up; it was about the follow-spot operator. Rex said 'he can't keep up with me - he's usually behind me, but sometimes he's in front of me'.
This went on for weeks until finally one evening, Bob went to Rex's dressing room and before Rex could start, Bob said, 'You've been right all along about this follow-spot operator - he's terrible and I've fired him'. 'I say', said Rex. 'Isn't that a bit extreme?' 'Not at all', said Bob. 'Of course, he hadn't fired him, but he never had another complaint from Rex about the follow-spot again.
I wasn’t looking forward with great joy to my next encounter with Rex, playing Henry IV, but contrary to his history of irascibility I found him absolutely charming to work with.
He threw a first night party at his home for the cast, and he spent the entire evening being delightful to me and Patricia, my guest. As the evening wore on and I became increasingly more intoxicated, warming to his good humour, I began to flatter him. When it came time to leave, he came out onto the pavement to see me off. By this time, we were practically hugging each other with love and appreciation. I must have gone well over the top, because after we left, Patricia said to me, ‘You were buttering him up so much, I thought you’d got your head stuck up his backside’.
The run was uneventful; his charming wife, the lovely Elizabeth Harris, seemed to know exactly how to deal with him, but then, she’d had plenty of experience having previously been married to Richard Harris. The show was an artistic success; in layman’s terms it was well received, but didn’t make any money.
REX HARRISON QUOTE:"Exhilaration is that feeling you get just after a great idea hits you, and just before you realize what's wrong with it."
Peter Hall, who had just been appointed to run the National Theatre, asked me if I would have lunch with him. He brought along Peter Stevens, his general administrator, and explained that they didn’t just want the National, which was due to open shortly to be a home for the classics - they wanted it to be all things - to all people. Pop concerts on the terraces during the summer; music playing in the foyer - for at least an hour before performances, exhibitions and platform performances; but most of all, he was toying with the idea of populist entertainment to be held in the Olivier or Lyttleton theatres on Sunday evenings, when the plays weren’t on.
He asked, in view of my experience with light entertainment, what I thought about the idea, and what type of artists should be engaged. I went through a comprehensive list with him, ranging from rock and roll performers to stand-up comics. I said; ‘Whatever you do, put Ken Dodd right at the top of your list'.
He and Peter Stevens made notes of all my suggestions, saying that when the theatres were up and running, he would come back to me to discuss my suggested list further. He never did.
When I joined the Board of the National in 1976, we discussed the idea again, but it proved completely impractical, because of the enormous costs of heat, light and staff to open the vast building purely for a concert in the Olivier. Financially it was not on, and furthermore, we decided we would receive criticism for commercialising the National, by presenting artists who just as easily could be playing other venues which were commercial.
Our next project was ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, which we opened at the Piccadilly theatre on 14th March. It starred Claire Bloom as the tragic lady, Blanche Dubois. Martin Shaw, who played the uncouth Stanley, decided he need to build his muscle bulk up for the part and this he managed to do very successfully. I’m not sure how - possibly with a combination of exercise and steroids. Morag Hood played Stella, and Joss Ackland played Harold.
It gave me great pleasure to co-present this at the Piccadilly because it meant that I had to negotiate with Donald Albery the owner of the theatre, who was my boss when I was stoking the boiler at the Wyndhams theatre. He remembered this, and got quite a lot of fun out of it.
Donald had a very strange clause which he always inserted into his theatre contracts with producers, which was: if a show ran for thirteen weeks, you either had to guarantee him a further thirteen weeks, or close the show.
There was always a general clause in all West End theatre contracts, that if you gave notice to close a show at one theatre, you weren’t allowed to re-open it within six months at another theatre. I told Donald that I wasn’t happy with his thirteen week clause, but I would sign it if, regardless of the business, I could give him notice to finish at the end of thirteen weeks, and immediately transfer to another theatre. He grudgingly accepted this.
It might well have been the first time he had to vary this particular clause, but I believe he was amused to be out-negotiated by his ex-boiler man.
The production evolved through the machinations of our old friend from ‘Golden Boy’ days, Hilly Elkins, who was married to Claire Bloom. We certainly didn’t need any persuading to present this - neither did Claire Bloom to play this great part. The play was a triumphant success, with everyone in the cast performing brilliantly, and receiving the appropriate recognition from the critics, as did the director, Edwin Sherrin.
Although it was a triumph, it didn’t have the impact that the production starring Vivian Leigh had back in 1949 when Binkie Beaumont who presented it, announced that Vivian Leigh was going to appear in this enormously successful production from Broadway, and that Laurence Olivier was going to direct it. The box office immediately went crazy, and they were sold out for several months in advance.
In those days the galleries were always unreserved; people used to queue on the day of the performance, usually sitting on little wooden stools which were placed outside the gallery entrance. There were no seats as such in the gallery - merely benches; it was first come, first served.
The Aldwych had approximately two hundred gallery seats and there were four hundred in the queue on the opening night, of which two hundred, were extremely disappointed. Some people had been queuing for more than twenty-four hours.
The show was received rapturously, and most of the critics raved, but there were a handful that castigated the play, calling it crude, lewd and disgusting. This merely had the effect of increasing sales at the box office. Of course, we didn’t have this sort of reaction at the Piccadilly - but it was twenty-five years later, and the public’s conception of what was acceptable in the theatre, had moved on considerably.
BLANCHE DUBOIS QUOTE:"I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."
TENNESSEE WILLIAMS QUOTE:"The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks."
Bernie phoned me late in May, and said he assumed I was going to attend the first night of the summer show at the Congress theatre Eastbourne, starring Ronnie Corbett. Prior to that, could I attend a party he was throwing the same day at his country house in Littlehampton? I explained it was rather difficult, but he was insistent. He said, ‘I really do want you to be at my party’. What could I say?
I turned up with Patricia, and he announced to the delight of all his friends, that it was a party to celebrate him being knighted. We had a wonderful time, and then we all drove down the coast to Eastbourne to see the Ronnie Corbett show.
Ronnie Corbett, Renee Stephan and me
On the way back to London, Patricia who had a suspect bad back, caused by years of maneuvering patients in and out of beds, and on and off operating tables, went into a spasm, and was in absolute agony. First thing next morning, she was seen by one of the surgeons, who she usually assisted in his operations at her hospital. He told her that the only long term solution was, to have part of her vertebrae fused.
This was an extremely complicated and dangerous operation because they would operating alongside the central nervous system, and the slightest slip, could result in paralysis. Patricia, being an extremely courageous lady, (except as far as Caribbean moths were concerned), decided to go ahead with it.
She was operated on in the same operating theatre that she was in charge of. It was a lengthy healing process, and we had planned to take a two week holiday in the Los Monteros hotel in Marbella, at the end of July. ‘Don’t worry - I’ll be ready in time for it’, she said - and she was. We had a splendid suite at the hotel, but unfortunately on the second day, we both caught an acute case of gastro-enteritis, and spent the next ten days taking it in turns to use the toilet. We could eat practically nothing, and to even a drink of water was a problem. At the end of it, we both lost a stone in weight and I was out of pocket by about £3,000. Still, cheaper than going to Grayshott Health Clinic.
The Coventry Spring Show starred Freddie Starr with Paul Melba from 14th March to 17th April. Freddie was now a big star, and on 20% of the box office receipts. At the Coventry theatre there was a hospitality suite, which led onto an isolated box at the side of the theatre, on dress circle level. This was the one I always used, because of the necessity of entertaining people.
On Freddie’s first night I was actually on my own, sitting up there in isolated splendour, when suddenly, Freddie stopped in the middle of his act, and said to the follow spot operator: ‘Shine that spotlight on that box’, pointing to me. He then did a three minute routine, generally taking the mickey, and jokingly blaming me for all the Coventry theatre’s misfortunes, by saying, ‘If you don’t enjoy any of the shows you’ve seen here - he’s the one responsible’. It was wickedly good-natured banter - but extremely embarrassing.
FREDDIE STARR QUOTE:"If you cannot read this, please ask the flight attendant for assistance". 'United Airlines Flight Safety Brochure'.
Among the many Summer Shows we were presenting was a production of 'The Liver Birds', starring Polly James.
Polly was loth to do the show in Blackpool. She thought she’d be lonely there, and wasn’t keen on playing twelve shows a week. I dangled the carrot of money in front of her, but she still wavered, saying, ‘I might not have too many friends up there that I can talk to’. She made me promise that every Friday afternoon I would phone her and spend an hour on the telephone discussing all the theatre gossip. And also, each time I went up to Blackpool I was to spend at least half a day with her. This usually consisted of us playing two-handed poker in her hotel room.
Polly is a very talented performer, who knows exactly what suits her. We were great friends for a number of years, but then, like so many friendships, we somehow drifted apart.
Our next production was a musical, ‘The Good Companions’. This was based on the novel by J.B. Priestley, book by Ronald Harwood, lyrics by Johnny Mercer and music by Andre Previn. John Mills played Jess Oakroyd, and Judi Dench played Miss Trant. The director was Braham Murray.
When this production was first proposed, I desperately wanted to do it but I explained to Bernie that such was my workload I couldn’t give it the due care and attention that it needed. I asked Bermie if he would be agreeable to me approaching Richard Pilbrow, to ask him to join us and help with the production. Bernie was happy to acquiesce, and Richard, as expected, performed admirably.
The show opened on 11th July; it was very pleasant, and received quite good notices; it had a reasonable run, but it didn’t make any money. As Patricia was in hospital recovering from her back operation, I didn’t have anyone to take to the first night.
My friendly ballet mistress, who had introduced me to many girls in the previous years said, ‘Don’t worry - I’ve got a lovely girl you can take’. Her name was Lorna Nathan; a top rate dancer who appeared mainly on television and films. She was divorced, and had an eleven year old daughter, Barbara. It was very difficult for Lorna, working in show business and bringing up a child on her own, but she managed very well. Barbara was training to be a dancer.
A couple of years later, I approached Bernie Delfont, and said, ‘Bernie, will you do me yet another favour? ‘What’s that?’ he asked. ‘You have a charitable trust, which is never fully committed. Would you pay for Barbara’s education at the Arts Educational School, out of the trust?’ Bernie was delighted to do so, and Barbara turned out to be a very fine performer.
It gave me great pleasure years later, when Barbara King took over the young leading role in ‘Forty Second Street’ at Drury Lane. (This was before Catherine Zeta-Jones played the part). I arranged with Louis Benjamin that I had the royal box. I took Lord and Lady Delfont to see Barbara in the show. As soon as the curtain came down Barbara came through the pass door to see us in the box, bringing presents for Bernie and Carol. I said, ‘I hope you’re happy with the end result of your contribution to her education’. They were delighted.
In spite of my feelings for Patricia, I also became emotionally involved with Lorna. My feelings towards both of them were a great fondness, verging on love, but not extreme enough to want to marry either of them. I therefore finished up splitting my week between the two of them. This was fine for me, but not so good for them. For some reason, they endured it for six years.
Then in 1980, Patricia married Ed Truppman, and four weeks later, Lorna announced she was marrying the scenic designer on the film she was working on, ‘Victor, Victoria’. What timing! However, I wasn’t completely alone – I was seeing Marti Caine about this time, but I think she was even more gregarious than me, having recently been divorced after many years of marriage.
On the first night of ‘The Good Companions’, Danny La Rue as usual, had asked if I could arrange a pair of tickets for Norman Balin, the notorious landlord of the Coach and Horses in Old Compton Street. Norman was reputed to be the rudest landlord in London, but he loved going to the theatre.
This I arranged, and in the interval, I heard Norman bad-mouthing the production. I took him to one side, and said, ‘Norman, you can watch the second half, but hereinafter, you are barred from all our first nights’. This was a large turnaround for Norman, who had built up a reputation for barring many people from his pub, the Coach and Horses, at the drop of a hat. Regardless of Danny's pleading I continued to bar Norman for years.
JOHN MILLS QUOTE:"I've never considered myself to be working for a living; I've enjoyed myself for a living instead."
Opening shortly after 'The Good Companions' at the Little Regent theatre, was a musical revue entitled ‘Let My People Come’. This piece was to say the least, pornographic. It was by no means any form of opposition to the sort of things that we did, but paradoxically enough, it was presented by our dear friend Harold Fielding, with whom we had co-produced several shows, and who assumed the role of custodian of good taste and family entertainment for the West End.
I suppose Harold was looking for a way to make a fast buck, but he didn’t want the general public to know, so he kept his name off the poster, never admitting publicly that he was presenting it. It ran reasonably successfully, so I guess Harold made a few bob. I went to see it, but left in the interval - not because I was shocked; I was a bit, but I found it boring.
Alex Cohen asked us if we would like to present an entertainment which he had running on Broadway, called ‘Sammy Cahn’s Songbook’We opened it at the New London Theatre, casting three singers; Lorna Dallas, Laurel Ford, and Terry Mitchell, to appear with Sammy and his pianist, Richard Leonard.
The evening consisted of Sammy regaling us with all the songs he had written, and stories of all the stars he had worked with. One of my favourite lines from Sammy’s show (which may or may not have been original to Sammy) was, when questioned as to what came first – the music or the lyrics, he answered - the phone call.
Sammy had won three Oscars, three Tony’s, had written several musicals, and many songs for films. Eighty-nine of his songs were recorded by Frank Sinatra.
Sammy was a shortish, gentle man, always full of good humour and great anecdotes; It was a pleasure to work with him. When I showed him the New London theatre, where he was to appear, he was rather taken aback with its modern style since he’d always wanted to play one of the old, smaller theatres, seating about four or five hundred.
The show got very good notices, but was not a great success. In fact, Sammy said that in all the times he walked past the front of the theatre to go backstage, he never once saw anyone at the box office. This was an exaggeration, but we certainly didn’t sell enough tickets to keep it going. When the show closed, he gave me a copy of his book, ‘I Should Care’, inscribed for ‘Richard Mills who paid the Bills’.
SAMMY CAHN LYRIC:"Love and marriage, love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage. Dad was told by mother. You can't have one without the other."
THE NEW YORK TIMES QUOTE:"One of the most successful, memorable and happy lyric writers of the last forty years...a great humourist, dry, self-deprecating and lovable...a touch of genius and a touch of love".
At Christmas we presented something that I was particularly proud of, at the Prince Edward Theatre, (it was then still called the Casino). ‘Cinderella’, starring, (the first show she’d ever appeared in), Twiggy, Steptoe and Son, (Wilfred Brambell and Harry H. Corbett), Nicky Henson and Roy Kinnear etc.
It wasn’t the normal sort of pantomime which existed at the time with all sorts of TV and commercial jokes, and, as my wife Sheila puts it: ‘Everyone doing their own thing at the same time.’ Instead, it had a very well constructed and amusing book, by Frank Hauser.
I had seen this production at the Oxford Playhouse the previous Christmas and the idea came to me, that if we could combine Twiggy and Steptoe and Son in a well constructed pantomime, we might have a commercial success.
At one stage, Leo McKern was going to play one of the ugly sisters, but try as we might, with Dennis Sellinger, his agent being most co-operative, we just couldn’t agree the billing so we never had the pleasure of seeing ‘Rumpole of The Bailey’ in drag.
The show received absolutely rave notices – some of the critics said it was the best pantomime they’d ever seen. This, combined with the glittering cast, I thought would surely turn out to be a goldmine - but it wasn’t.
It ran its allotted span, but it cost us money. I was bitterly disillusioned, and I decided that it was the last pantomime I would ever do. And so it was, until the following year, when I presented Danny La Rue in ‘Queen Danniella’. (Never, say never again).
It was about this time that I discovered how Dennis Sellinger managed to cope with his client, Peter Sellers. No matter what Denis suggested, Peter would fly into a rage and there would be a terrible argument.
Denis found out that Peter was seeing the famous clairvoyant, Maurice Woodruff, and Peter literally would not make any decisions without consulting him. Denis got in touch with Maurice Woodruff and said; ‘You’ve got to keep this very secret, but if you want to earn some extra money, will you report to me every time, Peter Sellars is coming to see you. I will then tell you what I intend to discuss with him about his career next time I meet up with him, and I want you, to influence him the way I tell you. The deal was struck, and Denis never had any problems again in persuading Peter to do whatever he wanted him to do.
TWIGGY QUOTE:"It's not what you'd call a figure, is it?
At the end of the previous year, on 30th December, Bill Kenwright presented a revue of revues entitled, ‘Deja Revue’, starring Sheila Hancock and George Cole at the New London theatre. The show wasn’t doing very well, so in order to try and help Bill keep it going, I waived the rent and left him to just pay certain of the theatre’s costs.
