I started at Webber Douglas and, from there, I was a reasonably successful jobbing actor working all over the country. I did a bit of stuff in the West End and it was fine. I then got myself an expensive wife – she was an actress – and a couple of top-of-the-range children, and it was fine when we were both working. If one of us was out of work it was kind of okay, but if both of us were out of work it was very difficult.
I knew the manager of my local venue in Potters Bar. It had only been open for three years and, as a young actor aged 25, I said to him “you don’t do a pantomime here, do you?” He said "no", and so I said that I would put on a professional pantomime for them. So I produced my first, and their first, pantomime. We did a lovely panto that lost an awful lot of money, and I thought that would be the end of my producing career, but somehow I managed to resurrect it.
From producing that one panto in the venue, a job came up there as a press officer and so I said I’d do it. After three years there, I was the general manager. So, by the end of the 90s, there I was running the Wyllyotts Theatre in Potters Bar, whilst still producing the panto and actually still appearing in it too.
You are making yourself sound something of a workaholic.
Well, yes. It’s a very difficult business and, without wanting to sound too self-indulgent about it, when you do put something on the stage you are putting something of yourself up there – especially if you do what I do, which is to write, direct and produce – so yes, you work hard and take a lot of care over it. Having said that, work still comes in peaks and troughs, but Christmas is the busiest time for me.
You produced five pantomimes this year?
Yes, as well as being artistic director here at Eastbourne Theatres, I also have managed to keep my independent production company that I started back then when I was 25. I’ve been able to grow that and as well as being involved here at Eastbourne, I also produce pantos for Stevenage, King’s Lynn, Fareham and Potter’s Bar – and who knows where else next year.
Is it important to you to keep your pantomimes “traditional”?
It is important to me, yes it is. I’ve always said that we do “traditional” panto, but then I wondered what that actually means. In Victorian times it was all in verse and from the 30s to the 50s it was people coming on and doing their variety acts, so traditional panto has changed over the years, but there are some traditions I do like to keep. There’s always the silly spurious slapstick scene, I always have my immortals speaking in verse and I nearly always have a female principal boy.
Now panto is over and the Spring season is almost upon us. In the current economic climate there is a serious lack of product out there, so how difficult has it been to put your programme together?
Well, you’ve absolutely hit the nail on the head. People have been saying to me for the last couple of years that it must be difficult to get people into the theatre and I’ve said to them that yes it is, but the bigger problem is to get the decent product in there.
Producers are less inclined to take risks in this climate, but also some theatres are striking very tough deals to make up for the lack of audiences so the quality mid-scale regional producers are just not producing drama at the moment. So you’re absolutely right but, that said, we have got some very good relationships with some very good companies and, as a consequence, we have actually put together a very strong season for Eastbourne in 2012.
What are the highlights for you?
Mogadishu is coming here from the Lyric Hammersmith. They brought us Punk Rock a couple of years ago, which was wonderful, and I’m really thrilled to have them back. The Touring Consortium is bringing us The Diary of Anne Frank – these are great companies that are sending out a good product which we can afford. We have a very strong relationship with he Original Theatre Company who are a new young quality producing company and they are bringing Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good which is a wonderful play, so there is some exciting stuff out there.
I suppose the other thing you have to keep your eye on is the ticket price?
We do tend to be among the best value theatres around, but even so we get people saying that if they want to bring their family to see a full-scale musical – like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – when it was here, it could cost maybe £120.00. What I say to them is: yes, shows like that are expensive, because going to see superb quality theatre is a bit of a luxury, a treat. There are some people who are lucky enough to be able to go much more often, but for other people it is a family event.
People do seem to be happy to spend on “event” theatre like that as, although it can be expensive, it is still probably only half the price for similar tickets for the same production when it was in London. A £35 ticket for Sister Act here would have been at least £65 in the West End. Of course, you would also have to get your family there and back and have something to eat as well. I am really confident that we offer good value here.