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Charity Cheers and Les Miz Tears

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Two important dates in the offstage West End calendar clashed yesterday, as the AGM of the Theatre Guild and the launch of Michael Codron's biography by Alan Strachan went head to head within a hundred yards of each other.

The first event was held in the Grand Saloon of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the second in the Circle Bar of the Aldwych, where Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn, Cameron Mackintosh, Richard Eyre, Tom Courtenay and Richard Briers joined the queue for signed copies.

At the AGM, I found TTG chair Belinda Lang -- flanked on the podium by Phyllida Law and Biddy Hayward -- addressing a good crowd: Thelma Holt, Rosalind Knight (Marianne Elliott's mum), Liz Robertson, ticket wizard Edwin Shaw, Serena Evans, theatre architect Iain Mackintosh, Jason Barnes and Equity president Malcolm Sinclair.

The TTG, which is this year's nominated charity at the Whatsonstage.com awards, supports indigent backstage and front-of-house staff all over the country. It's a fantastic charity and deserves every penny it can raise: I chipped in, buying a signed copy of Phyllida Law's delightful Notes to My Mother-in-Law and three pots of home-made jams.

The TTG celebrates its 120th anniversary next year and is already planning a tea dance at the Royal Albert Hall; such events were held regularly in the early years of the Theatrical Ladies Guild (as it was first known) and I reckon they should all revert to period high fashion costume for the anniversary: mink shawls, sable coats, osprey-feathered hats.

In the shorter term, we heard that this year's sponsored motorcycle tour was a great success, and that another one was planned; that the late Wendy Toye, a former president, would be honoured with a tree-planting at the actors' retirement home, Denville Hall; and that, in a similar arboreal spirit, a Christmas tree competition between all the West End theatres would coincide with the WOS awards party in December.

Business completed, Belinda Lang announced that tea, coffee and sandwiches would be served, and that drinks could be purchased at the bar, partly to chime with the new austerity in a time of recession, and partly because "it's very naughty to drink at lunchtime." Her Victorian forbears would have been proud of her.

I sped round the corner to the Aldwych, where the wine was flowing and Codron was making a speech thanking Strachan for his efforts and thoroughness in recounting his life's work.

The book, Putting It On, was on sale at a Samuel French bookshop stand in the corner, and a cursory glance suggests that it is worth every penny of the £25 cover price.

In telling Codron's story, Strachan is in fact writing a superb history of the post-war commercial theatre as much as anything else, with some characteristically pithy and perceptive commentary on all the major plays and playwrights Codron has produced in the West End: Ayckbourn, Gray, Bennett, Frayn, Mortimer, Pinter...and on stellar actors such as Alan Bates, Alec Guinness, Maggie Smith, Felicity Kendal, Penelope Keith.

Nor is the personal side skimped, with fascinating details of Codron's Oxford love life (music critic Andrew Porter was an early partner); his long-term business and personal relationship with David Sutton, a wonderfully gracious and good-looking man; and his partner Peter Hulstrom, whom he met when he turned up at the Aldwych to see Whistle Down the Wind with an ex-girlfriend ten years ago... 

I would have liked to have known more about Codron's appearance in an Oxford panto alongside his great friend Clement Crisp, the ballet critic. The two of them played ugly sisters, and rumour has it that, since that performance, Michael has been known to his intimates as "Martha, the mad Moroccan." Strachan keeps mum on the subject.

A man of wit, style and impeccable good taste, Codron is the crucial living link between the old West End and the new, and the "wisest owl" (as Sir Cameron dubs him) on the Avenue.

His younger producer colleagues turned out to honour him, too: Nick Salmon, Karl Sydow, Richard Jordan, Jenny Topper...he's still the one they must (and may never) emulate. He's the godfather.

It seemed fitting that such a celebratory day should end in cheers and tears at the 25th anniversary production of Les Miserables at the Barbican. And not to be outdone by the TGG or marvellous Michael, Cameron threw a characteristically generous party in the third floor garden room.

Cameron's sidekick Nick Allott asked me if I was going along to the O2 concert performance of the show on Sunday week. I said I'd be lying on a beach, or lounging in a restaurant, in Alicante.

"It's being beamed all over the world, including Spain," said Nick. Surely not on the Costa Blanca? "No problem : if it's not, we'll arrange it." Is there no escape?


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