He obviously mentioned it to the cast, because I received a note from George Cole, saying that it was nice to be helpful with the rent sometimes, which made me feel a little better about all the times in the 50s, when I had kept him waiting for the rent I owed him.
The previous year, I had tried to negotiate with Louis Benjamin better terms for the pantomimes which I was producing in his theatres, but without success. I informed him, that if he didn’t meet my demands which were not excessive, but would at least give me a sporting chance of making a worthwhile profit, I would pull the plug.
Louis thought I was bluffing, but when I sent him a note saying, ‘it’s finished – I have scrapped all my productions for your theatres next year’, he was on the phone saying, ‘well, perhaps we should renegotiate’. ‘Sorry Louis’, I replied. ‘Any concessions you’re likely to make would be miniscule, and in any event, it’s too late’. So that was the end of most of our large scale pantomimes in the provinces.
On the 2nd April I went on my own to the opening night of 'The Exorcism' at the Comedy theatre, which was a four hander with Ronald Himes, Brian Blessed, Honor Blackman and Mary Ure.
After the show I wandered down to Gerry's club, and who should waltz in half an hour later but Mary Ure with an entourage. We fell into conversation and after about an hour, all the entourage left leaving me sitting chatting to Mary. Me thinking I'd love to make a pass at her, but since she was married to Robert Shaw at the time, I dismissed the idea.
We talked until two-thirty in the morning, consumed a reasonable amount of alcohol, but neither of us were blind drunk. The next day I opened my evening newspaper and was stunned to read that Mary had been discovered dead in her bed that morning. Among the suggestions as to the cause of her death was that she choked on her own drunken vomit. I can only say that when she left me at half past two in the morning, she was certainly not drunk, just a little tipsy. What a tragic end.
Early in the year, Alex Cohen asked if we would be interested in presenting James Stewart in ‘Harvey’ in the West End. For those not aware, this is the story about the town drunk, whose friend is an invisible, (but not to Jimmy), six foot white rabbit called Harvey. Bernie and I jumped at the chance. I set up the deal with James Stewart, engaged Anthony Quayle to direct, and set up an opening date at the Prince of Wales theatre, three months in advance.
We arranged for Jimmy to come over for auditions well in advance. Although he and Tony obviously knew of each other, they had never met. I arranged a meeting in my office for them; Jimmy was first to arrive. He was the first person I had ever seen who had to stoop to come through my office door. He was over six and a half feet tall - much taller than he looks on the screen. Tony arrived, and I introduced them.
Now, I knew of Jimmy’s reputation of giving lengthy consideration to everything, and drawing out his replies. What I didn’t realise, was that Tony by comparison, made Jimmy look like greased lightening.
It may well have been that Tony was doing it deliberately to make Jimmy feel at home, but after fifteen minutes, we had barely got beyond the ‘good morning’ stage, and I was beginning to think that the meeting was going to take all day and night. I tried to hurry it up a little, and they responded. (Please don’t think that any of the foregoing is meant as a criticism - it is merely an observation, I felt very humble in the presence of two such giants of the entertainment world).
When the meeting finally drew to a close, Jimmy remained in my office. ‘Would you do something for me?’ he asked. ‘I’ve brought my wardrobe over with me, and I’d like you to look after it until I return in two months time for rehearsals’. With that, he handed me various pieces of apparel, including a well-worn, brown trilby hat. ‘Please could you take special care of the hat. It was given to me by my father when I started in the business, and I always wear it in every film I’ve ever made, except of course Westerns, and I have a special hat for those too. The secret of making Westerns, is to get a good horse, and a good hat, and never change them’.
Take care of it? - that legendary hat, which had appeared in so many films? As soon as he left, I emptied my safe, put the hat in it, and it stayed there until he returned. Do me a favour. Next time you watch a James Stewart film, look out for that brown, trilby hat. It will be there somewhere - unless it’s a Western.
Jimmy was an absolute joy to work with - so unassuming - so easy to please, with a few exceptions. When I apologised for the fact that he didn’t have a larger dressing room, he told me, ‘It’s no problem - all I need is a room, a table, a chair and a make-up mirror with decent lights’.
He could be a little tricky on the odd occasion. One day he phoned me in my office from his dressing room on the theatre phone, to tell me the set was shaky. I immediately asked our carpenter to strengthen it, by adding more weights to the braces which supported the scenery. Next day, I asked Jimmy if it was O.K. ‘No, it’s still shaky’, he said. I asked the carpenter to put as many weights on it as he could. I tested it; it seemed all right to me. But it still didn’t satisfy Jimmy. I told the carpenter to go round and screw it all to the floor, although it would take much longer to strike before the next show. (We had more than one scene). I once again asked if it was all right. ‘Nope’, said Jimmy, so I asked him to meet me on the side of the stage, so that we could look at it together. We met, he reached up as far as he could, took hold of the leading edge of the set, and shook it with all his might. It moved about half an inch. ‘I told you it shook,’ he said. But I never heard any more about it.
I did however receive another call on the theatre phone. In those days at the Prince of Wales, to earn extra money we had a projection box at the back of the dress circle, and on Sundays, we used to hire the theatre out as a cinema for Chinese films. Since we had the projector, I had a contract with a screen advertising agency, and during the interval of shows, we would project screen adverts onto the iron curtain.
I was in my office one evening, and after the interval, my internal phone went. It was James Stewart. ‘I hear you’re showing film adverts during the interval. I’m supposed to be playing a theatre, not a cinema and I consider film advertisements out of place in the middle of my play. Either they go – or I go’. I didn’t argue. They went.
On another occasion, the chair he used on stage to sit on when he was talking to Harvey, (the invisible white rabbit), broke. We got him another one. This didn’t please him, so we changed it. I received a phone call from him, complaining that I couldn’t even find a chair that suited him. I rose to the challenge and asked Jimmy Hinchcliffe, our property master, to hire a lorry, to go to every big store in London, and come back with as many chairs which were similar to the original, as possible.
Jimmy Hinchcliffe arrived back with twelve chairs, and lined them up on the side of the stage, for the ‘chair’ audition. Jimmy Stewart arrived, and solemnly sat in each chair in turn. ‘Nope, nope, nope’, he said to each in turn. After sitting in the last chair, he turned to me and said, ‘You are obviously incapable of finding me a suitable chair. I’ll sort it out for myself tomorrow’. He arranged for his driver to meet him the next afternoon, and take him round all the big West End stores. We waited with bated breath to find out the result of his search.
He arrived back at the theatre an hour before curtain up, and asked the Company Manager to call the entire company and backstage staff, on stage at the half hour; I turned up for the meeting. When everyone was gathered round him in a semi-circle, he drawled in that slow, inimitable way of his: ‘I’ve gathered you all here, because for the past few days I’ve been giving the management and staff a very hard time, because they couldn’t find a chair I wanted. I told them they were incompetent, and I would deal with it myself. I’ve been all over London, and no such chair exists. So, in front of all of you, I want to publicly apologise to Richard Mills, Jimmy Hinchcliffe, and everyone concerned’. Staggered by this, I muttered something to the effect that it was very magnanimous of him, and, gesturing to the twelve chairs that were still lined up on the side of the stage, asked him which one he would like. ‘Oh, give me any one you like,’ he said. ‘I never liked the original one anyway’.
As a contrast, to illustrate the sheer professional side of him, when he applied himself, I had decided we needed to do a radio commercial, to plug the show. Commercials come in various lengths; I decided to write one lasting thirty seconds. I didn’t ask his agent if Jimmy would make it, because I knew the agent would charge us a fortune. I merely played it to Jimmy, and asked him if he would do it. I felt that it contained everything we needed to say, but knowing Jimmy’s particular style of slow delivery, felt that it would have to be cut drastically.
He skimmed through it, nodded his approval and asked how long it needed to be. I told him we had got thirty-second slots, and he said, ‘Lets do it!’ I switched the tape recorder on. He read it once more to himself, then launched into it. Take one – twenty-nine seconds exactly. His timing was a miracle. He not only got it spot on first time, but he also knew that we needed a one-second lead in time!
In spite of him being ranked as one of the top hundred movie stars of all time, winning an Oscar whilst a colonel in the Air Force, winning the Air medal, the distinguished Flying Cross, the Croix de Guerre, and seven battle stars, the thing he seemed to take the greatest pride in were his twin daughters, Kelly and Judy, to whom he introduced me at a party we threw for him in the bar at the Prince of Wales.
I’m not sure whether it was Kelly or Judy, but Jimmy spoke with immense pride of the time one of them spent as a student working with gorillas in Rwanda under the tutelage of Dian Fossey, the lady of ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ fame.
Apart from the odd couple of blips I’ve written about, the time spent working with the legendary James Stewart was among the most joyous I have spent in the theatre.
JAMES STEWART QUOTE:"If I had my career over again? Maybe I'd say to myself, speed it up a little."
Late in the previous year, Jimmy Grafton, Harry Secombe’s agent, asked Bernie and me if we would see a play at the Open Space theatre entitled ‘Schippel’. It was written by Carl Sternheim, adapted by C.P. Taylor and directed by Mike Ockrent. This was Mike’s first play in the West End. I was to meet up with him many years later, when together with Susan Stroman, Mike had devised, directed and choreographed an enormous Broadway hit called ‘Crazy For You’).
The play was about a common, uncouth plumber, who is invited to join a quartet of upper-class gentry who had entered an international singing competition, in place of their tenor who had lost his voice. With great reluctance, they invite Schippel to join them, and the story is basically about the clash of personalities. Jimmy thought that this would be a marvellous vehicle for Harry.
I went to the Open Space, saw it and agreed completely. I conveyed my enthusiasm to Bernie and we arranged to open it, with Harry starring, at the Prince of Wales theatre on 8th September.
Deciding that the title, ‘Schippel’,would be a turn-off for Harry Secombe fans we renamed it ‘The Plumber’s Progress’.
I arranged a pre-production meeting in my office with Mike Ockrent, the director, Harry Secombe and the scenic designer. The meeting was scheduled for 2.30; Mike Ocrent and the designer were on time but Harry was late.
We discussed one or two points whilst we were waiting for him, and then the door to my office opened and in breezed Harry, followed by Eric Morecambe. They had both lunched rather well and preceded to do a double act for about twenty minutes, which I found vastly entertaining. I then got drawn into the act with Eric, inflicting me to a barrage of gags. This was also very amusing, but after a further half an hour with no let-up, I was beginning to feel a trifle overwhelmed.
Seeing which way the wind was blowing, and that there was going to be no let-up, Mike Ockrent and the designer made their excuses and left. Eric continued to bombard me with a fusilage of jokes for another hour before finally departing. I was totally shattered and felt as if I had been the participant of a three week long Morcambe & Wise Christmas Special.
I went home that evening and collapsed into bed early, thinking I never want to see Morcambe & Wise again. But I got over it after a week or two and continued to watch my favourite comics.
The play opened out of town at the Opera House Manchester, where Secombe fans were rather baffled. One was heard to say as he left the theatre in the interval, ‘I didn’t pay good money to hear Harry Secombe saying “bollocks” on stage’.
During the previews at the Prince of Wales, many of Harry’s friends tried to persuade him to turn it into a Goon show but Harry, supported by Bernie and I, considered he should remain true to the piece. The critics were a little puzzled as to how to describe the play, but they did give good notices to all the actors, particularly to Simon Callow, who played the Crown Prince.
The show ticked over for four months, barely covering its expenses, then Harry contracted bronchitis and pneumonia. The next night, his understudy went on, and two days later, he too became ill. Seeing that the fates were conspiring against us, we threw in the towel and closed the show that Saturday night.
It was during this show that Harry told me a story of when he started out in third-rate variety. On the bill was a lion act called 'Simba'. This lion apparently was the oldest and most moth-eaten one in captivity. It was virtually toothless and clawless and had toured the circuit for years with his boss - the lion tamer. Apparently the act consisted of the lion standing on his hind legs, rolling over, jumping through a hoop and performing a few other tricks. The culmination of the act was the lion tamer lying on the floor and the lion prowling up to him and snatching from his chest a joint of meat the lion tamer had placed there. After this, the curtain would come down to minimal applause.
Harry told me he followed this act and on the first night whilst he was doing his shaving routine, behind him he heard the most terrible shots and growls, crashings and the curtain behind him was shaking. He finished his act hurriedly and dashed off onto the side of the stage asking the Stage manager frantically what had been happening and the Stage Manager told him not to worry and said: 'this happens after the act on every first house. It's the lion tamer fighting the lion trying to get the joint back so he could use it for the second house.'
HARRY SECOMBE QUOTE:"I suffer fools gladly because I am one of them."
One of the summer shows we were presenting co-starred Moira Anderson. When I went to see the show in Eastbourne, I arrived a couple of hours early. When I went to the stage door I was told that Moira Anderson was already in the theatre. I had never actually met Moira, so I thought I would go back stage to introduce myself, which I did. We had a lengthy conversation which was a trifle bizarre. I later on discovered she thought I was the piano tuner.
We were presenting Freddie Starr at the Opera House, Blackpool and he was being a trifle neurotic during the run of the show, suffering from some bad headache for which he was taking tranquillisers. The local newspapers were running unpleasant stories about him. I had seen Freddie’s opening night, but I returned about a week later to see the opening night of ‘The Mating Season’.
I was staying in a suite at the Savoy hotel. In those days, the foyer of the Savoy, which was rather large, was the meeting place of most of the show people in Blackpool, who could gossip and drink all night; usually, it was pretty packed until about 3 a.m. There was always the same old night porter on duty to serve them. Sometimes he loved to join in the conversations, and he was always anxious to impart to the pros, any pieces of theatrical gossip he was privy to.
On the night in question, I was fast asleep in bed at 1 a.m. when the phone rang. I sleepily answered it. ‘Yes, who is it?’ I asked. ‘It’s Freddie, Freddie Starr. I’ve got to speak to you’. ‘Okay’, I mumbled drowsily, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow’. ‘No, I’ve got to come and see you now. It’s about all this terrible publicity I’m getting in the papers - I need to know what to do about it’. ‘OK’, I reluctantly answered. ‘Come and see me in my suite’. ‘I’ll be there in twenty minutes’, he said.
I got up, put on my dressing gown, and awaited his arrival. Freddie came in, and sat down. I asked him if he’d like something. He said, yes, he’d like a cup of tea. So on the telephone, I called for the night porter to come up, and take an order. When he came into the suite, he was rather surprised to see me in my dressing gown, with Freddie Starr. I asked for a pot of tea, a large brandy and ginger ale and a sandwich. As he was about to leave, Freddie said, ‘Oh, and can you bring a large tube of KY’. ‘What’s KY’, asked the porter. ‘It’s a lubricant for you know what’, said Freddie, making an obscene gesture. ‘But what ever you do, don’t tell all those pros downstairs in the foyer what’s going on’.
Needless to say, the porter did. But since they all knew Freddie, I think they all took it with a grain of salt. At least - I hope they did. I certainly have no painful, (if you’ll pardon the expression), recollection of anyone questioning me about this incident.
At the Talk of the Town we had a strike by the catering staff over pay, and the division of tips. They tried to bring out Equity and the Musicians’ Union with them. Bernie and I had an emergency meeting with Charles Forte, and it was decided that provided Equity and the MU didn’t support the strike, we would stand firm.
I spoke to Peter Plouviez, who felt that in the circumstances, his members wouldn’t be supportive, nor it was felt would the Musicians’ Union. We therefore arranged that cold, airline type packaged food was served by waiters recruited from outside and kept our fingers crossed that the musicians and actors would cross the catering staff’s picket lines. There was a certain amount of wavering, but eventually we won, and after a few days, the catering staff called off the strike.
At the Opera House Manchester we presented ‘The Val Doonican Show’ with Daily & Wayne, Paul Daniels etc. This was Paul’s first job with us; he was earning £225 a week. He only had a fifteen minute slot; little did I dream that he was supremely capable of doing much longer than this. He thought he was working very cheaply, but being a shrewd business man he realised that our company, being the largest, could, long-term, create more opportunities for him than anyone else.
During the run he nearly had an accident; he turned up early one evening in the first week to get his props ready, and found the curtain up. He hadn’t realised he’d signed for nine shows – not eight. He told me later that he thought £225 for eight shows was very cheap – but for nine shows, was ridiculous.
We were asked by Richard Stone if we’d like to present with Duncan C. Wheldon and Louis Michaels, a stage version of ‘Dad’s Army’, with the entire original cast together. This looked as if it was going to be a goldmine. We tried it out at the Forum, Billingham, and then opened at the Shaftesbury theatre on 2nd October. It did very well indeed - but a goldmine, it wasn’t.
ARTHUR LOWE QUOTE:"Acting must be scaled down for the screen. A drawing room is a lot smaller than a theatre auditorium."
