The Producers: David Liddiment at the Old VicDate: 13 September 2004
Inspired by The Producers, we’re launching a new series interviewing the UK’s leading commercial producers. We start with David Liddiment, the ITV chief turned Kevin Spacey’s right-hand man at the Old Vic, whose inaugural season opens this month.
Prior to joining the Old Vic team as producer alongside newly appointed artistic director Kevin Spacey, David Liddiment (pictured with Spacey) was counted amongst the movers and shakers in the world of television rather than theatre.
Liddiment started his career at Granada, where, after working as a researcher, investigative journalist, director and producer, he became executive producer of Coronation Street. As head of entertainment, he was responsible for nurturing a new generation of TV dramatists including Paul Abbott, Kay Mellor, Sally Wainwright and Russell T Davis. In 1992 he was appointed director of programmes and commissioned top ITV drama Cracker (written by Jimmy McGovern) and Band of Gold (Kay Mellor).
After a brief spell as head of entertainment group at BBC Television, Liddiment joined LWT in 1995 as deputy managing director and director of programmes. In September 1997, he was appointed director of programmes at the ITV Network. During his tenure, he was responsible for bringing to the screen two modern television phenomena: Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and Pop Idol.
In addition he presided over a rich period of drama including The Russian Bride (Guy Hibbert), Bloody Sunday (Paul Greengrass), Othello (Andrew Davies), Cold Feet (Mike Bullen), The Second Coming, Bob and Rose (Russell T Davis), Fat Friends (Kay Mellor), At Home with the Braithwaites (Sally Wainwright), Cor Blimey (Terry Johnson) and Foyles War (Anthony Horowitz).
From 1993 to 2003, Liddiment was a governor of Leeds’ West Yorkshire Playhouse where he directed the world premiere of Kay Mellor’s stage play A Passionate Woman. He is also creative director of leading UK independent producer All3Media and is a regular media columnist for the Guardian.
Since the beginning of 2003, Liddiment has been working closely with Spacey to establish the new Old Vic Theatre Company and to plan its inaugural year-round season, which launches this month with the UK premiere of Dutch writer Maria Goos’ Cloaca. The play, discovered by Liddiment through one of his international TV contacts, is being directed by Spacey.
The Old Vic programme continues with a Christmas season of Aladdin, with Ian McKellen playing panto dame Widow Twankey, the UK premiere of American Dennis McIntyre’s National Anthems and a revival of classic Broadway comedy The Philadelphia Story, the latter two both starring Kevin Spacey.
What's the first stage production you recall seeing?
I was at school in Huddersfield, and my English teacher was an inspiration - he would encourage us to go to the theatre. He organised trips to Nottingham Playhouse, and I remember going to see a Hamlet there with Alan Bates. I was about 15 years old, and I remember the set vividly – it was stainless steel and very contemporary for the time. I also remember going to the Leeds Playhouse when it was in a sports hall at the University and seeing John Nightingale in an extraordinary production of The Crucible. That started my interest in the theatre.
Why & how did you become a producer?
Whether you’re in television or theatre, you are either a person who wants to get things on, or you’re not. At heart, that’s what a producer is all about, in whatever genre you’re in. You want to get things in front of people, and it’s your job to enable that happening.
I’d been in television for years and years and years. My last full-time TV job, which I did for five-and-a-half years, was running the programming for ITV. Television takes over your life 24 hours a day, and I don’t believe you should do jobs like that for too long. In April 2002, I announced I’d be leaving at the end of that year. Shortly after, I got a call that from Sally Greene, and she told me Kevin Spacey was looking for someone to be his right-hand man. He wanted someone from the UK who knew the creative scene here to help him run the theatre, and she asked if I’d be interested. Who would say no to that?
Of course I was interested, particularly as I had loved the theatre since I was a kid. I was a governor at West Yorkshire Playhouse for 12 years, and directed one show there; beyond that, I had no professional theatre experience. But the next time Kevin was in London, we met for dinner and we hit it off straight away. Now I spend most of my time at the Old Vic, but I also write a regular column for the Guardian, I am creative director of an independent TV production company, which I really enjoy, and I do other bits and pieces. So I have a varied life now. But the principal thing is the Old Vic, which I’ve found is all-consuming, too, but in a different way. Although I’m as busy as I ever was, I’m more able to separate out the different things I do. It’s probably a slightly saner life than I used to have. It’s much smaller and more hands-on - I’m here in the building, and we’re putting on shows. And although the money involved is significant, at ITV, I was spending hundreds of millions of pounds a year, so it’s a very different scale of responsibility.
What are the other key differences between working in TV versus theatre?
The exciting thing about theatre is that direct relationship you have with your audience. I’m not just talking about actors relating to the audience in terms of the performance, but as a producer, too, I can go and sit in that auditorium every night and I can see, hear, feel and touch them. I know whether they’re enjoying themselves, and what they’re enjoying. I can actually watch them coming through the door – they’re tangible. With TV, the audience is so remote – literally so - on the other side of the box with their remote controls.
