Year of the Producer: Clive Conway's Eureka Moment for An Audience With
Tony Benn, who is still giving appearances ten years after launching An Audience With, describes it as "reinvigorating the public meeting".
As an extension of the series, Conway recently presented a series of evenings at Cadogan Hall featuring John Humphrys, Felicity Kendal and Kelvin MacKenzie.
Here, as part of our ongoing Year of the Producer series, the impressario tells us the story behind the Audience With series, which continues this autumn at venues across the UK.
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Clive Conway: I had a Eureka moment when Richard Baker, former BBC newsreader and a great raconteur and authority on classical music, agreed to compere my musical group onstage. When I started working with Richard, I benefited from his knowledge of a different circuit - of regional festivals, theatres and art centres who could gather large audiences for a well known name.
As a musician and concert organiser during the 70s and 80s, I had worked with the thriving network of music clubs and societies that supported classical musicians. However it was becoming painfully obvious that these were beginning to decrease in numbers and attendance. Funding from arts bodies and local councils was dwindling, as was the availability of amateur organisers.
Richard himself was great company on the road but sadly also too busy to do many dates with us. However, I had been introduced to a wonderful network of enthusiastic audiences, and it was not long before I created a new tour.
Through RSC and West End director Clifford Williams, I persuaded Wendy Craig and Francis Matthews to tour a show with music called Matters Matrimonial around the same circuit. Wendy and Francis sang, acted out short scenes from plays and told hilarious and poignant accounts of marriage. The actors were attracted by the novelty of playing one night only in towns and venues they would never normally get a chance to see.
One-nighters had a market both in small venues as well as major touring houses such as Theatre Royal Newcastle and Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford. Many others joined us in different themed shows including Peter Barkworth, Hannah Gordon and Dorothy Tutin. Perhaps the busiest of this kind of show was John Mortimer’s Miscellany, which originated as his With Great Pleasure compilation on BBC Radio 4.
My second Eureka moment came in 2002, watching Tony Benn taking questions on stage from the comfort of an armchair, with a flask of tea and his pipe. This was the first An Audience With, and it attracted a media circus, ecstatic reviews and extraordinary demand. We soon filled Tony’s diary, selling out 1800 seat venues. He is still visiting regional theatres regularly with his show, ten years on.
An Audience With has never looked back. Our roster of speakers continues to grow, embracing public figures from politics, entertainment and sport. Every so often we find that national news is made in one of our shows in a regional venue. For example, Alistair Campbell’s debut in South Shields happened to come just hours after the resignation of Andrew Gilligan from the BBC – there was no shortage of journalists at the show, apparently many offered large sums for tickets. But for the most part, our shows are straightforward conversations, where the audience get the chance to get to know someone, and to explore questions that interest them.
My work is now built on those two Eureka moments: first that there’s a hugely rewarding regional theatre circuit in this country. Second, that it only takes something as simple as a conversation to create a magical night out.