In spite of my vow never to present another pantomime, on 18th December at The Casino, which is now the Prince Edward theatre, we opened ‘The Exciting Adventures of Queen Danniella’, starring Danny La Rue. Moira Fraser and Alan Haynes were among others in the cast, and Freddie Carpenter, the director, came to me with great excitement, saying:" We can get Sheila White to play Danny’s daughter’. ‘Who’s she?’ I asked having forgotten. ‘Oh, she's marvellous’, said Freddie. ‘She was in ‘On The Level’, ‘Dames at Sea’ where she got fantastic notices, she played Bet, in the film of ‘Oliver’, and then went to Paris, and headlined there for a number of years; she’s now back in London’. ‘Okay’, I said, now remembering ‘, 'we’ll have her’.
The show had a very successful run of four months, during which time, Danny, who’d never missed a performance in his life, was taken ill with a very severe throat infection. He said he was going to continue, no matter what. I went to see him in his dressing room before the show, to ask him how he could possibly perform with virtually no voice; he certainly couldn’t sing. ‘My plan is’, he said, ‘with the use of the radio mike, I can croak through the dialogue and for one or two of the songs. I’ll stand next to Sheila White, and she can sing them for me’.
Whilst I was talking to Danny in the dressing room dressed in my black overcoat and carrying my briefcase, Sheila came in to discuss the arrangements with Danny. She later told me she thought I was the theatre doctor.
During the show, when she was standing next to Danny singing his song, he grasped her hand, his artificial nails digging in to her so hard, that she thought he was going to break her wrist. Danny made a lightning recovery, and the show ran its allotted course.
Shortly after the show finished, Sheila White went on to star in the very successful BBC television serial 'I Claudius' playing Messalina opposite Derek Jacobi's Claudius.
Sheila White as Messalina in 'I Claudius'
SHEILA WHITE QUOTE:"Pantomime is everyone doing their own thing at the same time."
It was during this year that Danny La Rue opened his small theatre at his newly acquired Walton Hall. We had a very long association with Danny. We presented him in two West End shows which between them ran for nearly four years at almost capacity; two TV spectaculars, two Coventry shows, five tours and six summer seasons.
He was not only a professional down to his fingertips - it extended beyond that - to the end of his false nails. Danny never missed a performance in all the shows I did with him, and invariably played to sell-out business. He was a joy to work with, but he could be demanding, and when he’d had a little too much of his favourite tipple – champagne, (I hasten to add, always after a performance, never before or during), he could be rather difficult.
There was only one occasion I can recall when Danny had a drink during the show. For the opening of his pride and joy, the little theatre he had created at Walton Hall, he invited not only all his friends from the light entertainment side of the business but also many of the artists from the Royal Shakespeare Company, which was relatively nearby.
At the commencement of the evening, Danny walked on to the stage and welcomed us all. He went to great pains to say how honoured all the light entertainment people should be to have the cream of show business - the legitimate actors – from the Royal Shakespeare Company with us. ‘These legitimate actors are the people who give style and polish to our profession, and we light entertainment people should be grateful to them for helping us to achieve respectability’.
Fast forward. Unlike any other time when Danny is performing, he starts to have a few glasses of champagne, and as the evening wears on, he becomes rather inebriated. When he gets to this stage – look out. Wayne King, his partner, is performing at the piano at this stage of the show and one or two members of the Royal Shakespeare Company are chatting rather loudly to each other. Danny hears this - hurtles on to the stage - stops Wayne King in the middle of his act, and launches into a tirade against the Royal Shakespeare Company. ‘You’re all a lot of wankers!' - or words to that effect. 'All you do is go on and spout other people’s lines, while we light entertainment people are the ones who create the magic from our own persona! You don’t deserve to be in the same room as us!’ Now, to say that they were a trifle nonplussed, after being told by him earlier that they were the cream of the British theatre, was an understatement.
The show finished in an uproar. Danny departed backstage. I shot round to his dressing room where he was sitting in a chair being held down by Wayne King and Jack Hanson his Manager. Danny was incoherent with rage. ‘How DARE those legitimate fuckers come and destroy my first night!’
Jack Hanson, seeing drastic measures were called for, got a bucket of water and threw it over him, to calm Danny down, which had the effect of dampening down the proceedings. This was a first for Danny, but the next day he was fully recovered and back to his usual affable self and one could forgive him the odd transgression, for his supreme professionalism.
This year, Bernie received a message that Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister, wanted to see him. At the meeting, after some general chit-chat, he asked Bernie if he would like to be a peer. It could either be for services to the theatre, or charity. Bernie was given the choice - he elected it should be for charity. Bernie was stunned that he should receive this honour, so soon after being knighted.
But there was an even bigger surprise for him. On his way out, the Prime Minister told him that he was also elevating his brother Lew, to the peerage. They both formed part of Harold Wilson’s Resignation Honours List, which, because of the reputed influence of his secretary, Marcia Williams, it became known as the ‘Lavender List’.
Bernie invited me together with Carol, his three children and his secretary, Mrs Gaston, to observe his inauguration in full regalia at the House of Lords accompanied by his sponsors. He followed this with a private lunch for us in one of the Lord’s reception rooms. When I pulled up to the entrance to the House of Lords in my Rolls Royce, I was very flattered when the security man said, ‘We will try and find a parking space for your Lordship’. I didn’t bother to tell him I wasn’t a Lord; I told my chauffeur to drive off and pick me up later.
In May 1976, I was approached and asked if I would like to join the National Theatre Board and the Finance and General Purposes Committee as a representative of West End Commercial Theatre.
Unlike any other subsidised theatre board, the appointments to the National Theatre were made by the government. I don’t know who put my name forward; it might have been Sir Tom Arnold, (Tom Arnold’s son who was a Member of Parliament), or it might have been Peter Hall suggesting to Lord Rayne that he ask the government that I be appointed, but in any event, there I was. This was a position which Binkie Beaumont had filled until 1973, when the National Theatre was at the Old Vic, so naturally, I was flattered.
Years later, I was pleased to read in Peter Hall’s diaries, that when I was appointed to the Board along with Yvonne Mitchell and Harold Hobson, he felt my appointment would really help matters; he wrote of me: “that as a level headed commercial theatre man he would help bring some balance to the Board”.
I decided there would be a conflict of interest in being involved with the Arts Council and sitting on the board of the National Theatre. The Drama Panel of the Arts Council which I had joined the previous year, consisted largely of representatives of the subsidised theatre from various quarters of the UK. Some of them were rather left-wing and subsequently, there was a great deal of muttering about the amount of subsidy which had been given to the National Theatre to: a) build it, and b), to fund it on an ongoing, annual basis. Certain vociferous members of the panel demanded either a share of the National Theatre’s subsidy, or permanent access to one of the three theatres in the building.
I saw merit in the idea of the National Theatre, opening the doors of one of its auditoria to works of quality from subsidised theatre throughout the UK - if not on a permanent basis - then on a basis of perhaps three or four months a year.
The logistics of how this plan would tie in with the day to day running of the rest of the National Theatre was of course, an extremely difficult nettle to grasp, but since there was no access to any of the theatres at the National Theatre at the time, there didn't seem much point in trying to resolve a problem which didn’t exist.
In short, I was in a dilemma. Most of me was totally in favour of the new National Theatre finally coming to fruition after many, many years of procrastination, and a small part of me felt there should be access to all and sundry. In short, a conflict of interest; I felt I had no choice, other than to resign from the Drama Panel of the Arts Council. My resignation was accepted with very good grace from the rest of the panel, and they all wished me well. Some of them said however, ‘Be prepared – we shall be knocking on the gates of your citadel’.
We co-presented with Robert Luff two summer seasons shows - 'The Black & White Minstrels'. I got on very well with Robert to begin with. When we were setting up the deals to present the 'Black & White Minstrels' at Blackpool and Yarmouth, he said that he controlled the sole rights, and he was going to leave them to me in his will.
It transpired he didn’t, but if he had, there’s nothing I could have done with the rights in later years since they quickly became totally politically incorrect. He also asked me if I would like to let him make me a ‘name’ in the city. I was hesitant, but he was insistent. He said ‘It’s money for old rope; everybody does it, and each year you get something for nothing’. I said, ‘Bob, I really am a firm believer in the saying, “there’s no free lunch”. So if you don’t mind, I’ll pass’.
Thank God I did. In later years, some of my friends who were ‘names’ were totally wiped out through the vast insurance claims they had to cover.
Michael Sullivan, who by now had moved to Marbella, was running a golf tournament at the El Pariso Golf Club at Estapona. The trophy was known as the 'Edward Heath Trophy'. Although I was very busy, Michael begged me to go over and participate. 'Everything will be fine', he said - 'leave it to me. I'll fix up all the accommodation etc'.
I flew out with Patricia; we arrived late evening at Marbella and Michael met us at the airport. 'Where are we staying?', I asked. 'Don't worry', he said - 'there's a brand new complex of chalets that have been built on the golf course and I have arranged that you stay in one of these'. It was dark when we arrived; Michael who had the key, opened the door of this tiny building and we went inside. He found the main switch and put the lights on.
All we could see was a small kitchen, a bathroom and a living room, sparsely furnished. It was bitterly cold and there was no heating. 'Where's the bedroom?', I asked. Michael looked around and said: 'There doesn't appear to be one. Perhaps you sleep in the living room'. 'Then where's the bed?', I asked. He took another look round and said, 'I guess it's hidden away somewhere. Maybe the settee converts into a bed. Got to go now. I'll pick you up in the morning', and he shot out of the door.
Patricia and I established that the settee did not convert into a bed and we eventually found it folded up inside a cupboard. But unfortunately, there were no sheets, blankets or pillows. We made the best we could out of it and slept with our coats over us. 'Wait until I see Michael when he comes to pick us up in the morning', I said.
Morning dawned - it was pouring with rain - there was nothing to eat or drink in the kitchen. Time went by, and after we had waited for about an hour and a half and there was still no sign of Michael, I said to Patricia, 'I can't bear this any longer, I more or less know where his house is - it's about a twenty minute walk'. So in the lashing rain, carrying our suitcases, we finally arrived at Michael's house to find Michael and other guests sitting round a roaring fire in his living room.
'Oh - I was just coming to pick you up', he said. 'Were you now' I replied. 'Well you can just drive us straight to the airport - I'm going back to London'. Michael begged me to stay and immediately got on the phone to a nearby hotel and booked Patricia and me in. As it was for charity, I reluctantly agreed to stay and the happy outcome, as far as I was concerned, was that I won the Edward Heath trophy. On the darker side of the story, I'm not sure that Michael passed over to the charity the money which he raised. But then - that was Michael - a loveable rogue.
There was another occasion when I was playing golf with Michael in Spain in the blistering heat; it must have been about 100 degrees and we couldn't get a buggy or a caddy, and we were pulling our bags on trolleys. After about five holes, I said to Michael, 'I can't take any more of this - I'm dying in this heat'. Michael, who had spotted something in the distance said, 'Don't worry, I can sort this out'.
What Michael had spotted then hove into view. It was a golf buggy which was supposed to seat two, with three Americans seated on it with three of the most enormous golf bags you have ever seen. As they drew level with us, Michael stepped in front of the buggy and held up his hand for them to stop. They pulled up and Michael said, 'I am the Secretary of this golf club and you are in complete breach of the Rules - only two people are allowed to ride on a buggy - I am confiscating it'! The Americans sheepishly removed their enormous bags: Michael and I loaded our bags on and sped away into the distance leaving behind three exhausted golfers carrying tons of equipment in the blazing heat.
You want another Michael Sullivan golfing story? We were playing the El Pariso course, albeit very slowly because it was crowded, when in the distance we saw the next tee which was for a par 3, and had four groups queuing up waiting to play the hole. I turned to Michael and said, 'Bloody hell - we're going to be waiting here for about forty minutes!' 'Leave it to me', said Michael. As we approached the tee, he said, 'You walk in front of me and I am going to put my hand on your shoulder'. As we approached the tee, Michael said in a loud voice, 'Blind golfer coming through'. They all shuffled to one side: I teed up first and Michael said to me, 'whereabouts is the teeing ground?' I took his hand which had the tee and a ball in it and guided him as to where to place it. He took a swing and made a good connection. 'That's remarkable', said the spectators on the tee as we walked off into the distance.
Well I suppose if he'd thought about it, Michael would have taken up a collection of guide dogs at the same time.
Edward Heath presenting me with the Edward Heath trophy at El Pariso
Early on in the year, I read a treatment of a new musical called ‘Mardi Gras’, which we decided to present at the Prince of Wales. The music and lyrics were by Alan Blaikley and Ken Howard, who'd had ten hits in the top 10; their song writing success in this country at that time was only surpassed by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The book was by Melvyn Bragg; Clifford Williams was the director.
For some reason they were against my choice of Paddy Stone as choreographer, but using all my powers of persuasion, he was finally appointed and of course, as always, came up with some brilliant choreography. Initially, I had thought of it as a possible vehicle for Tommy Steele, but when I played him the demonstration tape of the music in my flat in Wimpole Street, he had just come from the dentist, round the corner, and was by no means in a receptive mood. He said that he would pass on this one.
Some years earlier at a party, I had heard Nicky Henson singing ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ whilst at the same time accompanying himself on the guitar. I was very impressed by this at the time, and of course, he was established as a fine actor. I thought, as we hadn’t got the possibility of a star name, we would go with Nicky; he more than fulfilled our expectation. Also in the cast were Dana Gillespie, Miquel Brown, Aubrey Woods, Marsha Hunt and Lon Satton. No stars - but all very solid performers.
During rehearsals we just couldn’t seem to get the book right; Clifford Williams and I would sit there at the end of each day throwing ideas backwards and forwards, and then, we’d ask Melvyn Bragg if he would re-write. Melvyn was extremely accommodating; no matter what we asked - he did it, with no carping. He re-wrote the book six times.
One of the five re-writes rejected was possibly the right one, and instead we finished up with what might be described as ‘a happening’. Years later, I complimented Melvyn on his supreme co-operation, and asked him why he never objected. Well, he said, ‘I thought you knew more about musicals than I did’. Maybe – maybe.But what about plot construction ?.
On the opening night, Bernie was taken ill during the first act, and had to be escorted up to my office by Doctor Joe Freeman, his brother-in-law. We thought he might possibly have suffered a heart attack, but since there was nothing we could do, we left him with the doctor.
When I came down the stairs, I was pounced on with great excitement by a show business writer, who was supposedly a great friend of Bernie’s saying, ‘Is it true? Is it true? Bernie’s had a heart attack?’ ‘I don’t know – the doctor is still examining him’, I said. ‘But you must let me know what’s going on’, the “friend” said. ‘Why?’ I asked. He replied, ‘It’s a great story – Bernard Delfont has heart attack in the middle of first night. I can get a scoop’. So much for his friendship.
It transpired that Bernie was merely suffering from heat exhaustion, excitement and a few large whiskies; he rejoined us quite happily for the second act. After the first night, I didn’t go to a party – I just went straight home alone. That way I avoided a clash between Patricia, who was my guest, and Lorna, who was in the show.
When the notices came out, one critic defined it as ‘a Frankenstein monster with bits welded on willy-nilly’, but most of the press were extremely enthusiastic about it. I had previously prepared myself that we might need some help, so I arranged for a television commercial to be made of highlights of the show. It was extremely expensive - in fact, it was the most costly commercial which had been made in the theatre.
I obtained some keen deals with the commercial channels, and each time we showed it, the box office takings rocketed. When we didn’t show it, the box office fell away. Unfortunately, the cost of showing it outstripped the amount of money it was bringing into the box office, plus, the summer of 1976 was one of the hottest on record, and we didn’t have air conditioning in the theatre. It was so hot that Lorna lost over a stone in weight dancing in the show, and she was light to begin with. Everybody who saw the show appeared to love it, but there just weren’t enough of them. We eventually closed after two hundred and ten performances.
MELVYN BRAGG QUOTE:"Life is lot of socialists, I find I quite like managing other people's money".
Replacing that at the Prince of Wales was a two-hander, which opened on 22nd September, starring Michael Crawford and Frances Cuka. Michael had acquired the reputation of occasionally being a little difficult, but as I’ve written before, most stars know what’s good for them, (and by now he was a star), and if you cater for them, provided it is not totally unreasonable – they will be fine.
I was chatting to Michael during rehearsals; I said to him, ‘Michael, let me give you a tip. Before you open, somebody is going to want to paint your dressing room. Whatever you do, don’t let them paint it before your first night, because the fumes will linger and get into your throat’. ‘Oh, thanks Richard – that’s a good tip. I’ll remember it’.