What would you have done if you hadn’t become a producer?
When I was a kid, the thing I most wanted to do was work in television. The only other thing I dreamt of when I was a kid was teaching, I think because I had two or three inspirational teachers. Right through my television career, and certainly when I was at Granada, I was involved in training and ran directors’ training courses. That touched the little bit of me that still wants to teach.
How do you decide what to produce?
It’s to do with a gut feeling and making a judgement call. Cloaca, our opening production, for instance, is a play that I found in Holland. When Kevin and I first talked, we spoke of the importance of new work, and trying to find a new play to open the season with was our dream. I heard about the playwright Maria Goos through the chief executive of a Dutch television company I knew. I went over to Amsterdam and met Maria in a bar, where she gave me the literal translation of Cloaca that she’d commissioned and paid for herself. I read it on the way back to London, and it was a real page-turner. I was so excited when I got off the plane. I came into the Old Vic the next day, rang Kevin and said, “I think I’ve found something, this may be it!”
I don’t know what it is, but it’s a gut feeling – it’s an excitement, a recognition I felt in the text about the characters and their journey. And the fact that it came about from a wonderful happenstance of my two worlds coming together is for me personally why it is such a thrill that this is our opening production.
Which productions are you proudest of?
A Passionate Woman - which I took a sabbatical from Granada to stage the world premiere of at the West Yorskhire Playhouse in 1993 - was a fantastic experience. I’ve known the author, Kay Mellor, for many years. I adore her and her work. She’s such an honest, direct, truthful writer. And I had a fantastic cast – Anne Reid played the central role, and David Hargreaves was her husband. It was a sell-out.
I also directed a lot on television – I directed exclusively for seven years, across all genres, in drama, entertainment, music and documentaries. In television, I’m proud of lots and lots of different things. Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, for instance. I commissioned it and took a big risk when it first came across my desk. That show became a phenomenon, not only in Britain but worldwide. The same went for Pop Idol, which is adored and reviled in equal measure. The thing in television I’m most proud of is that we had a very rich time for drama during my time at ITV. With Nick Elliott, controller of drama at ITV, we worked with fantastic writers doing bold and interesting drama, great series and singles: The Second Coming; Bob and Rose; a wonderful modern-day adaptation of Therese Raquin called The Russian Bride, written by Guy Hibbert with Lia Williams and Douglas Hodge; Andrew Davies’ updating of Othello; Bloody Sunday, Paul Greengrass’ film about the Northern Ireland situation; and At Home with the Braithwaites, a great series by Sally Wainwright about family dysfunctionality in the 21st century.
Which productions, in hindsight, might you not have done?
Of course there are shows I would prefer not to have done, but you try to forget the ones that bombed! We did a terrible series called Britain’s Sexiest. It was stripped across the week – I’m using the word strip deliberately - and was a live show in which anyone could apply and viewers voted for Britain’s sexiest men and women. It wasn‘t the highest point in my career, but I commissioned it so I take responsibility.
What shows do you wish you’d been able to get your hands on?
I am a Huddersfield boy and Alan Bennett is one of my heroes. The History Boys is, I think, probably his finest work. Here’s a writer saying something very powerful and doing it with such engagement with people as they really are. It’s very humble about the human condition – Bennett doesn’t seek to be above the basic humanity of his characters. It’s almost ultimate theatre.
What do you think of industry awards?
Ego fuels the creative industries so they are probably an essential ingredient!
How did your inaugural Old Vic season come about?
Kevin and I worked very closely on putting together this first season. When I first met him, he said he wanted to do Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story and he told me about Dennis McIntyre’s National Anthems, a play he’d held onto for many years, ever since he’d been in an earlier production of it in America. It’s a great piece of muscular, very funny, American drama, a very powerful piece. Kevin had permission from McIntyre’s estate to update it if necessary, but after we did a reading, we both had the same thought – that we shouldn’t touch it. It’s set in 1985 and is even better as a period play. That gave us the idea for David Grindley to direct it, since he’d done such a remarkable job on Abigail's Party – an incredible, detailed recreation of a particular time within our living memory.
So those plays were always hovering as potential candidates for season one. Aladdin came out of the blue, because Ian McKellen said he’d always wanted to do a panto, and it seemed perfect to make his dream come true. Where better than the Old Vic for Sir Ian to make his pantomime debut? There’s no classical work in the repertoire in the first season, but that will come in seasons two and three. It’s crucial that we do that, but the most predictable thing would have been for us to do an Ibsen, Chekhov or Shakespeare. Instead, we wanted to set our first season out to be as wide-ranging and inviting as we could, and to make a statement about new plays. Given that we have over 1,000 seats to sell eight times a week, finding new work for this theatre is a challenge. Both Kevin and I are looking for substantial pieces that we think have important things to say, but we’re not embarrassed about entertaining the audience as well. The first season is, I think, rich in breadth and entertainment.
What kind of audience do you hope to attract to your opening season?
I’m open to anybody. I come from television’s most popular channel, so I’m certainly not elitist by nature or experience, and neither is Kevin. Because of who he is and the culture he comes from, he doesn’t have any of that baggage. I like to think we are reasonably intelligent, so we’re hopefully making intelligent judgements, but as far as I’m concerned, everything we put on in this theatre should be as enticing as possible for everybody – coach parties, traditional West End audiences, traditional National and RSC audiences, big musical groups, people from outside London, everybody.
We’re particularly keen to form a relationship with a younger audience, and to develop the next generation of theatregoers with our cheap seats policy – with some of the best seats in the house, not the ones tucked away behind pillars, being made available at very low prices. From the first conversation with Kevin, that was a key element of our policy. We’re also very conscious of where we are here in Waterloo, in Lambeth, which is one of our great strengths. It’s not the chicest or richest part of London, but we’re surrounded by a community of people who live and work here. We want to be welcoming to everyone in that community and break down some of the barriers theatre has inadvertently built up over time.
What qualities do you think are most crucial to be a successful producer?
Good judgement, tenacity, resilience, energy, belief. We have to believe in what we’re doing. So much flows from belief. As you move from a script, which is one-to-one, to getting more people involved, if you really believe in a piece of work, that communicates itself through everybody involved. It can make the difference between success or failure. It absolutely affects what gets on the stage.
What would you advise the government – or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre? What do you need to do to secure the future of the Old Vic?
I think let as many flowers grow in the garden as is possible and don’t get yourself locked into perpetuating institutions for their own sake. Supporting the arts has to be quick, responsive and a bit intuitive, to ensure that resource is encouraging signs of growth and creative excitement. The danger is money gets portioned into institutions and buildings and, before you know it, you’ve committed yourself to these things in perpetuity, because if one of them was to collapse, somehow that reflects badly on you. So people rush in to support them. But you’re dealing with a finite amount of money. And the truth is, some places go off. Surely the market pressure from a subsidy point of view is that, if you go off for long enough, you pay the price.
We haven’t sought subsidy at the moment, but we will be doing so. We’re putting a proposal together to look at re-developing the theatre. It’s a glorious building, a wonderful, wonderful building with a very unique atmosphere in the auditorium, but some fundamental things need to be dealt with. We need more toilets, disabled access, a studio and generally more space.
Why do you think theatre is important in modern Britain?
Because we’re social beings and we need to communicate with each other. The reason theatre is the greatest art in performance terms is because it’s about flesh and blood. It’s about observing, reacting and responding to fellow human beings, who are enacting for you the world. It’s a pretty fundamental need.
How would you describe the current state of the West End?
Not great, currently. But I think Mary Poppins is going to be a smash, and I’m confident that Billy Elliot - which I saw a workshop of a year ago - will be a big success, too. Old Vic Productions plc – which is supporting us, the Old Vic Theatre Company – is a major investor in Billy Elliot, so we feel connected to it.
What are the most important issues facing commercial theatre?
Getting people to come! If you don’t, you’re buggered! You can’t force them to come, of course, so if they don’t, you have to ask why not? One of the wonderful and terrible things about the theatre is that, when it’s good it’s very good, but when it’s bad it’s pretty much painful. If you go to a piece of bad theatre, you’re trapped. It takes great confidence, which most people don’t have, to stand up and walk out. If you see a bad movie, you can sneak out and there’s another one to see next week. Theatre is a big deal. You’ve spent quite a lot of money and made a night of it, but if it’s bad play, it puts you off. So our job is about quality control and doing the best possible work we can do.
At the Old Vic, we sit a little bit between pure West End and subsidised theatre. Although we’re a commercial enterprise, we’re operating as a company here 52 weeks a year, with many characteristics, in terms of the way we think of our work, in common with subsidised organisations. We have roots, a tradition and we live here. This is our creative home. However, the National - though it’s glorious and in a glorious state at the moment - is an institution. It has other obligations, as it should have. The Old Vic is an institution only in that it’s been around for donkey’s years and it has a fine tradition that we want to honour. But we also have to sell tickets to survive, and we have to be attractive and appealing and exciting to do that. The more we do that, and the more successful we are at it, the more scope it will give us to develop and extend the range of what we do.
Cloaca runs at the Old Vic from 28 September to 11 December 2004 (previews from 16 September). The 2004/2005 season then continues with Aladdin from 18 December 2004 to 22 January 2005 (preview 17 December), National Anthems from 8 February to 23 April 2005 (previews from 1 February) and The Philadelphia Story from 3 May to 23 July 2005.