His dressing room was repainted three or four days before the first night, and I believe he suffered some minor throat irritation, but nothing that inconvenienced him too much. As always, he gave a magnificent performance, as did Frances Cuka. The show was successful and ran for three hundred and twelve performances.
There was a new theatre in Toronto called The O’Keefe Centre, an enormous barn of a place, holding nearly 4,000 people. They were anxious to find large scale attractions to play this theatre, even to the extent of offering large financial guarantees. I knew of several shows that had played there, which had been very well received. I thought it might be an idea to take ‘The Danny La Rue Show’, which had closed the previous year at the Prince of Wales.
It was to be a major undertaking, but they offered me a very large guarantee. Danny agreed it would be a challenge to play somewhere else other than the UK, so we put the package together. There was one problem; Danny had at that time a fear of flying, so, together with some of the principles, Toni Palmer, David Ellen, Wayne King, and his musical director, Derek New, Danny sailed across on the Queen Elizabeth II. In return for them doing two shows, they were to be given free first-class accommodation. They had a rough passage over, but still managed to give the two performances. Danny of course, having been in the Navy, didn’t suffer from sea sickness, but some of the others did.
They drove from New York up to Toronto and opened very successfully in October. Apart from one notice, they had very good press, and played to capacity. In spite of this, and the guarantee I received, because of the enormous costs in transporting all the scenery, costumes and nearly thirty people, we only broke even. At least it proved that Danny could entertain an audience in countries other than the UK.
This year was the twentieth anniversary of Tommy Steele’s entry into show business, so I asked him if he would like to do an Anniversary show for the Autumn Season at Coventry. He was loath to do this, but said he would agree, provided we paid him a salary which left him enough after tax, to buy a particular painting, which he was particularly fond of. I think it was a Buffet. We worked out what it would cost, the salary was agreed, and so off he went to Coventry to start the run.
I asked him if he would like to have a party after the opening night. He said, ‘I’m sorry, but until after the show, I won’t know if we’ve got anything to celebrate, so let’s have a meal at the nearby Leofric Hotel restaurant. You have your table with your friends, and I’ll have a table with my family nearby. If the show works – we’ll join up - but you pick up the bill’.
The show was a success, and we joined up. Tommy as usual had his favourite food which was lobster. When I received the bill at the end of the evening, Tommy said, ‘I hope you don’t mind me asking, but how much did they charge for the lobster?’ ‘Seventy-nine pounds’, I replied. ‘That’s absolutely outrageous!’ he said. ‘Don’t pay the bill - or at least pay the bill, but don’t pay for the lobster. Leave it to me – I’ll sort it out’.
The next evening, I phoned some of the finest restaurants in the world - in Paris, Rome, and in London’s West End, and asked them how much they charged for lobster. Each one was cheaper, apart from Maxims in Paris, which was about the same. I phoned Tommy and told him this. He arranged for his Personal Assistant to get up at 3 a.m. the next morning, drive to a fishing village and buy a lobster. His P.A. arrived back with it; Tommy wrapped it up with half a pound of butter, and sent it to the Manager of the Leofric Hotel, in lieu of payment. We never heard another word.
Years later with Tommy at one of his New Year's parties -
probably discussing the price of lobster
I arranged with Eve Taylor to do twenty one-night stands with Val Doonican, on a profit sharing basis. At the end of the tour, Evie said she wanted to see me in my office and bring her accountant with her; she told me she wasn’t happy with the amount of money she was receiving on behalf of Val Doonican. She was one of my very dearest friends, but when she got her teeth into something, she wouldn’t let go, even with me.( Please don't take this literaly )
We sat down in my office for about four hours, all the accounts were produced; everything was gone through with a fine tooth comb. She turned from being confrontational to being reluctantly agreeable to our explanations. I finally managed to cap it by saying, ‘Evie, first of all, I’m not dishonest, and secondly, if I were, I wouldn’t wish to cheat such a dear friend, and finally, what on earth would be the point of me being dishonest with a dear friend, when all the proceeds would be going to the company, and not to me personally?’ She accepted my point, and normal friendly relations were resumed.
At the Coventry theatre, just before Christmas in 76, we transferred the pantomime, ‘Queen Danniella’ starring Danny La Rue, from the Casino theatre, with certain changes in cast. It ran until the end of February; there was not a single empty seat during the entire run.
We then produced an eight week tour with Danny La Rue. We were due to open at Wimbledon, which had hemp lines instead of counterweights, and as we were using quite a lot of backcloths in the show, I told Danny I thought we were pushing it a bit to open cold on a Monday night, and that inevitably, we would hit the odd snag. ‘Don’t worry in the slightest, dear boy’, said Danny. 'Whatever emergencies might arise, you know that I will take care of it. You are in perfectly good hands. Nothing will faze me’. Oh, great Danny, I said. ‘You’re sure? ‘Oh yes, he said.
On the first night; we did have a few snags, with cloths coming in a little jerkily and sometimes sagging. I went backstage to see him after the show, by which time he had drunk one or two glasses of champagne. As I arrived through his dressing room door, he verbally launched into me. I was incompetent! The management was incompetent! How could I allow him to appear on stage without all these problems being ironed out? Poor old Clem Butson was with me.( We had inherited Clem from Tom Arnold Productions, where he had been General Manager and he was now in his seventies.) Danny launched into him as well.
Meanwhile, we had planned a first night party; all the cast had arrived at the venue, and were waiting for Danny to appear. The tirade in the dressing room continued. After one hour, I sent Clem home, fearful that he might have a heart attack. Three hours later, at three o’clock in the morning, Danny was still holding forth in his dressing room. Meanwhile, all the people who had been invited to the party had given up and gone home. Finally, the only way I could get out of the dressing room was to tell Danny that I would call a full rehearsal the following afternoon, and I would take charge of it, instead of Freddie Carpenter, our director.
This, I did. Although I didn’t enjoy overriding Freddie, I think he was quite happy to sit back and let me take the flack. Anyway, it all ended well; we sorted all the problems out, and we had a very successful tour. Just another small scar added to the psyche, to join the multitude which had been planted by Peter Sellars years ago, and the odd one or two along the way, by various other stars. But that’s the glamour of show business. And in any event, all the success we had with Danny helped ease the pain.
The Spring show at Coventry was ‘The Dukes and Lee Show’ with Pearl Carr & Teddy Johnson, and Janet Brown. Although it was a great show, with Dukes and Lee performing magnificently, the public didn’t support it.
On 24th March, went to see Ray Cooney’s production of ‘Fire Angel’, at Her Majesty’s theatre. This was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’, with book and lyrics by Paul Bentley, music by Roger Haines, directed by Braham Murray and choreographed by Arlene Philips. Ray was very excited by what he saw during rehearsals, but unfortunately, the magic of the rehearsal room didn’t transfer successfully to the stage. It failed totally. So much so, that when it came to the interval, and an announcement was made over the loudspeaker system, saying ‘you can purchase your copies of the long playing record and a brochure in the foyer of the theatre’, Tommy Steele, who happened to be sitting next to me, turned to me and said, ‘Now they’re taking the piss’. One of Ray’s few failures - but it cost him a lot of money.
Towards the end of 1976, a golfing friend of mine Terence Frisby, the author, who among many other things had written ‘There’s a Girl in My Soup’ (which ran for 2,547 performances, making it, in its day, the longest running comedy and the second- longest running play in the West End ever), approached me and asked if I could help him find a West End theatre for his new play ‘It’s All Right if I Do It’.
The play had been turned down by a couple of West End producers so Terry and Robert Chetwyn approached Robin Midgeley of the New Haymarket theatre, Leicester. This theatre had been transferring plays into London, and Terry felt that this might be a springboard into the West End, if it was successful in Leicester. Robin read it and agreed to present it; Robert Chetwyn (who had directed ‘There’s a Girl in my Soup’ and another play of Terry’s), was to direct. The principal casting was Prunella Scales, John Stride, my old friend Toni Palmer (who had paid my electricity bill back in the fifties), and Tony Haygarth.
Terry’s proposal to me was that, if I could use my influence to help him find a West End theatre in the event of a transfer from Leicester, he would pay my company, Bernard Delfont Limited, either a fee or a percentage. I asked to read the play and was impressed. It was a comedy about marital infidelity with the twist that women are just as unfaithful as men, only lie better, and the husband believed that the greatest sin was the lie, not the infidelity – at least that is what he says.
I told Terry that rather than just help him find a theatre, we would like to produce it ourselves in the West End under the Delfont Mills banner. I was happy to leave them in complete artistic control of the production in Leicester although I did have misgivings about what I considered to be gratuitous bad language occurring from time to time in various parts of the play. Not to worry, I thought to myself, I can sort that out with Terry later on in Leicester. This led to a head to head confrontation between us. This was a battle I felt I could not win, since the author is contractually entitled to decide what goes into his play and what alterations are to be made, subject to his not unreasonably withholding his consent to requests for amendments.
While he and Bob worked away merrily, changing and cutting the play as they saw fit, he felt that my attempt to tone down the language smacked of censorship – and he wasn’t having that. His view was that the play had its own acrid flavour and would give either offence or pleasure. He believed that I had committed Bernie to something in his absence, and was now getting cold feet. This wasn’t at all the case. As always, for better or worse, Bernie let me make my own mistakes.
The reaction to the play in Leicester was excellent, the audience reaction was great - in fact so great, that the laughs meant that the play which was already rather long, had to be cut. Terry and Bob proceeded with this; the play got shorter and was sold out for the run.
Bernie knew very little about the play when I took him up to Leicester to see it. I was slightly apprehensive as to how he would accept Terry’s rather flamboyant use of sexual idioms and images, but it didn’t seem to worry Bernie. Terry had never met Bernie, and I don’t think he was quite as he had imagined him to be. Most of the time Bernie was a great affable Teddy bear. At least, that’s how I always saw him.
We had dinner with Terry and Bob afterwards. It was Bernie’s considered opinion that we shouldn’t worry too much about what I considered to be the gratuitous bad taste, so under fire from the three of them, my dog-eared notes (as Terry put it), were confined to the dustbin. Later on, Terry wrote in his book ‘Outrageous Fortune’, that he felt there was absolutely nothing he had in common with Bernie - a pleasant, benevolent, show business mogul, but everyone made the best of it with polite conversation.
Terry who had worked for six years as a young man in tailoring (Selfridges and Hector Powe), was riveted by Bernie’s appearance. I quote from his book: “The totality of Lord Bernie’s appearance was uniquely satisfying, almost hypnotic. I had to force myself not to talk to him about his clothes: the most expensive gents’ worsted suiting I have ever seen hanging from a man’s shoulders, cut and sewn by artists; silk shirt and tie; crocodile shoes; blown-dry tinted hair; he was a credit to the team that turned him out. The socks were sheer, I noticed later at dinner, I longed for a glimpse of the underpants. Only fear of creasing something inhibited the urge to hug him”. (So maybe he did see him as a Teddy bear). The meeting over, Bernie sped back to London and left me to get on with it. After Leicester we toured successfully for three weeks.
Meanwhile back in London, try as I might, I couldn’t find a suitable theatre. The best I could achieve was a six-week run at the Mermaid from where we could transfer to the West End, if the notices merited it. Terry had had a bad experience at the Mermaid years earlier with a play he had written called ‘The Bandwagon’. He didn’t want to go back there and had the right to object, as it was not a West End theatre.
In order to convince Terry that this was the only game in town, I sat down with him in my office, produced the Theatre Guide from The Evening Standard, and went religiously through every theatre with him, giving him the reasons why none of the theatres which might be suitable, were available. The choice was clear – either take the Mermaid and rely on very good reviews, which would probably then open up one of the suitable West End theatres for us, or take the whole thing off and re-assemble it again when a suitable theatre became available. The difficulties, not to say impossibility of re-assembling productions are notorious and we all knew it. None of us wanted to face that so we reluctantly opted for the Mermaid.
Among the audience at the opening night on 2nd March, were three groups of people - all professionals from show business - who, in their determination to show their support were over-demonstrative, laughing and applauding at lines that really didn’t merit it: they were only trying to be supportive, but it was over the top and quite frankly embarrassing to the majority of the audience, and especially the critics.
The most vociferous of these groups was led by Danny La Rue who was determined to support my endeavours through thick and thin. His group’s over-reactive response to everything in the first act caused Terry to rush up to Danny in the interval and say: ‘Please don’t laugh anymore’. Danny drew himself up to his full height and said: ‘That’s the first time I’ve ever been asked not to laugh at a comedy in the theatre’. He swept out with his entourage and camped in the saloon bar of the nearest pub.
There I was, standing in the foyer of the Mermaid in the interval with a distraught, devastated author. 'They are going to murder us’, (he kept saying of the critics) in terminal depression at the insensitivity of the over-enthusiastic group, and most important of all, my Star, who had earned fortunes for my company, sitting on his high horse in the nearest hostelry. What was I to do? It didn’t take me long to decide – I joined Danny in the pub and bought him a bottle of champagne.
We were slaughtered by the press the next day and I decided there was no point in continuing. I was going to put the notice up at once, and not complete the six-week run at the Mermaid. Terry begged me to keep it on for its scheduled run, in the hope that it might turn round. I knew it was futile but, as he agreed to waive his royalties to help with the running costs, I felt that it was the least I could do to try and help ease his pain. After all to me it was just another show but to him this particular play – very autobiographical –was a big piece of his life. Apart from the years he had put in to it, I felt that it was a catharsis of some sort of all the divorce problems he had experienced. In fact he didn't write another full-length stage play for nearly seventeen years.
For my part, on some shows I have been involved in I have been almost sick with nerves on the first night, then completely shattered if we received a bad press the next day. But these were shows in which I was at the helm. With this particular play I felt somehow divorced since I’d had nothing to do with the initial setting up in Leicester, any of the casting, and absolutely no creative input. I can only describe it as feeling like an obstetrician who - no matter what the outcome - does his best to deliver the child, and moves on to the next birth. Whereas Terry was the mother who had been through a gestation period of seven years, then delivered a flawed baby. This is probably a cold way of trying to describe the situation, but it’s the best analogy I can think of.
I am happy to say that in spite of all the above, Terry and I have remained excellent friends; we play golf and socialise constantly and neither of us lets the other forget his part in the theatrical disaster we collaborated on together.
PRUNELLA SCALES QUOTE:"The agony of doing Shakespeare is that you can't ask him what he meant."
Among the Summer Shows this year, we presented 'The Eric Sykes Show' at The Winter Gardens Blackpool. Eric Sykes invited me to play golf with him at the famous Royal Lytham course. It was extremely testing and I didn’t play very well, but it was a great pleasure - not only to play this legendary course, but also to have as my opponent, Eric, a most charming and amiable gentleman, who kept me amused all the way round
I decided to try producing a show without any speciality acts - purely stand-up comics - Little & Large, Frank Carson, Jim Davidson and Norman Collier, plus production numbers. When I was putting the show together, several people told me that I couldn’t do a show which was purely all comedy, without any musical or speciality acts to break it up. It transpired they were wrong – every seat was sold out for the entire run.
Even when the headliners Little & Large were absent due to illness, we reshuffled the show, gave the remaining acts extra time, and we still sold out. Dorothy Solomon, who was the agent of Frank Carson and Norman Collier, phoned me and said, Frank had spoken to her, and said Richard Mills should at least have sent me a present of some golf balls. With hindsight, I should probably have given them all a present, but then on the other side of the coin, if it had been a failure, I wouldn’t have expected them to give me a present.
I was so delighted with Little & Large's success, as were their agents, Norman Murray and Ann Chudleigh, that we agreed a three year contract for Little & Large to appear in Summer Seasons for me.
I had originally wanted to present ‘Are You Being Served’, at the Britannia Pier, Great Yarmouth after the tremendous success we’d at the Winter Gardens Blackpool the previous season, but in spite of all our entreaties, we couldn’t persuade Molly Sugden to repeat her role. Reluctantly, I decided that to do it without her was rather dangerous, so instead, I asked Bill Roberton, John Inman’s agent, if John would do a variety type show instead. Bill agreed. John and the show were a great success.
In spite of their lack of appeal at Coventry, I still wanted to persevere with Dukes and Lee, so I presented them in a show at the ABC Great Yarmouth with Tom O'Connor. Although they were not known to the public at large, they were legendary on the Northern club circuit and considered to be the best act in the business, which they probably were, and I desperately wanted to try and get the general public to acknowledge them. They and Tom O’Connor gave me a great show, but still the public didn’t come in large enough numbers.
Val Doonican starred for us at the Pavillion Theatre, Bournemouth one of the supporting acts was Paul Daniels who was now earning £400 per week. During the season, Val lost his voice. On the first night, Roger de Courcy doubled over from the opposition theatre. On the second night, we had a much better idea. We asked the up-and-coming Paul Daniels, if he could extend his fifteen minute slot. ‘Well, maybe a little’, he answered. ‘I can give you up to another hour and a quarter if necessary’. We’d forgotten that in honing his craft in working men’s clubs, he’d been used to doing an act in excess of one hour.
He went on and stormed them. I was not present at the time, but Robert Luff, who had nothing to do with the show but had been given a billing credit by us because he had a contract by the theatre, went on at the curtain calls and proclaimed that he had discovered a star.
I presented Tommy Steele in his show at the Festival Theatre, Paignton. He was supported by Lenny Bennett and Cool Breeze. When I first approached Tommy to do the show at Paignton, he was rather loth, but after I showed him the theatre, he rather reluctantly decided to do it.
Part of his reason for not wanting to, was that he didn't wish to be separated from his family for the whole of the summer. However, a very good nearby hotel provided him with an excellent suite of rooms. He moved Annie, his wife, and Emma, his daughter, down to stay with him for the season. The hotel even provided a pet rabbit for Emma, which she kept on a flat roof just outside the windows of their suite. Everyone had a good time; Tommy as usual was sensational, and we totally sold out.
At the Royal Variety Performance this year, a great bill with Bob Hope, Julie Andrews, Harry Belafonte, Tommy Cooper, Shirley MacLaine and Rudolf Nureyev.
Speaking of Tommy Cooper reminds me of a story that was told about him when he was appearing in the Folies Bergère show for Bernie, at the Prince of Wales. He noticed that one of the speciality acts who lived nearby in the West End, would always religiously go to the stage door just after he finished his act, and make a phone call. The phone call never lasted for more than fifteen seconds. Tommy, puzzled by this, asked the speciality act what it was all about. The speciality act said, ‘Well, I have a dog at home, and so he gets lonely. I phone him every night. He likes the sound of the telephone. Tommy said, ‘Oh, well’, thinking it takes all sorts to make the world. Now, there was a long break between the speciality act and Tommy Cooper’s next appearance on stage. One night, while the speciality act was on stage, Tommy Cooper went into the act’s dressing room, took his keys, sped round to the man’s flat, and at the end of the man’s act, when he phoned, Tommy picked up the phone, and said, ‘Woof Woof’.
Leslie Bricusse had not one, but two musicals he wanted to present - ‘Kings and Clowns’ which was about Henry VIII, and ‘The Travelling Music Show’, which was a compilation of Leslie’s and Anthony Newley’s songs; I was keen on ‘The Travelling Music Show’ but although it was wonderful to have all those great songs which he and Tony had written, the difficulty was finding a peg on which to hang them. We couldn't agree on the framework for the show, and since I wasn’t too keen on ‘Kings and Clowns’, Leslie arranged that Hillard Elkins produce both of them. Hilly, being Hilly, immediately came back to me, and asked if we could present them together.
His plan was, they should be done back to back, with ‘Kings and Clowns’ first. We could use the box office receipts from ‘Kings and Clowns’ to fund ‘The Travelling Music Show’. I explained to Hilly, that he’d better go and find somebody else, if he was going to try that particular sleight of hand, because there would be rather a large problem if ‘Kings and Clowns’ didn't produce enough box office receipts to fund ‘The Travelling Music Show’.
Away he went, and finally produced them with Duncan Wheldon and Louis Michaels. I don’t know what the basis of the arrangement was, but it must have been different from Hilly’s original proposal. ‘Kings and Clowns’ starring Frank Finlay as Henry, opened on 1st March unsuccessfully; ‘The Travelling Music Show’ opened on 28th March, starring Bruce Forsyth. This also, in spite of a wonderful performance from Bruce, failed to make money.
I don’t think Leslie was very happy with me, but I had made the right decision. I don’t know the details of what went on between Hilly and his co-producers, but I understand that Louis Michaels refused to ever again talk to Hilly Elkins, following the failure of both shows. So I can only assume that Louis’ bank account took a severe hammering.
Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley who had done such a great job on the music for ‘Mardi Gras’, wanted to write another musical; I encouraged them. ‘But this time’, I said, ‘make sure you’ve got the right book’. ‘Start with the book – then write the music’. ‘What book?’ they asked. I replied, ‘Go to the public library – there are hundreds of them on the shelves. But I must tell you, that I am aware of at least seven musicals which have been based upon ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, and I think you’ll find that people have been going through the shelves of the libraries for years. There are even musicals written on “Hamlet”’.
Away they went, and eventually returned to me in triumph. ‘We’ve written it, it’s based on a very popular TV show. (I can’t remember whether it was ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ or ‘A Family at War’). ‘Great’, I said. ‘Give it to me so I can listen to it ’. ‘No’, they said – ‘you’ve got to come over and sit down with us while we play it for you’. I went to their house and listened.
It was quite good, but I explained to them, ‘quite good is not good enough’. They were very upset that I didn’t wish to pursue their project - loss of two more friends.
Our major success that year was booking ‘Evita’ to open at the Prince Edward on 21st June. Music by Andrew Lloyd-Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice, presented by Robert Stigwood and David Land, starring Elaine Paige, David Essex and Joss Ackland, directed by Harold Prince. This was probably the most successful booking I ever made. It was a triumph and ran for seven years.
We were struggling at the Coventry Theatre. Danny La Rue had played a couple of weeks in April . The rest of the year was filled with odd weeks and concerts with such people as Nana Mouskouri, David Essex, Johnny Mathis, Jack Jones and Elton John. There were also visits from The London Festival Ballet, The Royal Ballet and The English National Opera - but all these were isolated bookings - and over the entire year we were losing a great deal of money. We were fighting a losing battle.
We had to drop the spring and autumn shows after we approached the local council for financial help, but didn't receive any. We seriously considered selling the theatre for bingo, but the long-serving theatre staff wrote a letter to Bernard Delfont, asking him to change his mind. Neither Bernie nor I, really wanted to sell the theatre, so we gave it a reprieve, with the proviso that if things didn't look up, we would eventually have to close down completely.
I received a phone call from Harry Bernsen, an American producer, asking if I would be interested in co-presenting with him an Italian musical, which had been running very successfully in Rome. He added that 75% of the finance for mounting it would be provided by Universal Pictures. The idea interested me, and as I had never visited Rome, I thought this would be an ideal opportunity to mix business with pleasure.
I flew to Rome, saw the show twice, had meetings with Harry Bernsen and the Italian producers, and I agreed to do the show in London. I also spent a glorious couple of days sight-seeing in Rome, St. Peter’s, The Forum, The Trevi Fountain, the fabulous Pantheon, The Coliseum, and as many of the landmarks as I could cram into, in two days. I then returned to London to start to set the show up.
I went to see Tommy Steele, explained what the show was all about, and asked if he would like to play the leading role. He said he didn't think that he would want to do it, but if I’d like to pay his first class fare and expenses, for him and his wife Annie to see it in Rome, he would think about it. I said, ‘That’s going to be an awful lot of money – perhaps you could give me a more promising answer, before I prepare to shell out’. At that he got angry, and said, ‘Don’t ever ask me to do a show with you again’. Needless to say, we soon got over this contretemps, but we forgot the idea of him of appearing in ‘Beyond the Rainbow’.
We finally brought over the leading man from Italy, Johnny Dorelli, who could speak English. Leslie Bricusse was engaged to write the English lyrics, and we opened at the Adelphi on 9th November. Among the supporting cast were Roy Kinnear, Noel Johnson and Lesley Duff.
Originally, one of the problems I had in setting it up was that I couldn't find the right size theatre. Harold Fielding had the Adelphi well and truly locked up, and as this was a perfect venue for the show, I approached him, asking if he would like to co-present the show with us at the Adelphi. I explained to him that this was probably one of the best deals he was ever likely to achieve in show business; he could co-produce with us for practically nothing, since 75% of the finance was to be provided by Universal Pictures, which meant that he and I would only have to find 12.5% each, and most of the scenery and costumes would be recycled from the Italian production. A great bargain – what could go wrong?
It was an extremely colourful, tuneful and humorous show, but the critics didn't really latch on to it, and we had no known star performers. Shortly after we opened, our leading actor, Johnny Dorelli, unaccustomed to our traffic flow, looked the wrong way, stepped off the kerb and was hit by a bus. He suffered severe head injuries, and spent several weeks in hospital.
The show dragged on, and eventually he returned, but each week the show was losing money. The trickle became a flood as the business diminished, and we and Harold were stuck with severe running losses, since Universal had only agreed to provide the capitalization for mounting it, not for paying its running losses.
Seeing these weekly costs continue to escalate, I said to Harold, ‘We’ve got to pull the plug’. Harold, being Harold, and never wanting to give up without a fight, demurred. ‘Harold’, I said, ‘this is going to finish up losing £20,000 a week' - an absolute fortune in those days. 'We are definitely out, and I beg you not to be stubborn – take it off’. Harold refused, ran it on his own and shouldered all the losses.
Each week, even though we were no longer involved, I would phone Harold, begging him to stop hemorrhaging these vast sums of money, but it took about eight weeks before he finally agreed to call it a day. I still believe that with Tommy Steele playing the leading role, we could well have had a very successful show.
Harold could certainly have used the money he expended to far better effect later on in his career when in 1990 he became bankrupt. This was a tragic event for one of the great showmen of our time, whose total and absolute love was the theatre. He made very tough deals, but every penny he ever made he ploughed back into the business. Never giving up - always battling - which regretfully, ended in disaster.
Fall of a Titan
The Talk of the Town was not quite as successful as it had been – costs were escalating, and to cover them we had to increase the price of admissions. From what had initially cost about £2.50 when we first opened, to in excess of £40.00, and this was usually without the added attraction of having a top American star act.
The big American stars were no longer falling over themselves to play there. Although it was a great West End showcase, they were being paid up to ten times as much to appear in the provincial clubs. This in turn, was the downfall of the clubs. They were vying with each other, by out-bidding for the stars. They left very little room for profit, and then there were weeks they didn’t have stars, so how did one follow say an Ella Fitzgerald with a middle of the road act? The audience stayed away from the middle of the road act who were still getting extremely well paid, but flocked in to see the big star, so there was very little profit for the clubs after the big star had taken an enormous salary.
We had constant meetings of the ENTAM Board, which was responsible for the Talk of the Town. The members consisted of Sir Leslie Joseph and Steve Paxton representing Trusthouse Forte, with Robert Nesbitt and myself representing Bernard Delfont Limited.
When the Talk of the Town started, the show was changed annually. Now, in order to save money, we were forced to expand these runs, first to fifteen months, then to eighteen months. At the Board meetings, Sir Joseph and Steve Paxton would continually press Robert to spend less money on the show and give them a budget. Robert and I strongly resisted this because Robert was never really one for figures, and he didn't wish his creative juices to be curtailed by budgetary considerations. ‘How can I give you a budget when I don’t even know yet what the show will consist of? It will be what it will be, when I have created it’, he said. I, for my part, said the very last thing we need is to cut back on the production values of the show – we should be spending more, since we no longer had the draw of the big American artists. The meetings always ended with Robert successfully out-manoeuvring the Trusthouse Forte side of the Board.
Decided to book Marti Caine to star at the North Pier Blackpool with Paul Daniels as her co-star. Marti had star billing since she was slightly better known than Paul, but as good a performer as she was, she was rightly nervous about following Paul Daniels. In fact at one stage she asked me if I would consider swapping the running order round, so that Paul Daniels closed the show instead of her. We finally left it as it was, but she severely curtailed her running time.
Paul told me during the run that some councillors from a local authority, (I’ve forgotten which one it was), went to see him and asked him to do a show for them. They said he could have anything he liked in the show, and they would pay him twice as much as he was getting from us. Paul, being loyal and an eminently sensible businessman, elected to take the substance of a long-term association with us, rather than the shadow of a one-off situation. Naturally, I was very grateful, but I believe I repaid his loyalty and faith in us by eventually presenting him in the West End at the Prince of Wales theatre, in his own show, which ran for 500 performances.
Among the various other Summer Shows we presented Val Doonican who starred for us at the Congress Theatre, Eastbourne. The Congress was one of the most difficult theatres to fill. I believe this was because the visitor profile was totally different to most of the other seaside resorts; possibly because the visitors in the main, were of an older generation and more up-market than, say, a Blackpool audience. However, with Val Doonican we had an enormous success – the best we’d ever had in Eastbourne.
I booked Dukes and Lee to star at the Opera House, Blackpool, supported by Tom O'Connor. Unfortunately, Ronnie became ill. We brought in Moira Anderson as a replacement, and asked Tom O’Connor to close the show. To my surprise, instead of being happy to fill the closing spot, he resisted, claiming we should pay him much more money. I pointed out to him that the contract stipulated that he should perform as required by us, but still he refused.
I finally went to see Oscar Beusalink, the famous theatrical lawyer, and asked him to get involved. He read the contract, and agreed with my interpretation. Whilst the situation was being resolved, I arranged for Moira to close the show. She was unhappy about this, because she thought she was being disloyal to Tom O’Connor. After a great deal of wrangling, the situation was resolved to our mutual satisfaction.
The Bachelors were starring for me at the ABC, Blackpool. They had performed their act so many times; they were extremely laid back, and invited me to play golf with them at St Anne’s on the afternoon of the first night. With slight misgivings, I joined them. When we were about half way round, one of them hit a wayward golf shot and the ball sailed away into the car park, bouncing off the roof of a Rolls Royce. Con said, ‘We’d better keep quiet about that – it would have left a nasty dent in the roof’. ‘Yes, I’m sure it will have', I said. 'It’s my car’.
The game continued, and we got held up by players in front of us. I now started to get extremely nervous. ‘We’d better stop’, I said, ‘because we’ll be late for the first night’. Dec said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re not on till the second half’. ‘You might not be, I said, ‘but it’s going to look rather bad if I’m late for my own first night’. Anyway, we made it in time, but I’ve always remembered how unconcerned they were.
There was only one person who was more laid back, and that was Val Doonican, who was almost horizontal. Whenever I would visit him I’d be in his dressing room chatting, and he’d be half listening to the loudspeaker; when it got close to his entrance we’d walk down the stairs still continuing the conversation, walk down the side of the stage, still talking, then he would immediately peel off without taking breath, walk on the stage, and start his act.
On 30th November, Sir Derek Mitchell, a fellow National Theatre board member, asked me to have lunch with him at the Garrick Club. I wasn’t sure of the purpose of the luncheon, but after the usual pleasantries were exchanged, the conversation started to drift towards the composition of the Board and how the Board meetings should or should not be conducted. Sensing that this was possibly the opening shot in a power struggle, I hastily changed the subject. Derek, seeing which way the wind was blowing, dropped it very quickly. With hindsight, it would have been interesting to have continued the conversation, and find out precisely what was on his mind.
This year's Royal Variety performance was co-presented with Louis Benjamin and was Bernie’s last. He had decided after twenty years it was time to hand the headaches onto someone else. Later on, Laurie Mansfield took up the baton and has for many years organised it brilliantly.
At the Coventry Theatre we presented Tom O'Connor in 'Aladdin'. Business was not very good, and the writing was now very much on the wall. It seemed no matter how we tried, we were never going to make the Coventry theatre a viable proposition. I knew that a friend of mine, Paul Gregg, of Apollo Leisure, was looking to acquire more theatres, so I asked him if he would be interested in purchasing the Coventry theatre. He jumped at the opportunity; we agreed a price and the theatre changed hands in October.
The theatre was redecorated, and the name of the theatre changed to The Apollo. I believe that Paul thought that he could make a better stab at running the theatre than us, and also, with his powers of persuasion, he thought he could get assistance from the local authority. Unfortunately, he was wrong on both counts. All he received was a one-off £20,000 guarantee against loss in 1983. In 1984, he tried to get a £40,000 guarantee, but the city council refused.
As hard as he tried to provide first class entertainment for the theatre, he did not receive adequate support from the public. In spite of all his valiant efforts to make the theatre successful, he failed - as we had done. Times had changed; there was no longer the local hardcore support for the theatre which had existed in its early years. He reluctantly threw in the sponge, and closed the theatre down in June 1985.
Me with Nita and Paul Gregg
On 10th April I went to see ‘Chicago’ at the Cambridge theatre. I had seen it in New York previously, and we flirted with the idea of presenting it in the West End, but decided against it. It worked in a moderate way, but was not a big success.
Ours is a very strange business; so much of it is to do with timing. Who would have dreamt that the same show, albeit with different staging, would be such an enormous success at the Adelphi theatre and the Cambridge running for so long, years later?
Another case in point was ‘West Side Story’ – an enormous success at Her Majesty’s first time – not so successful when Bill Kenwright produced it at the Shaftesbury in 1974 – only moderately successful when Richard Pilbrow re-created it lavishly in 1984 at Her Majesty’s, and then, in 1998 there was a typical touring version with rather well-worn scenery, which was taken into the Prince Edward as a stop gap. It captured the imagination of the audience, did very well, and after a few months transferred to the Prince of Wales theatre. During its run at the two theatres of eighteen months it did enormous business.
Same shows, same music, same book, same lyrics - admittedly different casts, and slightly different productions, but not enough difference one would have thought, to create such dramatic fluctuations. Right time - right place seems to be the message.
Seeing how well John Inman had performed in ‘Are You Being Served’ and in variety, I decided he was versatile enough to star in ‘Charlie’s Aunt’. I spoke to Bill Roberton, his agent, and John about my idea; they were both enthusiastic, on condition they said, that Bill directed it. I wasn’t quite sure about this, but I accepted the idea and he did a great job.
We tried it out at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre Guildford, and it was a great success. Once again, I was looking for the right theatre, and yet again, Harold Fielding had the Adelphi locked up, so I said to Harold, that if he would make the theatre available to us, I would allow him to co-present the production. He agreed, and we opened at the Adelphi on 19th June. Among the cast with John were: Mark Wynter, Derek Francis and Helen Cherry, (Trevor Howard’s wife).
Unbeknown to me, the production team painted the stage overnight before our first night. This had the effect of making it slippery, and most of the frantically carefully timed business with John Inman, Mark Wynter and other members of the cast, was severely disrupted by them sliding about all over the stage. This was speedily rectified for the second night by utilising the old tried and tested method of washing the stage with Coca Cola.
Regardless of this hiccup, the press gave us magnificent notices, some of them comparing its quality on a par with productions at the National Theatre. In spite of the accolades, the show failed to capture the public’s imagination, and we only had a relatively short run.
At the North Pier Blackpool we produced 'The Black Abbotts with Russ Abbott'. During the run of this show, Russ Abbott’s agent, Mike Hughes, came to see me and asked me what I thought about the idea of Russ possibly leaving the Black Abbotts and branching out on his own. I thought he had great potential, and he could certainly perform as a solo act. Mike weighed up the pros and cons, and it was agreed that the final decision would be made after next year’s show, which was to take place at the Britannia Pier, Great Yarmouth.
Paul Daniels starred in his own show at The Britannia Pier, Great Yarmouth, and Paul was growing so rapidly in stature every year (which was reflected in his salary, which was now thousands of pounds a week), that I started to toy with the idea of presenting him in the West End; his agent, Mervyn O'Horan, was delighted with the suggestion. It was agreed that the following year we would shape the show in a summer season at Bournemouth, and then if it worked well, transfer it to the West End.
It was during the run of this show that I first met a very attractive young dancer who had trained at the Royal Ballet school. Her name was Debbie McGee. She worked with Paul in all his shows over the subsequent years and had an on-off relationship with him. Finally, they decided it was better on than off and they married in 1988. Little did I dream in 1979 that Debbie was to become a household name.
Whether it was because of Paul's influence or her own innate intelligence, or a mixture of both, I don't know. But she developed into an incredibly astute business woman, apart from being able to shine on various chat and game shows, and indeed, on any television show she appeared in. I am delighted that she and Paul became our very close friends over the years; they are godparents to my son Christopher and continue to take this role seriously, even though he is now in his late teens.
Paul and Debbie with their godson, Christopher
Debbie and Paul in the days they were poor and on welfare
until I gave them each a turkey and made them stars
Marti Caine was starring at the Futurist Theatre, Scarborough. I had become very friendly with her and asked her if she would like to play the Talk of the Town, with the proviso that she took out some of the blue material, which although extremely successful in the clubs and Summer Seasons, would have been a little too over the top for the West End. She and her agent, Johnny Peller, were delighted to have the opportunity of appearing there.
In order to give her act more polish, I invited Robert Nesbitt to go up to Scarborough with me to see her act, and to discuss ways of improving it for the West End. She had very good ideas of her own, and Robert of course, also had some extremely helpful suggestions.
Whilst I was in Scarborough with Robert, I asked him if he would like to come with me and see Freddie Starr, who was playing at an opposition theatre. ‘Don’t be surprised Robert’, I said, ‘if we don’t sit in the best seats. I’m deliberately going to sit at the back of the stalls and we will go incognito. Freddie Starr won’t know we’re in, and won’t see us in the audience, because if he does, we are going to get a lot of stick’.
We settled ourselves into our seats and the curtain went up, Freddie came on, and to my horror, I found he had discovered a new trick. He took a mirror on stage with him, then held it up, so that his spotlight hit it; it reflected into the audience; he shone the light all over the audience until he came across Robert and me sitting there. That was it. We came in for the usual stick - always good natured of course, but wicked.
It was rather strange to see the urbane, debonair Robert being inflicted, (probably for the first time in his life), with the barbs that Freddie was directing at us. But we forgave him, and went backstage afterwards to compliment him on his performance, part of which was a tribute to Elvis Presley, which he performed impeccably, but it was overlong.
His manager, Tony Cartwright, had said to me previously, ‘Freddie Starr is besotted with Elvis Presley, so much so, that if Presley was in his coffin on the stage, Freddie would climb in with him’.
Freddie asked me one day if I would like to be his agent. I replied that only if he became more like Elvis Presley - dead.
Little & Large, Frank Carson and Norman Collier starred for us at the Opera House, Blackpool. It was probably the greatest success ever at the theatre – twelve shows a week, at a theatre holding over 3,000 people, and we played to 97% capacity.
After the first night, we had a party, and Frank Carson and Norman Collier performed an impromptu cabaret, which was one of the best I have seen. Frank could never resist the temptation to get up and do a turn. It was the proverbial case of: opening the fridge door – when the light comes on - he does his act. If you played a round of golf with him, and you had a drink in the bar afterwards, even if there were only three people present, he would do his act - he would even do his act for you while you were playing golf.
I told Patricia, my girlfriend, that this was really something she had to see. ‘Walk round with us while we’re playing golf - you will find it very amusing’, I said. Frank didn’t crack one gag all the way round. This was definitely a first.
I decided to try something different at the Winter Gardens. I approached Mervyn Conn, who was one of the most successful promoters of country and western music, filling enormous halls; I asked him if he would like to co-present with us a country and western show starring George Hamilton IV. He was overjoyed.
Before the curtain went up on the first night, he said to me, ‘this is one of the best days of my life. Here I am, co-presenting a Summer Season show with Bernard Delfont and Richard Mills in Blackpool - the home of light entertainment'.
I saw him late in the afternoon the next day, and he said to me, ‘This is the unhappiest day of my life’. ‘What’s changed’, I said. ‘Bad notices, no advance bookings, somebody stole my Rolls Royce from your theatre car park last night, and left it wrecked and abandoned in a country lane’. I wasn’t quite sure what to say; I think I muttered something about ‘that’s show business’.
It was about this time that my brilliant new secretary, Sue Fowler, joined me. Over the next sixteen years I never saw her in a bad mood, (although on occasion, she must have been, but she hid it well). She could take dictation faster than I could speak; she was the only one who could read my handwriting; she was never late and I think you could count on the fingers of two hands the days she had off through sickness.
At the ABC, Great Yarmouth we presented The Bachelors, supported by Billy Dainty and a newcomer on £275 a week - Michael Barrymore; this was the first time Michael had appeared for us. I didn't know anything about him, but Norman Murray and Ann Chudleigh had pressed me very hard to give him a slot. Since they were booking Little & Large with me I could hardly refuse. I gave him twelve minutes.
He came on, stood on his head at the same time doing impressions for about five minutes, whilst contorting his legs into various ridiculous poses. He then stood on his feet, and did some other things – I can’t remember now what they were, but Dicky Hurran who was directing the show said, ‘We’ve got to get rid of him’. I said, ‘No, we can’t do that’. He replied, ‘Well, I disagree with you’. I said, ‘I’m sorry, he stays’. ‘Well at least let me cut his time’, he retorted.
Not wanting to be too confrontational, and thinking that Barrymore could do what he was doing in less time, and make just as much impact, I agreed. Dickie Hurran cut his time to seven minutes to the chagrin of his agents, who told me ‘Barrymore is going to be a great star’. ‘Well, if he is’, I said, ‘I have yet to see the indications’.
I found Barrymore, in the face of all this adversity, to be one of the most courteous and polite entertainers whom I have ever met. He was absolutely charming. Little did I dream that years later, this apparently innocuous, friendly person was going to be involved in a highly publicized murder inquiry and be hammered by the press for many years, so much so that his career was virtually destroyed and going from being one of the top entertainers in the country, he was to be reduced to scratching around for jobs. He even moved to New Zealand to try and resuscitate his career there; but later returned to this country.
At one of Tommy Steele's New Year parties, we hatched out a plan to do his one-man show at the Prince of Wales theatre. Tommy would only do it on condition that we tried it out at Blackpool first, and then, if we both thought it would work, only then, would we go to the Prince of Wales.
Well, it did work, and during the show after we set the opening date for London, Tommy said, ‘Do you want the greatest piece of publicity that you’ve had for a show? If you do, give me £2,000’. ‘What’s it for?’ I enquired. He said, ‘I’m going to build a 10ft. high statue of Charlie Chaplin in my hotel suite’.
At that time there was controversy in London about erecting a statue of Charlie Chaplin, and where it should be situated. ‘Nobody will know’, said Tommy. ‘How will you do that without anybody finding out?’ I asked. ‘Don’t worry, leave it with me’, he replied. It was all done in the greatest secrecy - even the transportation of it from the hotel, up to a kiln in Blackburn, where it was fired.
Tommy had it transported down to London, and kept it hidden. Then, one morning at 4 a.m., he had it deposited in Leicester Square, with ballast in the base weighing about one ton, so it would be difficult to move. He then arranged for all the newspapers to be telephoned, saying that an anonymous person had left a statue of Charlie Chaplin in Leicester Square. All the national press, anticipating a good story dispatched photographers, and on the front pages of every national newspaper was an enormous picture, and a story of Chaplin - but nobody knew who had left it there.
The police duly arrived, arrested the statue, and transported it to one of their car pounds. Meanwhile, the mystery still raged. After three days, Tommy phoned all the papers and said, ‘It’s a fair cop governor, I was responsible’.
Once again, we received enormous coverage in virtually every national newspaper. Tommy had three miniatures made of the statue, one he gave to me, Tommy retained one, and the other he gave to Ian Bevin, his agent. The irony of the story is that Tommy then had the statue transported to his house taking pride of place in his front courtyard. Some years later, whilst he was away on holiday, a gang of thieves with a large lorry arrived at his house, and stole the statue. It’s never been seen from that day to this.
Charlie Chaplin by Tommy Steele
Planning the show - Dickie Hurran, Tommy, Bernard Delfont and me
Just prior to opening at the Prince of Wales theatre, Tommy agreed to do a television special lasting an hour, which incorporated a great deal of the show. He told me that he had deliberately stayed off television for several years until the right moment arrived.
The next morning, after the television special came out there were queues at the box office extending half-way around the block. We opened on 11th November 1979, and the show ran for 453 performances, which is the record for the longest-running one-man show. Tommy told me that on the day of the first night he was, as would be expected, extremely nervous, and to take his mind off the impending show, he spent the afternoon watching the shock horror film ‘Alien’. I understand this helped to slightly alleviate his apprehension.
TOMMY STEELE QUOTE:"Show business is really 90 percent luck and 10 percent being able to handle it whan it gets offered to you."
On 25th September, I was invited by Carol Channing to her first night in ‘Hello Dolly’ at Drury Lane. I decided to take Trudi Van Doorn (now Geraldine Gardner), rekindling our friendship, which had been allowed to fade.
At this stage, life became extremely complicated because Patricia was staying with me at weekends, Lorna was staying with me usually on Monday’s and Tuesday’s, I was seeing Trudi on Wednesday’s and Thursday’s were also quite busy.
Christmas was particularly difficult this year because first thing on Christmas morning, Patricia went off to her parents. I then drove to Chelsea to see Trudi to give her presents, then on to Streatham to see Lorna, and give her and her daughter Barbara their presents; then on to Daphne’s, my ex mother in law’s, to have a late Christmas dinner with her and her family, including my ex-wife.
When we were presenting ‘Beyond the Rainbow’, Trudi auditioned for one of the leading roles, but failed to get the part, because in essence, she was too good – by good, I mean striking. I know actors are supposed to be able to alter their performance to suit any role, but sometimes you come across someone who is so striking, that they can’t disguise it. For example, you couldn’t imagine Marilyn Monro playing Mary Poppins. The end of Trudi’s life was tragic. She got married, had twins, but felt that the one thing she wanted more than anything in life - stardom - had eluded her, and one night she just walked into the sea.
Mike Yarwood had now left Dave Forrester, and had appointed Derek Block as his manager. We had lunch together. It wasn’t the first time I’d had lunch with Derek Block. Some years earlier, he’d phoned me out of the blue, and asked me to meet him for lunch; he said he had something extremely important he wanted to talk to me about. I didn’t know him from Adam, but my curiosity got the better of me. We sat down to lunch and I asked what the important matter was. He said, ‘You and your company are the kings of light entertainment in this country – I want you to make me a partner’. (When I recovered my composure), I asked why would we do that. He said, ‘If you don’t, I am going to go into competition with you, and I will destroy you. I said, ‘would you mind repeating that?’ And he did. I thanked him for the lunch, and said, ‘I look forward with interest to seeing the outcome of your efforts’.
About two years later, I saw a tacky Jolson impression revue at the Wimbledon theatre, which he’d presented. It didn’t exactly cause our edifice to crumble. He did go on in later years to become a bit more important, but never quite as important as he thought he was going to be.
At the promptings of the EMI Talent Committee, I had a meeting with Hughie Green at his flat. To my surprise, his girlfriend was there – who was it? – Yvonne Marsh. I don’t think the relationship lasted too long. I, for my part, found him extremely self-opinionated, and rather rude. Maybe he felt the same about me.
This was a very sad year, since it marked the passing of Leslie Grade, of whom it was often said, that although he was the least well-known of the three brothers, some people thought he was the brightest. He had an infectious way with him - he got people to like him – he spent his life on the telephone. He would go through his address book and phone up everybody every day, if only to say 'hello'. There was the story that a young agent, I think it was Peter Pritchard, complaining that he had been trying to get Leslie on the phone all day, and because it was always engaged, he couldn’t get through. ‘Don’t worry, he was told. ‘Leslie will get round to you eventually’.
This year, under the direction of Bernard Delfont, the leisure division of EMI was making twenty times as much as when the Grade Organisation was taken over. However, this was counter-balanced by the poor results from the rest of EMI.
Basically, the main problem was that EMI which had invented the first diagnostic scanner, had ploughed enormous sums of money into its development, and had rejected an American offer of franchise. The American government stepped in to restrict our importing the machine into America until they had time to build their own. This meant we were totally over-exposed financially with the greatest medical invention of the decade, but with very few markets which could afford to buy it. The culmination of this was that John Read resigned as Chief Executive, and Bernie was promoted in his place. Bernie had the total support of John Read, who stayed on as Chairman.
In order to help the company out of its financial difficulties, Bernie let it be known that he was prepared to sell certain divisions of EMI to solve the financial problems. Sir Richard Cave of Thorn saw an opportunity for a bargain. After some hard negotiations between Bernie and John Read on one hand, and Sir Richard Cave on the other, agreement was finally reached, and we became known as Thorn EMI, with Bernie running the entire leisure division. After a very short space of time, Bernie was informed by Sir Richard Cave that Thorn had a regulation that directors had to retire at seventy.
Bernie was now very close to his seventieth birthday. Sir Richard said he had been unaware of this. Maybe - but if Bernie had known of this rule, it might have prevented the Thorn EMI deal. Thorn wanted Bernie to sell off certain sections of the leisure division before he was forced to retire.
He went to his old friend, Charles Forte, who agreed to buy up all the piers, the Blackpool Tower, theatres, ballrooms, sports centres, Chichester Marina etc., etc, for a figure of just under £15m, with the proviso, that Bernie remained as Chairman and Chief Executive of a new company formed to run this - Trusthouse Forte Leisure. I was made a director. Everything was going smoothly; we were relieved to be away from Thorn; Charles Forte had let Bernie dictate his own terms; everything looked fine; we were going to have all the finance we needed to expand the leisure division further.
'An Evening with Tommy Steele' continued to have an enormously successful run at the Prince of Wales theatre, finally closing on the 29th November after playing 456 performances.
There was an up-and-coming act, Cannon & Ball, which I thought was going to be really enormous. I put them on at the North Pier, Blackpool, surrounded them with a very strong cast and gave them a very lavish production, directed by Alan Blackburn and choreographed by Nita Howard. They sold out. I did the same thing at the Britannia Pier, Great Yarmouth - once again - sold out. As a token of their appreciation, the next year they went and worked for somebody else.
I agreed with Mike Hughes that Russ Abbott who was appearing for us with The Black Abbotts, was finally going to go solo for us next year. The rest of the group got to hear about this and needless to say, it wasn't a very happy atmosphere during the run of the show at the Britannia Pier.
It was about this time that Keith Harris with his duck, Orville, decided that producing managements were making too much money presenting summer shows, and he was so successful that he thought if he presented himself, he would earn a lot more. This worked at first and he went round telling all the leading artists that they should present their own shows. There was one thing he forgot. If the show didn't work, he would lose a lot of money and not get paid.
I don't think there was anything wrong with this, as long as you didn't want to do major productions with large casts, opulent costumes and impressive scenery. In other words, it's okay to be a big fish in a little pond but don't become fettered with all of the problems associated with lavish productions.
Several artists have taken to staging their own shows - Paul Daniels, Jimmy Tarbuck and Ken Dodd amongst them. And very well they have done too. To my knowledge, only one person met the problem head on, formed his own production company and staged lavish shows very well. This was Jim Davidson - but whether at the end of the day he would have earned more just by hiring out his services - only he knows.
We had now firmly established that Paul Daniels was going to star in the West End, so I presented him at the Pavilion Theatre, Bournemouth with Karen Kay, and this show was used to break in material for Paul and Karen for the forthcoming show, ‘It’s Magic’, at the Prince of Wales theatre.
Paul’s son was helping him as an assistant, and my daughter Janey was given the job as ASM, to see if we could get her launched in the business. She had done a stint in the box office at the Prince of Wales, but I wanted to give her some backstage experience. Apart from this, she did a couple of jobs as ASM at the Theatre Royal Norwich, but theatre didn’t really suit her.
She went through various ups and downs, but now she is settled down as a State Registered Nurse in California, where she lives in Santa Cruz with her two sons, John and Richard, who, coincidentally, are approximately the same age as my two sons, by my wife, Sheila White, Matthew and Christopher.
'It's Magic' opened on 5th December and ran for 498 performances. It was a tremendous success and the critics, and indeed the West End audience were really enthralled by Paul's performance.
As I gathered over the years, Paul's intellect was extremely high, (I would like to have known what his IQ was). His mind was as fast as lightning and no matter what subject you were discussing, he always seemed to know a lot more about it than you; so much so, that it sometimes crossed my mind, was this Paul's training as a magician, manipulating the conversation the same way that he could force a card on you? - but I decided - no - it was genuine. He was smarter than you in most things. Apart from that, he is a very warm and generous person.
It grieves me that the press have chosen to snipe at him from time to time, but then I suppose they have to fill their column inches. His subsequent wedding to Debbie McGee some years later, gave Sheila and I, not one, but a pair of very close friends, to whom I know we could turn to, should ever the occasion arise.
PAUL DANIELS QUOTE: "You'll like this, not a lot, but you'll like it."
Some years later - Paul and Debbie at a Water Rat's Ball
when he was King Rat
I had persuaded Mike Hughes, the agent, against his better judgment to co-present Freddie Starr with me at the ABC, Great Yarmouth. Mike was loath to do this, because he felt that inevitably, Freddie would miss performances with his headaches, which occasionally re-occurred. Arithmetically, I proved to Mike, that even if Freddie missed two weeks of performances, the business would be so good over the rest of the weeks, that we would still make a profit.
So Freddie was launched at the ABC, and probably did the finest act that I’d ever seen him do over the years. When I told him this, he said, ‘But it’s no fun doing the same thing all the time’; I agreed with him. I also felt that part of his enormous success was his anarchic comedy, and the sense of danger he instilled in the audience, who were never quite sure how outrageous he was going to be.
On the first night of the show, as usual, he decided to make me the butt of his humour. I was sitting about ten rows back on the aisle, and towards the end of his act, Freddie Starr said: ‘Bring up the house lights!’ and announced: ‘There is Richard Mills who is responsible for the show, sitting on the aisle in row ten. He’s the greatest showman in the country, but don’t trust him with your daughters! I want you all to take this opportunity of getting his autograph as soon as the curtain comes down’. As soon as the curtain hit the deck, I jumped out of my seat and was about to make a hasty exit, when Freddie poked his head through the tabs and said: ‘There he goes - don’t let him get away - grab him now!’ I was surrounded by the audience, and spent the next half an hour signing autographs.
Freddie asked me to have lunch with him at the house he was renting which had a swimming pool in the garden. As we were walking round the pool discussing his act, I noticed him eyeing me and the pool speculatively. Knowing his reputation, I gave him a cold hard look and said, ‘Don’t even think about it Freddie – if I go - you go’. We remained dry.
Went to see Harold Fielding's 'Biograph Girl' at the Phoenix theatre. The show was just okay, but once again, there was a stunning performance from Sheila White who received rave notices in all the papers. Unfortunately, Harold Fielding omitted to put the show forward as a possible nomination for the S.W.E.T. awards. Otherwise, I am sure Sheila would have won the award for Best Performance in a Musical.
SHEILA WHITE - 'BIOGRAPH GIRL' - REVIEWS
"But it is Sheila White, back on the West End stage after too long, as Mary Pickford, who personifies exactly what happened to Hollywood before the talkies threw their shadow. Miss White captures the iron primrose quality, which enabled Pick ford to masquerade as the mischievous 12 year old sweetheart of the world while astutely carving herself the biggest slice of the cake. She does it with zest, vitality, and authority". Daily Mail, Thursday 20th November 1980
"Bubbling Sheila White is a stunning success in the light-hearted musical look at the days of the silent screen." News of the World, November 1980
"Sheila White could well become the darling of the West End on the Strength of her performance as Mary Pickford, the star known as 'The World's Sweetheart'. From the moment she comes on stage in ringlets, white socks and a frilly dress as the 19 year old actress playing 12 year old roles, her vitality and slightly wicked sense of humour is captivating". Daily Express, Saturday 22nd November 1980
"Miss White's Pickford is a joy. Her disgust at her own winsomeness is only matched by her vitality in putting over the title song. The star dances so ecstatically that for years people are going to say "Do it like Sheila White". Daily Telegraph, Thursday 20th November 1980
"The show belongs to Sheila White, a sassy little blond who is far and away the best performer in this new British musical which attempts to recreate the times and personalities in the days of silent films. Miss White is quite superb portraying Mary Pickford, the money-grabbing, tough-as-nails lady who spends most of her career playing curly-haired 12 year olds. 'Working in Flickers', sung by Sheila White sticks in the memory. Miss White has been sadly neglected by British impresarios, this musical could put her where she belongs, at the top". Daily Mirror, Saturday 22nd November 1980
"Sheila White gives a wickedly clever performance as Mary Pickford, suggesting both the innocent-seeming moppet who became the World's Sweetheart and the cannily tough businesswoman who amassed a fortune." The Sunday Telegraph, Sunday 23rd November 1980
"Sheila White's engaging portrayal of Mary Pickford, one of the darlings of the silent screen, lights up the whole show. She has a rare stage presence, can sing, dance, and is an accomplished comedienne." Sunday Mirror, November 1980
"Sheila White, adorably mischievous as the world's golden-ringlet ed sweetheart Mary Pickford, epitomizes the infectious gusto with which a mettlesome cast of 12 centre through a song and dance medley inspired by the world of silent cinemas." Sunday Express, Sunday 23rd November 1980
"Sheila White as Lillian Pickford, all golden curls and short frocks, is simply adorable. I would like to apply to her the words that Graham Green wrote about Shirley Temple, but the courts have already ruled them to be libelous, so even though Miss white's sexiness is overt rather than accidental, I'd better not." Financial Times, Thursday 20th November 1980
"The one unqualified hit of the evening is Sheila White's Mary Pickford; though at times costumed like Stanley Baxter essaying Shirley Temple, she has the priceless ability to convey impish innocence and cheerful sexiness. All slim legs, white petticoats and sausage-roll curls, she cheers one up whenever she comes on, because she seems to occupy the stage by right rather than default". The Guardian, Thursday 20th November
"Sheila White's Mary is the best thing of the evening; she alone has bubble and edge. She gets one of those 'Hello Dolly' numbers, in which she smiles stage-centre while the male cast walk round her telling the world how wonderful she is. In this context she deserves it". The Observer, Sunday 23rd November 1980
SHEILA WHITE IN EXCERPTS FROM
'THE BIOGRAPH GIRL'
Tony Newley approached Bernie and me about a new musical project, ‘Around The World in 80 Days’, which he was going to co-write with Herbert Kretzmer, the lyricist of ‘Les Miserables’. Bernie and I agreed the idea was good, but the problem was living in California, with Herbie living in London. ‘How do you propose to collaborate on this?’ I asked. ‘That’s no problem’, said Tony. ‘We’ll do it on the phone and by mail, and I’ll fly to London occasionally’. ‘That’s all very well’, I said, ‘But it’s going to be rather an expensive operation, and I’m not prepared to pay for first class flights, only business class and, furthermore, I’m going to put a ceiling of £10,000 on your expenses until we see the first draft’. Tony complained bitterly at our meanness, but agreed.
He claimed everything he possibly could on expenses. His agent made a mistake on claiming for Tony’s expenses by inadvertently including with the claim, a bill for Tony’s laundry with a scribbled note on it from the agent saying: ‘Sorry Tony - I don’t think I can get this one through’.
We hadn’t progressed very far when I decided the only way a project of this magnitude could be mounted, would be on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre, backed by a subsidy. So I arranged a meeting at the National Theatre with Peter Hall, Herbie and Tony. We kicked the idea about for some considerable time, but Peter eventually got cold feet, saying he didn’t wish to proceed.
Shortly after, Herbie and Tony agreed that the transatlantic collaboration was not going to work, so the project was abandoned.Its a pity because I believe it would have been an ideal subject for the Olivier Theatre.
After a while his popularity in America abated, and he returned to this country to continue his career. He lived with his mother in the suburbs and was relatively successful, but no longer the superstar of yesteryear.
Unfortunately he died in 1999, at a relatively early age, from cancer. So, yet another of the people I enjoyed working with, had passed away.
In 1981, the corporate raider, Robert Holmes a-Court screwed Lew Grade by taking over control of Associated Communications Corporation which included ATV and Stoll Moss Theatres. Holmes a- Court had acquired a 25% non-voting holding in the company, and made a particular point of cultivating Lew. Lew was much taken with him, treating him like a son - inviting to sit with him in his office, - accompanying him around the world, and sitting in whilst Lew was making deals with various people. He took him to Las Vegas, and arranged that he was treated like a king. Lew became more and more attached to him.
Later on, Robert acquired a majority shareholding in the voting shares of ACC. Eventually, Robert said he wanted to purchase the whole of the shares, and asked Lew to give him his support and sell him his voting shares.
At a Board meeting, in which Lew informed the Board of his decision, Louis Benjamin told me without shame, that when there was a vote as to whether they were going to back Holmes a-Court in his bid for power, when the hands went up, Louis paused, had a quick look round to see which way the wind was blowing, then joined the majority, thereby ensuring the preservation of his own position.
He wasn’t particularly happy thereafter, I think Holmes a-Court made his life a misery; as for Toby Rowland, his co-director, he couldn’t wait to escape. He left and formed his own production company. The wheel having turned the full circle, I rented him accommodation in the Prince of Wales theatre. Lew left ACC in June 1982.A bitterly disillusioned man
Norma Farnes, Spike Milligan’s agent, had phoned me earlier in 1980 in great excitement. ‘Spike has written a musical and would like to talk to you about it’. I was delighted at the thought of possibly becoming involved with Spike – that is on the surface. Underneath, I was a little troubled. I had visions of Peter Sellars all over again, but this time - in spades.
Spike came to the office and told me his plan. The show is called 'Joseph, I’m having a Baby'. It’s about a carpenter, who’s totally useless. When he makes a chair - the legs aren’t even - a table - the legs fall off, and generally he’s totally inadequate, socially and slightly mentally. When his young wife tells him she’s pregnant he thinks, ‘how can this be – we haven’t consummated our marriage’. Anyway, he goes along with it and when they finally arrive at Bethlehem, its not that they are full at the inn, but he hasn’t got his credit card with him - and they have no money to pay the bill - so they have to stay in the stable.
He looks around the stable and on seeing a lamb there, says, ‘well we may be skint but at least we’ll eat tonight'. The three wise men arrive. How, I ask him do we do this? ‘With camels’, he says, ‘but they’re cardboard cut outs - and the three wise men have carried them all the way. When they enter, you see the legs of the three wise men and then they turn round - and one says to the other two – “I’m totally knackered coming all this way, carrying this camel.”
‘What about the birth?’ I ask Spike. He said, ‘we’ll have lots of angels – all cut outs – we’ll lower them from the flies, we’ll raise them from the orchestra pit and we’ll chuck them on from the side of the stage’. ‘Well, I like it so far’, I said – and I’ll do it on one condition – that you’ll play Joseph’. ‘Right’, Spike said.
We then went through various scenes, and he played me the music which he had on a demo tape. One of them was a rip-rousing song sung by King Herod, entitled, ‘Chopping off Babies Heads’. The music written by Ed Welch was excellent. I couldn’t wait to do it, in spite of the rocks that I could see looming ahead. I had several meetings with Spike.
By early the following year, I had arranged all the contractual details, sorted out the special deal on music publishing, which took time and effort, got it all together, pencilled in the rehearsal date, phoned Norma Farnes, and said, ‘Right - let’s go’. ‘Let’s go?’ she said. ‘Spike’s gone. He’s buggered off to Australia’. ‘What’s he doing in Australia? I thought we were going to do a show here’, I said. ‘Well you know Spike - he’s found someone in Australia he’d sooner do it with’. It never happened – but it would have been very interesting.
Had a meeting with Cameron MacIntosh in my office to discuss '42nd Street', which we’d both seen in New York. Independently, we had approached David Merrick to see of we could acquire the rights. I thought that we would be firm favourites, because of our past association with Merrick giving him the rights to ‘Stop the World I Want to Get Off’, ‘Pickwick’ and ‘The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd’. Cameron considered he would be the favourite, because he was of the younger new wave school of producers. We agreed that regardless which of us obtained the rights, we would do it as a co-production. David Merrick gave the rights to Helen Montague.
Went to New York to see ‘Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ and ‘Barnum’. Whorehouse had opened on 19th June 1978, and was an enormous success. I arranged to meet Stevie Philips, the producer, and when the time came for the meeting, I arrived at the block in which her office was situated. Just as I was about to enter, I was struck with a coughing fit, brought on by my habit of eighty Senior Service a day. I couldn't go up to see her while I was coughing, since I thought it would create a bad impression, so I walked up and down outside until it subsided. It took half an hour.
Later that year, I was driving home after playing golf, when I was struck by another coughing fit. I opened the car window, threw out the packet of cigarettes and never smoked another one. At the same timeI went on a diet and started a physical fitness regime, which involved a lot of running. I was punishing myself on all fronts, mainly to try and keep my mind off the cigarettes.
After a year, I decided I was cured and decided to start smoking cigars which are totally natural as opposed to cigarettes, which contain paper and various chemicals; of course, all this is sucked into your lungs, which causes the coughing. Cigars, on the other hand, are not inhaled; the nicotine s absorbed through the roof of the mouth as with pipes or chewing tobacco; therefore, it dispenses the congestion on the lungs, so you don’t have the coughing fits. Here endeth the medical lesson.
I met up with Stevie and we got along very well together. She was happy to let me have, on behalf of Universal Pictures, the rights to present it in London - Universal to provide 75% of the finance and me, 25%. The scenery and some of the costumes were to be imported from America, so all in all it was a very economical production and perfect for the Prince of Wales. Unfortunately, Stevie would not let me hang on to the rights until the Prince of Wales was available, so I had to either step down or find another theatre.
I obtained the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which had suddenly become available owing to the demise of Steven Sondheim’s ‘Sweeney Todd’ after just 157 performances. It was really too big, but it was the only game in town. Pete Masterson and Tommy Tune came over to audition.
Tommy’s choreography in the main consisted of what the Americans choose to call ‘shit kicking’ – brilliant, but a style which British dancers had never come across. He couldn't spend much time in London, so I asked him to leave it with me; we would train the dancers in the appropriate style, and he could return and audition them in six weeks time. He taught the steps to Maggie Goodwin, a very fine dance assistant, and she started to train the dancers. She then had another job, so she in turn taught the steps Dawn MacDonald, who continued with the training of the dancers.
Tommy Tune came back, saw what had been accomplished, and gave Dawn and the dancers a round of applause. He later confessed to me that he really didn't think that our kids would be able to work in this particular style.
Carlin Glynne and Henderson Forsyth came over from America to re-create their leading roles. Carlin subsequently received the SWET award for her performance. Frankie Howerd who was making the awards, not knowing who she was, announced the winner as ‘Carla Glynne’. Unlike the time when I didn't accompany Barbra Streisand to her award winning ceremony, this time I did escort Carlin, the recipient of the award. The show had mixed reviews, and ran for 202 performances. Not a success, but it cost us very little.
We were now part of Trusthouse Forte Leisure, and I remember at Board meetings, it was a trifle embarrassing trying to explain to the rather straight-laced Trusthouse Forte directors, what we were doing presenting a musical about a whorehouse. John Conlan one of our co-directors said I was so nervous that I had three cigarettes going at the same time.
TOMMY TUNE QUOTE:"I like a show to unfold and keep presenting itself, surprising you."
Paul Daniels who had opened at the end of the previous year, continued to do phenomenal business at the Prince of Wales.
I met a young lady called Jenny Dunster and we went out for a while as both Lorna and Patricia had gone off and got married. Jenny was an ex-dancer, who by a strange coincidence, had taken over from my girlfriend Jackie Gentle when she left ‘The Danny La Rue Show’ to get married.
Jennie was now an agent, a co-partner with Jill Shirley in an agency called Razzamatazz, which represented among others, Bucks Fizz, who this year won the Eurovision Song Contest. Seeing that it was an up-and-coming young agency, I bought a controlling interest on behalf of our company.
Apart from Bucks Fizz, the girls were very involved in fashion shows etc., and did quite well at it, but it became apparent after giving it about a year, that it wasn’t going to develop into a big enough agency for us to occupy too much time on it, so we abandoned our interest in 1983. Jenny Dunster and I remained together, until I met Sheila White again in 1982.
I presented Cannon & Ball at the Britannia Pier, Great Yarmouth. To my great disappointment, this was the last time they worked for us. Laurie Mansfield, their agent, obviously got a much better deal and booked them with MAM, a rival management, in Bournemouth for the following season.
I did go backstage to see them when they were in Bournemouth; they were on top form at the time. Since they weren’t working for me, I felt that a few words of caution might be appropriate since they couldn't rebound on me, as I wasn’t their employer. I said to them, ‘You know, you’re flying very high at the moment, you are one of the hottest attractions in the country, but it won’t always be like this – inevitably, novelties wear off, and performers don’t always remain at the top of the profession’.
They were insulted that I should have the temerity to suggest that they would ever be anything other than the most popular light entertainers in the business. The atmosphere became a little chilly, and I left with the words, ‘Well well, just have to wait and see, won’t we, but good luck anyway’.
On another occasion, Laurie Mansfield, who looked after Jim Davidson among many others, asked me to go and see Jim Davidson’s pantomime for adults, ‘Sinderella’ at the Wimbledon theatre. A sample of his delights were in the opening scene; the townsfolk were buggering sheep in the village square and Diane Lee, playing Cinders was running about with a giant dildoll, asking what it was for. This should give you a flavour of the piece; but to be fair, it was very funny.
In the bar in the interval, Laurie said, ‘Do you think we could bring it in to the Prince of Wales’. I said, ‘Well, that would take a very brave person’. Laurie said, ‘But Jim and I are both very brave’. ‘No, not you’, I said – ‘me’. It went to the Cambridge.
Little & Large, supported by Michael Barrymore and Norman Collier were at the Congress Theatre, Eastbourne. Norman Murray, Little & Large’s agent, said under no circumstances would he agree to Dickie Hurran being the director, following his carving up of Michael Barrymore in an earlier season at the ABC, Great Yarmouth in 1979. I asked Peter Roberts, who was now a director of the company, in charge of productions, if he would like to direct a summer show for the first time; (he did a very good job). I knew that Little & Large were very easy to get on with, and wouldn't give him any problems.
Michael Barrymore’s act was now getting stronger and I could see that he could really develop into an important artist. Very regretfully, the graveyard of the Congress Theatre, Eastbourne laid its curse upon the show, and in spite of Little & Large being an enormous success everywhere else in the country, we lost a fortune – so much so, that for the first time ever in light entertainment, I was forced to ask Norman Murray if his clients would take a cut in salary. His response was that if it were for me personally, they would, but since they are working for a large company - no way.
At a dinner meeting with Ken Dodd, Dickie Hurran and I, in which we had agreed the format for the Opera House Summer Season, asked Ken Dodd what he wanted in the way of time. ‘I want ten minutes for my opening spot, fifteen minutes for closing the first half, and forty minutes for closing the show’.
The next day I had a meeting with Dickie Hurran in my office and said, ‘There’s no way he’s going to stick to these times, we’ll really cover ourselves this time – we’ll give him twenty minutes for the opening, twenty-five minutes for closing the first half, and fifty-five minutes for closing the show. That should take care of it’.
No way Jose. Ken went on and did twenty-five minutes in the opening spot, thirty-five minutes in closing the first half spot, and well over an hour in closing the show spot. We were distraught. Once again, the second house audience were still queuing up outside with the first house audience still inside, still laughing at Ken Dodd, long after the curtain was due to have risen on the second house.
Dickie Hurran came up with the master stroke. We had a very spectacular finale which Ken was thrilled with. We said to Ken, ‘If you don’t run to the time we have allocated you for your closing spot, and you go one minute beyond it, we will dismantle the finale, send all the boys and girls home and dismiss the orchestra. There will be no finale’. Each night, Ken by constant checking with the prompt corner, was able to finish exactly on the dot so he could still have his finale.
Went on holiday to Marbella in July and whilst playing golf at the Aloha Golf Club with Tony Dalli and Derek Stoller, I got my first hole in one. It was on the 17th and the hole measured 225 metres. It was so far away, I didn't see it go in the hole, but Tony and Derek did. It transpired that I was the first person ever to have got a hole in one on this particular hole. To be fair, the course had only been open for fifteen years, but nevertheless, it was a great thrill and I received the appropriate accolades in the local golf magazines.
We had acquired the rights of the Chichester Theatre production of ‘Underneath the Arches’ starring Roy Hudd and Christopher Timothy, directed by Patrick Garland.Following the closure of Paul Daniels,we opened this at the Prince of Wales theatre on 26th February; it became an enormous success, running for 515 performances.
At one of the charity previews, the Queen Mother attended, and I had the privilege of entertaining her in my office during the interval. As always, she was extremely charming with a good sense of humour.
One of the gags during the show was that Roy Hudd, who was playing Bud Flanagan, says to the audience, ‘One of you lucky people has won a prize. Under one seat there is a pink sticker. Will you please rise, look under your seat and find out who the lucky winner is’. The gag of course was, that under every seat there was a sticker; there was always a great shout from the audience, each one thinking they were they were the winner.
The night the Queen Mother attended was a typical charity audience, starchy, bedecked with jewels and furs and not particularly wanting to be there in the first place, but had their arms twisted by the charity to purchase the tickets at an inflated price. When the time came for the gag, Roy Hudd delivered his line and nobody moved a muscle. There was a long pause and the Queen Mother got up in the box and looked under her seat. Needless to say, the entire audience followed suit.
We had once again, one of those unfortunate coincidences of two producers doing a show based on the same subject, at the same time. My friend, Bill Kenwright, had a tour out on the road about Flanagan and Allan, starring Bernie Winters and Leslie Crowther. We had opened in the West End and Bill was talking about bringing the tour in. I could see that this clash of product was not going to be good for either of us, but Bill particularly was going to suffer, because we were already established. If it did mean financial disaster, this was something we could easily cope with, but Bill couldn’t.
Based upon this, I wrote to Bill expressing all my reservations about the problem. He saw the sense of it, and continued to tour his production, but didn’t bring it into the West End. I genuinely didn’t write to him because I feared the opposition – I just didn’t want him to lose his money. As a footnote, six months later when Roy Hudd and Christopher Timothy’s contracts were at an end, I replaced them with Bernie Winters and Leslie Crowther.
Alex Cohen invited me to a tribute to the Centennial of the Actors Fund of America – ‘Night of a Hundred Stars’ on 14th February. This was held at the Radio City Music Hall which seats 5,900 people. Alex had produced it magnificently. Although it was billed as the ‘Night of a Hundred Stars’ there were probably two or three hundred stars on stage and there must have been nearly 1,000 performers among the audience. Almost every conceivable star in America was there – James Cagney, Bette Davis, James Stewart etc., etc.
Alex had arranged an enormous reception for the entire cast and many guests at an extremely large hotel, (I’ve forgotten the name), about 600 yards up 6th Avenue from Radio City. The New York police had sealed off the Avenue; Alex had laid red carpet across the entire Avenue between Radio City and the hotel. No cars allowed – we all had to walk up the red carpet.
I went to see 'Little Me' which was an updated version of the production we presented in the 60s. One or two numbers had been dropped and a couple added. The show was re-staged, dropping Bob Fosse's original choreography. Although it was not a success, running for only a month,
I felt that we could successfully present it in London.So I acquired the rights from Manny Azenberg, the producer ( who produced most ofl the Neil Simon shows) and made a deal with him for all the brand new scenery and costumes. I then sat back to consider how we should stage it in London. The first thing I wanted to do was to return to Bob Fosse's original choreography. This presented quite a few problems, but this I can go into in more detail later.
Later on that year, I returned to New York for the opening night of a stage version of ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ starring Debbie Boon and David-James Carroll. This was presented by two very good friends, Larry Kasha, who had restaged ‘Mame’ and ‘Funny Girl’ for us in London, and his associate, David Landay. We had taken a big investment in the show - hence my visit.
It opened on July 8th at the Alvin Theatre; it went reasonably well and after the performance finished, we all trooped off to the mandatory first night party. It was the classic New York show business story – we are all there eating and drinking, waiting for the early editions of the papers, which came out at about 1 a.m. The press agents’ gophers arrived, with the papers under their arms; they were distributed; everybody read them; they weren’t good. Immediately, the food was put away and the bar was closed.
Larry, David and I then drove to the press agents’ offices in a skyscraper block nearby, where we were waiting to pick up later editions of the notices and also, listen to radio and television coverage. As the reviews dribbled in, they got worse and worse and the faces grew longer and longer. I have never felt such an aura of doom about me. It seemed as if everybody in the room thought Armageddon had arrived. Trying to lighten the atmosphere a little, I asked what floor we were on. ‘The twentieth’, somebody said. ‘Well, we can always jump’, I said. This was not well received.
The show closed after five performances, but David Landay having persevered with it with presentations throughout the world and twenty years later, finally paid back all the original investors’ every last penny.
I was invited to join the English Tourist Board, which I accepted and subsequently regretted. Andrew Neil was appointed at the same time but I think the penny dropped quickly with him and he resigned after a few months. His reason being that he was appointed editor of The Sunday Times.
I was on the Board and the Finance and General Purposes Committee, which involved ploughing through mountainous files containing hundreds of pages every fortnight, prior to the meetings. The files contained requests for funds from various sources, a summation of the sources activities together with a recommendation from the civil service. Since it seemed to deal mainly with ‘should we fund extra bathrooms or central heating or extensions’ it was one of the most incredibly boring situations I have ever been in.
When I complained to Michael Montague, (subsequently Lord Montague), who was our Chairman, about the acres of paperwork we were expected to plough through, he said: ‘My dear boy, you are not reading these reports the right way. What you do, is you open a page at random, make notes on it, do this four or five times, then, when you meet with the civil servants, question them about the pages you have read’. I couldn't bring myself to try his method, so for three years, I drowned in the output of the Amazonian rain forests.
There were one or two moments which were rewarding. There was: 1) I persuaded them to help sponsor the Society of West End Theatre Drama Awards, and 2) I managed to get the support of Paul Daniels as a roving ambassador, who did sterling work for the Board around the country.
When it came to organising a publicity campaign the board called in the so-called experts, who came up with the conception of using the ‘Wind in the Willows’ characters. I thought that was pretty bland, and said so. I suggested instead, that for the adverts we used the talents of Paul Daniels and called the campaign ‘The Magic of England’ with Paul as the host using various camera tricks for the television. I was overruled, and we finished up with bloody Toad, Mole and Ratty.
A very interesting thing about quangos – each time we approached the end of the financial year, there was a flurry of activity, with everyone desperately falling over themselves to get rid of all the money the government had given us. The logic being – if you don’t get rid of it – they won’t give you as much next year – so spend it - on taps, drains, bathrooms and even Toad, Mole and Ratty – but what ever you do – get rid of it!
Now, it’s not for me to suggest that such things occur in other quangos, but there is a possibility. Anyway, when they asked me if I would stay on after my three year term was up, I suddenly remembered an urgent appointment elsewhere.
Among the Summer Shows we presented this year at the Opera House, Blackpool we had Little & Large, supported by Dana and Michael Barrymore. Barrymore was now earning £850 a week. I had to confess to his agents, Norman Murray and Ann Chudleigh, that their faith in Barrymore was well-founded; he was going to be a big star. Barrymore continued to be just as polite and charming as he was when I first met him.
At the Princes Theatre, Torquay, Jim Davidson starred ( who was as far, as I was concerned a very well mannered intellegent gentleman ) supported by Dustin Gee. There was a young soubrette in this production; her name was Maria Friedman and she went on be nominated for several Olivier Awards, two of which she won for her one-woman show ‘Maria Friedman – By Special Arrangement’ and for Best Actress as Fosca in Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Passion’. She also won The Evening Standard Award for her performance as Liza Elliot in ‘Lady in the Dark’. And to think we were getting all her talent at the Princess Theatre, Torquay for about £100 per week!
The major disaster of the year was the decision to close the Talk of the Town on 11th June. As I mentioned earlier, we could not attract as many big stars as we had done in the past. The competition from the clubs and the escalating costs of running the restaurant and the show were such, that something that we had initially charged £2.50 entrance fee when we first opened, had now escalated up to a price of £40.00. This - without the bonus of the public being able to see an international star.
Bernie, Robert Nesbitt and I had agreed some months earlier that the format was starting to look rather old-fashioned and Robert and I went to Paris to look at various shows with the idea of re-shaping the format. We agreed what it should be, appointed a new choreographer, changed the costume designer and started to prepare for the new launch. The costumes had been made and filled rack after rack of hanging space in the wardrobe.
We decided that the orchestra would no longer be on stage but would be in a booth elsewhere in the building. The Musicians Union strongly objected to this and asked for an astronomic increase for the musicians before they would agree. When I expressed my disapproval of such an outrageous demand, the chief negotiator of the MU said to me: ‘You don’t really get the picture, do you? We don’t just want a reasonable salary we also want to participate in the enormous profits you have been making over the years’. ‘That’s fine’, I said. ‘I agree - with one proviso – and that is for every show we do that uses musicians you will also participate in any losses we might incur’. Needless to say, the MU didn’t like this idea, so we were still in a stalemate.
Their demands, together with the other problems was one of the final nails in the coffin and we decided to close down. We had a sale of the assets and hundreds of brand new costumes which had never been worn and which had cost well over £100,000 were sold in various lots and only raised about £6,000. What a sad end to what had been one of the most successful theatre restaurants in the world, but Bernie and Charles Forte were philosophical about it – they were both happy that we had had so many successful years.
Paul Daniels invited me to the Water Rats Ball in November of this year and towards the end of the evening, I was wandering around the room and I came to a table where Peter Charlesworth was sitting and next to him was Sheila White. We started chatting and in the course of the conversation, I discovered she was just in the process of splitting up with her boyfriend. I asked her if she would consider going out with an older man - me. Her response was favourable, so I telephoned her the next day and asked her out.
She was warned by Peter Charlesworth and various other people that it would be a mistake to get involved with me because I always seemed to be juggling several girls at the same time. In spite of this, we did go out together and I stopped dating other ladies.
MORE TO FOLLOW
Sheila performing 'Steam Heat' at the Royal Variety Performance
Me showing Bernie and Carol how to conduct an orchestra
Me catching sailfish in Florida (my first and last)
Celia Burnett, Barry Burnett and Richard Wellington (Barry's partner)
Sheila, Diana (Cameron Mackintosh's mother)
and Celia, (Barry Burnett's mother)
Sheila, Julia McKenzie and Barry Burnett
My son - Matthew
My son Christopher with my best friend - Prince II